with information offered by Sergio Santos (Tchetche),
Desire Bonnaffoux and Armando Simoes.
Diogo Gomes and Antonio da Noli, navigators in the service of the Portuguese Crown sighted Ilha do Sal in 1460. However, Sal as well as other islands in the Cape Verde archipelago may have been known to the Moors long before Portuguese "discovery". The Portuguese explorer Jaime Cortesao reported the story that Arabs were known to visit an island which they referred to as "Aulil" or "Ulil" and take salt from natually occurring "salinas" . From the descriptions one might assume that they were visiting Ilha do Sal. Most historians contest the theory and point out that the island referred to as "Ulil" by ancient Arab sailors allegedly sunk beneath the seas and disappeared! Curiously, modern day geologists have demonstrated that the southern third of Ilha do Sal was indeed covered by water in some prehistoric era. There is clear fossil evidence of coral reef formation in the middle of Sal island.
The original name given to Ilha do Sal by the Portuguese sailors was "Llana" however some years later after the discovery of the natural salt lake in Pedra Lume, the name of the island was changed to Sal which means "salt" in Portuguese.
Slaves from nearby Boavista Island established the first settlement on Sal. But this was not to be a significant village until the late 17th century when the demand for salt and livestock intensified because of slaving activity on the West African coast. Basic commodities and manufactured goods would be traded in Ilha do Sal for salt which could be carried for ballast in the holds of the ships.
At the end of the 18th century, the Dutch geographer, Dapper, wrote that he located a settlement of some 72 sailors in what is today the Village of Santa Maria supporting itself by extracting salt which was then used for salting goat meat and turtle meat. Dapper reports that there were large numbers of turtles nesting on nearby beaches.
During this same period, an English adventurer named Dampier arrived in Santa Maria. He describes the village he found on the south coast of the island as having a half dozen inhabitants living "miserably" but who managed to scratch out a livelihood by exchanging goat skins or a few sacks of salt to trade for used clothing with the occasional ship which dropped anchor in the bay.
Historically, the colonial authorities paid little attention to Ilha do Sal and many of the other outer islands until well into the 20th century. A family's survival depended on good fortune, resourcefulness and a readiness to seize whatever opportunities passed by in order to live from day to day.
In 1720 an English Captain named Roberts passed through the Cape Verde Islands and stopped in Ilha do Sal and later Boavista. At the time there was a minor official British presence in Boavista. Captain Roberts was in search of livestock and salt which he intended to take with him on his voyage to the English Caribbean islands. During his brief layover in Sal Captain Roberts describes settlement at Palmeira as "nothing more than a small cluster fishermen's cabanas or huts." Roberts attempted to explore the island for 24 hours before sailing on. He stated that during the entire period he encounter "only donkeys and birds" and that he did not see one man!
On his next voyage, Captain Roberts wrote that he came upon a few dozen men and two women who had been sent to Sal from the Island of Sao Nicolau. The men made their living by butchering nesting sea turtle and salting its meat. They were asking each passing ship for transport to return to Sao Nicolau.
In 1939 the Italian Government of Benedito Mussolini was granted authorization by the Portuguese colonial government began to construct a transit airport to service its flights flying between Europe and South America. Very simple pre-fabricated installations were built. However, as a consequence of World War II the Italian involvement in the airport project ceased. In 1945 the Portuguese purchased the airport installation from the Italians and by 1949 the Ilha do Sal airport was a fully operational transit facility. The airport has been gradually improved ever since. Small houses were erected in several areas immediately adjacent to the airport. Workers from nearby Sao Nicolau named the civilian area "Preguica" after the port village on their home island. Espargos is the town's official name. Espargos means "asparagras" and refers to the wild vegetable asparagras stalk with its bright yellow flowers which grows in sandy areas around the island. Today Espargos is the principal commercial and government center of Ilha do Sal. In 1990 the population was approximately 4000.
Midway up the eastern coastline of Ilha do Sal lies the Village of Pedra de Lume. High above the coastal town is a salt lake situated inside the mouth of a long extinct volcano. According to geologists, the waters in the lake rise from deep in the earth rather than from lateral infiltration from the ocean. For many centuries salt has been extracted here. Earlier in this century there were 40 hectares of salt pans on this site.
In the 18th century a Cape Verdean names Manuel Antonio Martins began to develop the salt business which had already existed for many years on Boa Vista. The most challenging technical issue confronting the establishment of the salt business at Pedra de Lume was to design a way of transporting the salt from the salinas high above the village to the embarkation point at the port. Initially pack animals were used to do the work. Later a tunnel was cut through the wall of the extinct volcano thereby easing access to the salina.
In 1919 a businessman from Santa Maria and a French company based in Bordeaux purchased the salt company from the descendants of Mr. Martins. They installed a tramway system which revolutionized their ability to transport the salt to the port. The tramway was 1100 meters in length and was able to transport 25 tons of salt per hour. The new company found a market for its exports to several West and Central African countries.
By 1985 the salinas of Pedra Lume ceased all exportation. Today the company's minute production does not even satisfy local demand.
In 1990 there were about 700 full time residents in Pedra de Lume. Unfortunately, the economy of the town only offered 22 year-round jobs to local residents. The rest of the town's workers have had to migrate to other parts of Sal or have been compelled to move to other islands or abroad.
The Village of Santa Maria was officially founded in 1830 by Manuel Antonio Martins. Martins established "salinas" or salt flats near the town. The original small wooden houses were all built with lumber sent from America. Slave labor was imported from West Africa and was used to extract the sand and soil until bed rock was exposed upon which would be constructed the "salt pans". Enslaved artisans built the original wooden windmill pumps which feed the salt water into the salinas as well as an iron "railway" for transporting salt from the salinas to the dock. The original dock at Santa Maria was constructed by this same labor force. Up to 30,000 tons of salt was exported each year from the port of Santa Maria.
Until 1887, the principal buyer of Santa Maria salt was Brazil. In that year Brazil imposed high customs taxes on imported salt as a protectionist measure for its own emerging national salt industry. This action by the Brazilian government in 1887 marked a major downward turning point in the economic history of Ilha do Sal.
In 1903 the principal salt producers of Santa Maria joined with a French company to organize Societe Salines Sal or S.S.S. and constructed a large factory employing the most advanced technology of the day. This technology had the capability of extracting excess magnesium from the salt. The company went into bankruptcy in 1907.
Soon after several Santa Maria salt producers formed an association this time with a German company in 1914. When this company failed the people of Ilha do Sal were forced to immigrate to other islands in search of work and a more reliable way to survival. Those few who stayed behind made their living from salting fish and exporting it to other islands or to the Island of Sao Tome.
In 1920 the Compania do Fomento, a Portuguese company, purchased the majority of the salinas in the area of Santa Maria. In 1927 the Compania do Fomento joined with another Portuguese firm which was doing business in the Belgian Congo. This new market for Ilha do Sal salt gave a dramatic new impetus to Santa Maria. By the mid-1900s the village of Santa Maria began to demonstrate new confidence in its own economic viability. Villagers began to invest in building more permanent private homes and lay out a more elaborate village plan.
With independence in the Belgian Congo (Zaire) and political changes in Portugal and finally, national independence in Cape Verde (1975), the Village of Santa Maria once again found itself without a reliable market for its product. Readily available ocean freight at competitive rates had all but disappeared. The cost of replacing spare parts in this very corrosive industrial operation could not be even be supported. By 1984 the routine maintenance of the salinas ceased and the supporting structures of the business were in advanced decay. The Santa Maria salt trade had come to an end.
In 1930, J.A. Nascimento, a Portuguese firm, established a tuna fishing and canning factory in Santa Maria. Their products were exported to Italy, Portugal and the USA. The Company was second only to salt production as the major source of employment in the town. In spite of continued reliance on archaic manufacturing equipment the Company still produces a highly prized "boutique" product. The tuna is never frozen. It caught and canned in the same day. The company has recently undergone another ownership transition. Mr. Armando Simoes, an ex-patriot from the Portuguese fishing town of Viseu and a resident of Cape Verde for over forty years, is a managing partner of the company and an important local resource on the fishing and economic history.
In 1967 a Belgian industrialist and inventor Mon. Georges Vynckier, Sr. built a small guest house on the beach at Santa Maria for his personal use and invited guests. The six mile long expanse of white sand is unquestionably one of the most beautiful beaches in the country. The commitment of the Vynckier family to build the Pousada Morabeza was greatly enhanced by the necessity of South African Airways for facilities to lodge its flight crews in Ilha do Sal. For over 20 years, SAA was denied air passage rights by most African governments as part of the international anti-apartheid movement. Hotel Morabeza and the seeds of international tourism were sown in Santa Maria because of the convergence of these two factors.
In 1986 the Government of Cape Verde built the Hotel Belorizonte immediately adjacent to the Hotel Morabeza. Novotel, the French hotelier, was contracted to manage the property for five years, train a cadre of Cape Verdean hotel staff and began the initial investment in marketing and promotion of Ilha do Sal as an international tourism destination. Several private watersports companies (Dive Cape Verde, Ltd. founded by Ray Almeida and a windsurfing company operated by Francois Guy, an international French champion) joined with the hotels and the Government of Cape Verde to promote Santa Maria as a destination for windsurfing, scuba diving and big game fishing.
The Government of Cape Verde made the decision to develop Ilha do Sal, particularly the south and south western coastal areas as an international tourism hotel zone. In the coming decade the airport, energy and water production and port infrastructures would be dramatically expanded to support the systematic development of the Island. The future of Santa Maria and Ilha do Sal would be tied to tourism.
In 1989, Aeroflot, the Russian flagship air carrier was granted permission to construct and operate a hotel on the beach at Santa Maria. The facility relies on traffic between Moscow and Buenos Aires. Aeroflot intend to expand its operations on Sal.
Several private investors from Portugal and elsewhere have been authorized to build hotels in Sal. The people of Sal are very optimistic about future economic prospects. However, only history will offer a comprehensive calculation of the true cost and benefits of international tourism development in Ilha do Sal.
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