How Salt Has Shaped History

A grain of salt seems tiny and simple. But this small mineral has had an outsized impact on the course of world history. Salt has fueled nonviolent revolutions and wars since the beginning of recorded history—acting as “the engine behind empires” and spelling the rise and fall of entire governments.

History is replete with tales of battles and wars fought over the control of valuable saltworks. The El Paso Salt War was an 1860s century guerrilla war that involved the Texas Rangers as well as Mexican and Tejano inhabitants near the Rio Grande.

Most major empires have relied on salt as a key commodity to gain wealth—and have used salt taxes to extract money from their empires. Salt taxes have spurred widespread protest in diverse historical eras and places.

As early as 300 BC, Chinese leaders placed taxes on salt to raise revenue. Salt taxes constituted over one-half of China’s revenue during imperial times, contributing to the construction of the Great Wall. Salt was taxed in ancient Rome, helping finance a massive “Salt Road,” and Salt Wars were waged in the 1500s by cities rebelling against Pontificate rule. In modern times, salt taxes have sparked revolutions in France, America, and India.

While the “Boston Tea Party” persists as a famed American event, a deeper dive into the history shows that salt also played an important role in the colonists’ nonviolent resistance against the British Empire. The tea tax that sparked the Boston Tea Party was one of a set of tax laws, including one on salt. For colonists, salt was especially important for storing food through the long, cold New England winters and for bolstering the colonies’ economies, as fisheries exported salted fish. Yet there were no saltworks along the North American coastline; colonists had to import their salt from the British Caribbean. In order to politically protest the British tax on salt, the colonists launched a boycott and built their own saltworks. Colonists in Cape Cod, for example, innovated new ways of producing salt in response to the call for American-made salt.

Salt taxes were a crucial spark for the French Revolution. A salt tax—gabelle in French—had been deployed by the French government since the 14th century; it would stay in place, with brief lapses, until the twentieth. But the French peasantry saw the gabelle as a brutal symbol of inequality. Before the 18th century, 3,000 French citizens annually were imprisoned, sent to the galleys, or even put to death for crimes against the gabelle, such as smuggling salt. Yet nobility and high-ranking officials were exempt from the gabelle and often paid less for salt. After the French Revolution unfolded at the end of the century—championing the values of fraternity and equality—one of the first acts taken by the new National Assembly was to repeal the salt tax. This symbolic freedom was short-lived; Napoleon reinstated the gabelle after he took power.

Perhaps the most striking example of salt’s political symbolism comes from India. In the mid-twentieht century, Mahatma Gandhi launched a nonviolent resistance campaign for Indian independence from British imperial rule. A centerpiece of this campaign was the 1930 “Salt March.”

The British Empire was enforcing a strict monopoly on salt production in colonial India; they operated the saltworks for profit and taxed Indians exorbitant amounts for their salt purchases. According to the historian David Gross, Gandhi consciously picked salt as a protest focus because it represented democracy and unity. Everyone in India, no matter what class or income level, needed salt to eat and live. Justifying the choice, Gandhi said that “Next to air and water, salt is perhaps the greatest necessity of life.”

Gandhi led a massive coordinated effort to make and sell Indian salt, boycotting British-made brands. With his followers, he embarked on a 24-day “Salt March” of over 240 miles. He plucked grains of salt from the ground at the end to break the stringent British salt laws and symbolically launch the Indian civil disobedience campaign, which was ultimately successful.