Saltworks, by Cherene Sherrard


Prose + Photography by Cherene Sherrard

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Donkey Hour

In the sloe-gray water of the Salinas on Grand Turk, the foundations of windmills stand in ruins. Blink. You’ll miss the ghostly revolutions of wooden sails whipping into a blur. Windmills were an innovation of the salt industry. The enslaved turned the wheels that pumped brine through sluices connecting the ponds. Before donkeys were imported to pull the salt heaps raked from the flats, women and children carried the glistening crystals in baskets on their heads. These interior lakes are now a wetland ecosystem populated by lone flamingoes, pale blush and polite, picking their way alongside herons, osprey, and sandpipers.

“It’s Donkey Hour,” my son says, pointing as a matched pair with coats of smoke and cream amble through the bar to the footbath where we wash our sanded feet. What donkeys do with their afternoons I can’t say. They visit at prescribed times. In the early morning, I see them creep from a cluster of palms across the potholed road into the beach below the balcony where I sip my coffee. They return just before sunset, as the divers pile their gear into a boat for an evening dive, slurping and splashing. At nightfall, when the no-see-ums come to dine, the donkeys are nowhere to be found.

Donkey hour

I have brought my family with me to Grand Turk on the trail of Mary Prince, author of the 1831 slave narrative The History of Mary Prince. For ten years of her enslavement, Prince was loaned out to a salt raker. Beset by storms and arrested by calms, she endured a four-week journey from “Devil’s island” (commonly known as Bermuda) to arrive on “Turk’s Island,” a small isle bounded by a huge seawall. Three-hundred yards from the shore the reef drops off 7,000 feet. Standing on the beach, shading my eyes from the sun, I can see the exact point where the waves break. The wall ensures inshore water is easy to swim and snorkel. Home to one of the longest coral reefs in the world, Grand Turk draws an international community of certified deep-sea divers to Pillory Beach, where my family is lodged at a dive resort.

The beach’s sinister name resurrects aspects of the island’s history that have nothing to do with reefs, blue water, and white sand. A pillory was a device made of a wooden or metal framework erected on a post with holes for securing the head and hands formerly used for punishment by public humiliation and further physical abuse. Standing for hours in the brine, the salt workers endured boils from the pickle, infected welts from mosquitos, and constant dehydration. Those who could not keep up would be put in the stocks, “the pillory,” on this eponymous beach.

Emancipation from the salt industry called the donkeys’ purpose into question. They are now dependent on the indulgence of strangers. Unlike the wild ponies recruited to carry tourists through the crystalline waters, the asses won’t gallop. They were brought to the island to labor in an industry that no longer exists. Imagine a treatise written on “the Donkey problem.” Post-emancipation (see also: slavery) they inhabit a watery landscape engineered to produce one commodity; they remain: eating, drinking, defecating, and reproducing. Having outlived their usefulness, the donkeys are nuisance tolerated for their touristic appeal as local color. And they are not the only superfluous residents.

Donkey and rider on beach

My oldest son is afraid of dogs. We are not a dog family. Pitbulls and Dobermans besieged my husband’s childhood; these strays wandered the streets of Compton ready to take a bite out of any who challenged them. This makes us stand out in our neighborhood, where every other house has a dog, all vigorously bred not to bark, jump, or manifest aggression towards children or each other.

Dogs hang around Grand Turk’s fish market, where men chop and fillet fresh catches brought in from the deep-sea fishing boats, including snapper and bluefin, which regularly appear on our hotel menu alongside spiny lobsters and all varieties of conch. Near this makeshift sushi bar, lean and languid canines lounge beneath abandoned cars and go about their business unleashed, without collars.

Free things are dangerous.

Turks and Caicos National Museum

On our way to the National Museum—our first venture off-resort—we stop on a long stretch of road alongside the Red Salinas. Opposite, where several pastel villas appear to be either abandoned or vacant, a barking dog crouches.

Gripping our youngest son’s hand, I pass by, but our 13-year-old is immobilized. His pupils appear dilated, as if they have taken over the entirety of his irises. Tears trickle over his cheeks the way they did when he was a decade younger, but I only feel irritation. I march ahead to the end of the street then stop at the corner to wait while my husband attempts to coax him through the weeds. A white car, nondescript but for crude, spray-painted dollars signs on the hood, stops beside them.

When no cruise ships are in port, the streets of Grand Turk are deserted. Yards away, as panic tightens my stomach, I imagine the dialogue between my family and the car’s occupants.

“Do you need some help?”

“No, thank you.”

“You sure, man?”

“We’re good.”

This offer of assistance should be a minute-long exchange, but the car doesn’t move. My husband and son keep walking. The car occupants weigh their options. A swift cost-benefit analysis. I have seen a police SUV loop the long block three times. Our hosts have assured us it is safe for tourists to wander the streets. But our leisure status is ambiguous.

After lingering far too long, the car accelerates abruptly and then stops again, stalling at the corner where I wait. There are four, maybe five men crammed into the burgundy interior. One, I can’t tell which, says, “Hey beautiful.”

I smile in the nervous way I have been taught to respond to compliments from strangers without giving offense or encouragement. A lavender sunhat shields my eyes. I am wearing a one-piece, shorts, and sandals. These men are darker-skinned than the other islanders we have met. I don’t want to use the word sinister, yet it surfaces, fluorescent bile in my neocolonial repertoire of fear.

This is the part of the story where time folds our narrative in two possible directions. At the end of one scenario: assault, robbery, disappearance. And indeed, when we return to Madison, Wisconsin, many of our friends, who previously had no idea where the Turks and Caicos are located, will ask: Did you hear about the shooting? While we were on Grand Turk, an Alabama tourist was shot in Grace Bay on Provo, the largest island in the chain, outside of his resort at 1:00 a.m. He was airlifted to a hospital in Florida in a medically induced coma.

In another, my family reunites, arrives at the museum, shaken but intact.

In front of the charred ruins of the Royal Library, a lingering reminder of colonial infrastructure, we see the car again, idling. Hardwired to sense vehicular threats from our 1980s L.A. upbringings, we keep to areas with more foot traffic until the cruise ships dock and the streets are thick with others to fleece.

Eventually, I convince my family to double-back to the museum through Freemason Alley. I’m determined to confirm Mary Prince’s gruesome account of salt cultivation:

I was given a half barrel and a shovel, and had to stand up to my knees in the water, from four o’clock in the morning till nine, when we were given some Indian corn boiled in water . . . [we] worked through the heat of the day; the sun flaming upon our heads like fire, and raising salt blisters in those parts which were not completely covered. Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone, afflicting the sufferers with great torment. . . . We then shovelled [sic] up the salt in large heaps, and went down to the sea, where we washed the pickle from our limbs, and cleaned the barrows and shovels from the salt.

Lane in Grand Turks

The Salinas are a living archive: one of few remaining markers of a transformed environment that literally “pickled” human laborers. Inside the National Museum, we find other remnants of the salt trade displayed beside more tourist friendly relics—vestiges of a famous shipwreck rumored to be the Pinta, the space capsule Friendship, which Hidden Figures’ “computers” calculated would fall into the warm shallows of the Grand Turk quay.

If sugar is a toxin, salt is a superior preservative. It has more therapeutic qualities than in its twin. We need it, in some form, to survive. It is useful and delicious even it its natural state. Though it requires less processing than cane sugar, the scourge of the plantation, cultivating salt from seawater requires several stages. First, the beds are drained and cleaned of impurities from the previous harvest—it can take 12 weeks to prepare the beds for the new brine. The pickle sits in the hot sun where it gains two degrees per day; the evaporation gradually increases the salinity, which is gaged with a salometer. Over six or seven stages of evaporation, the brine is transferred through the sluices becoming granular. Salt raking takes place in the final pond. Using a breakup, a wooden tool resembling a large comb, to separate the larger crystals, workers then drew long-handled rakes through the coarse salt, building pyramids which are left to dry in the sun—the Turks and Caicos salt mounds were misrepresented on their flag as igloos featuring a door by an artist who didn’t know what they were. Painting an igloo in a tropic archipelago aptly reflects the absurd geography of the British Empire.

 “What language do they speak on this island?” my youngest asks. We have heard Spanish, Haitian Kréyol, and English spoken with a dozen flourishes.

“English,” I say, “The Turks are a British Territory.”

But Patricia Saxton, the museum’s director, explains that the proximity of Hispaniola has led to the arrival of many immigrants on work visas, or not. Corrina, the hotel bartender, is Dominican, the head waitress, Suzette, is Jamaican, and the owner’s daughter, Jen tells us with a smile that she is “Turkish.”

This island was named for its resemblance to the shape of a Turk’s hat, a native cactus that mirrors the same oblong figure. Once found in abundance, their removal expanded the salt ponds. Like those cacti, artifacts of the first peoples, the Lucayans, are few. That’s why the endurance of the Salinas, with their ghostly remnants of rotation, are special.

Once ready, a half-bushel, or 40 pounds of salt, would be packed into cloth bags. Four hundred bags would be loaded onto lighters to be transported to the schooners docked on the beach that would carry the salt to the ship’s hold. This was back-breaking labor. In 1840, donkeys were introduced to transport the bushels, but raking and bagging still remained the province of men, women, and children.

Unlike the skittish ponies, the donkeys are friendly. The boys pet their shaggy manes, imagine swinging their sandy brown legs astride and making for the waves—a lower-rent version of the pony rides offered by the island drug peddlers.

“You like Snoop Dogg?” a man says to my husband, tossing his shoulder length dreads out of his eyes, as we amble our way down the beach, returning to the resort from the museum.

“Nah, man.”

My husband shakes his head. A second rider leads a little blond girl astride a mare into the surf. He is more blunt with his proposition. We have our vices, but drugs are not among them. He extends his fist towards our eldest son, who hesitates and looks to his father before returning the pound.

Grand Turks salt flats

Queen Conch

I don’t dive. But I understand its allure. It’s like being dropped in a fish bowl. Some are more comfortable in that world than others. Like Captain Meat, our guide for a charter out to Gibbs Cay: an uninhabited sanctuary for stingrays. I wanted to return to the museum to handle artifacts and understand more fully the edge effects of the saltworks, but I am outvoted three to one. Halfway to our destination, Captain Meat stops the boat to free dive for conch, inviting us to put on our snorkel gear and watch. Without a mask, flippers, or oxygen tank, he plunges 60 feet while I float suspended on the surface of a turquoise patch in an indigo ocean. With three dives, he plucks several conchs from the sandy bottom. His body is acrobatic and taut. I recall photographic postcards of Jamaican divers circulated at the turn of the century: staffage promoting the tropicalization of island life through pastoral and primitivist imagery. I watch him hold his air in effortlessly while his feet fan out to propel him swiftly to the bottom.

Time ruptures. Submersion suspends my temporal acuity.

As a break from toiling in the Salinas, Mary Prince writes that men and women were made to dive for “large stones to build a wall round [the] master’s house.” Many of these stone walls still stand, as ubiquitous as their New England counterparts. My epidermal and psychological precarity forces me to experience Prince’s labor, Captain Meat’s conch dive, and the stone collecting of enslaved subjects simultaneously as what Anna Tsing calls “life in the ruins.”

Diving for conch is not the same as diving for stones. When forced to descend and then ascend carrying a rock heavy enough to form a wall, the effort of reversing the gravitational force needed propel a body, especially one that is malnourished and exhausted, back to the surface is exactly the opposite of the weightless paralysis I experience. I wonder if this what Derrida describes as being “en mal d’archive,” caught by archive fever, “an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.”

I can’t help thinking that if Gibbs Cay provides refuge for the rays, what of the conchs? Their discarded shells form huge pyramids on the sanctuary’s beach, like pyres of bones, or they are repurposed as ornamentation; trimcraft that beautifies the stone fences framing the empty seaside villas. One species flourishes while another is ingested.

“We call this the worm,” Captain Meat says, holding up a thin translucent cylinder.

“Like in Tequila?” I ask.

“Sure,” he says, “But it’s actually a part of the conch’s intestinal tract.”

Like mezcal’s drowsy larvae, the conch’s “worm” purportedly induces virility in men.

“Who wants to try it?”

“Is it awake?” our youngest says.

Conch innards

In “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace poses a prescient question scholars of the Anthropocene have taken up: Is it ethical to boil a sentient creature for our gustatory pleasure? As I watch the live dismemberment of Queen Conch, whose former domicile now rests on my child’s dresser alongside his little league trophies and guppy tank, I wonder about my son’s unanswered question: Was the conch sentient as Captain Meat held it up for perusal and cut away its unappetizing parts? Put another way, was Queen Conch woke?

Strombus gigas, the marine snail, is central to the identity and culture of the archipelago. Like Maine its Lobsterfest, the Turks and Caicos celebrate “Conch Festival” in November with conch horn blowing and conch cleaning contests. Area chefs go up against amateurs to offer their most innovative takes on conch culinary standards: chowder, salad, and fritters. Conchs are so plentiful that many use the huge shells with their rugged exteriors and vagina-pink interiors to decorate their homes. My son uncovers his own souvenir when he cuts his foot on Pillory beach. No more than two can be taken from the island. Whitened from years of sloughing in the sand, its interior is rough, the least lovely specimen one could find.

Captain Meat smiles as my husband swallows the slick cylinder whole to much applause and my surprise. He has a weak stomach. Typically, I am the game one. I’ll eat almost anything once.

Later, when I ask him why, he says: “to show our sons how not to be afraid.”

Captain Meat’s Conch Ceviche:

First, free dive 60 feet in aquamarine brine.
Capture the conch from its sandy habitat.
Extract the mollusk into the sharp atmosphere
by hammering through the shell with a blunt.

Avoid the eyes, but swallow the worm.
This will fortify you. Remove the outer flesh
revealing the white heart; if you are lucky
your conch will guard a single pearl.

This auburn treasure is one in a thousand.
Otherwise, you will be left with opaque meat.
This chop with celery, red pepper, onion, cilantro,
lime. Do not ask if it is still alive.

Old, burned church

One of the drawbacks of ecotourism is that it tends to coexist alongside, rather than transform or replace, conventional tourism. To my sons’ great disappointment, you can’t fish from the shore on Grand Turk, but for an exorbitant amount far exceeding my research budget you can book a deep-sea fishing excursion. Back at Bohio, we watch the fisherman eviscerate their catch. I am struck by the majesty of the bluefin. The miniature portions served in high-end restaurants belie the awesome size of these predators. Proponents of sustainable fishing foster awareness of interspecies dependence through the idea of shared fate. The logic being that if we acknowledge we eat the same mercury-soaked mackerel consumed by the bluefin, maybe it will motivate us to clean up the ocean. In black communities there’s a similar concept: linked fate—the fact that racial affinity overrides every other category of identity including education and financial status. Like shared fate, linked fate can be a blessing or a boomerang.

View of resort from ocean

A Flamboyance

A barracuda has taken up residence in the shallows of Pillory Beach. I see him with a retinue of silver trumpet fish as I paddle towards the reef. He is so large that while my mind says, Barracuda, see the black spots and large eyes, my heart beats shark-shark, shark-shark. I remind myself to breathe and give “Harry” wide berth. Long and spotted, he travels perilously close. His size is a fearful sight at first, but he’s harmless to humans.

My earliest underwater memory is of a naked white woman, treading water in the moonlight, jerked beneath the waves. The great white’s first kill is imprinted on my psyche. Learning to swim in my elementary school pool, I used to imitate her seizures for my friends. My performance never failed to elicit squeals of delight and terror. We didn’t accept that sharks couldn’t be found in chlorinated water.

To stand up on my paddleboard I move through my most grounding yoga position. Later I find out this is a thing: SUP Yoga. From all fours, I push up into downward facing dog and then rise up, relaxing my knees to stabilize my stance and using the paddle as a balance weight. While I’m slowly getting my bearings, the current is pulling me out towards the buoys.

“Be careful,” my husband calls out, “You’ll end up in Haiti.”

He’s not wrong. A scant 300 kilometers away, Hispaniola, the island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, became the refuge for slaves fleeing their toil in the Salinas when news of the Haitian Revolution spread.

In the 18th century, after Haiti achieved its independence through rebellion, many of Turk Island’s slaves left in the sloops used to transport salt. Haiti’s revolution made it a beacon in the world of Atlantic slavery and a harbinger for the West Indian plantocracies that had enriched Europe. Mary Prince, standing hip deep in brine staring out at the ships in the quay, must have considered stealing herself away to revolutionary Haiti. Her narrative would have been published in French instead of dictated to an abolitionist Moravian minister after she escaped in London.

Size notwithstanding, many different peoples claim Grand Turk as home, including “the Belongers”: descendants of U.S. slaves and slaveholding British loyalists who abandoned the continent with their contraband during the American Revolutionary War. The Belongers refer to Haitian immigration as a new phenomenon, prompted by the earthquake. In fact, migrants from neighboring islands are part of a continual, archipelagic circulation of products, labor, and consumers punctuated by escalating environmental catastrophes. Like the migrating flamingos that meander the Bahamian island chain to ingest the brine shrimp that give them their rosy color, the Afro-Caribbean diaspora is intrinsically tied to its commodities. Sometimes I think commerce is the only true nationality.

As I struggle to drag my paddleboard ashore, I pass a quartet of black women wearing jewel-toned cover-ups. With their fresh braids and sparkling manicures, they resemble extras from How Stella Got Her Groove Back. U.S. blacks are a niche market in the cruise industry. Apparently, we prefer the cruise to other types of vacation. The free-flowing liquor and midnight buffets, themed on-board entertainment—think Gospel cruises—and the sociality of the experience.

“They take care of everything,” says Sharon Beckworth, while drinking a rum punch on a lounge chair at Ike’s Donkey Bar. She planned a 14-day trip to celebrate her fortieth birthday with her best girlfriends.

 What we love about the cruise is its predictability. A controlled vacation that alleviates the many inconveniences of TWB: traveling while black. Our run-in with the dollar-sign car underscored the extent to which epidermal vulnerability nullifies first world privilege. How do you vacation if you can never let down your guard? If your safety and well-being are in constant jeopardy as they are in the States? What we want is a break from the constant performance of class status as a shield against racist slights and bias. Though many African American tourists stop on Grand Turk, a couple we meet, who are on their 17th cruise, are incredulous when we tell them we are staying on this tiny island. Other black pairs and familial clusters stay in the shallows—a few feet from the ship-provided umbrellas and beach chairs. They are not here to dive. They regard us, outfitted in our masks and flippers, as interstellar explorers.

“What’s out there?” a woman says. I can hear the Up-South in her voice.

“A barracuda named Harry,” my youngest says.

She flinches, then narrows her eyes and places her hands on her hips, mistaking his earnestness for teasing. Before she can open her mouth, I say: “and stingrays,” doubling-down.

With their balletic undulations, rays are the most graceful sea creatures. Almost vampiric, they bury their wide fins into the sea floor, using the sand as camouflage. I’m not why sure her question makes me feel defensive. Neither my husband nor I snorkeled as children. No doubt our parents would have given us the same dubious looks. The activities we relish seem unnecessarily risky.


Humans have an insatiable desire to consume and control commodities and labor; our communal nature has a parasitic effect on our environments. Instead of the human-centered hierarchy presaged by the Anthropocene, the Plantationocene renders visible relationships between people, plants, and parasites that brought new ecological and evolutionary understandings of disease into being. Yet even this new term falls short of the mark by giving sovereignty to an agricultural development that had devastating consequences for indigenous and enslaved peoples. Grand Turk’s quay was too small to host cruise ships until they dredged the coral to allow the mammoth vessels to dock. Once dredged, coral begins to die, reducing the island’s protective reef, and leaving it vulnerable to severe weather. Mere months after we leave, the eye of Hurricane Irma will pass directly over Grand Turk and the South Caicos leaving unprecedented damage in its wake.

Grand Turk no longer exports salt. The Morton Company holds a monopoly on salt manufacturing and exportation on Great Inagua Island in the Bahamian chain. You can find artisanal bath salts from the saltworks at the adjacent island of Salt Cay perfumed, dyed, and funneled in pastel vials available for sale at the National Museum. This miniscule niche is all that remains.

While salt cultivation was a deleterious monoculture, its ruins, the Salinas, have become an important ecosystem. Unlike refined sugar, salt has curative, even enchanted, qualities. Mary Prince wrote that when slaves were ill “the only medicine given to us was a great bowl of hot salt water, with salt mixed with it.” In Haitian lore, a taste of salt can free a body from its zombified state. Salt will thwart the nighttime carousel of the slip skin hag or “soucouyant” who leaves behind her epidermal shell to feed on her male victims. Spilled salt is routinely tossed over one’s shoulder, but it’s also a form of shade-throwing, to “salt” someone’s game, to derail a seduction or otherwise undermine.

Grand Turks beach

When we return to Madison, I recount our encounter with the dollar-sign car to a friend, Kiana, who is also a political scientist.

“In Kingston,” Kiana says, “thousands of young men have been murdered in the last four decades, but in all that time, maybe three white people have been harmed. A white tourist can go anywhere.”

But what about a black tourist? By vocalizing this staggering death equation, my colleague has pinpointed my family’s precarity. We have some privilege, by virtue of our nationality and class status, but it’s not the same privilege. We lack the bulletproofing of whiteness. The paralyzing bark of a stray dog transports us into a death zone. A crevice that opens in Kingston’s Tivoli Gardens, Chicago’s South Side, or Milwaukee’s North. We don’t know what matrix of vulnerability-serendipity-privilege will close the seam. Salt is both charm and jinx.

“When you and your family come to Kingston, stay with us and you will be fine.”

Kiana has family in Kingston, Lagos, and Atlanta. Like us, she is part of a far-flung diaspora. My sons never fail to tease her precocious daughter, who adores them in turn. Her invitation reasserts class and kinship ties, but I’m not reassured.

That roadside encounter, caught between by the menace of dogs and strangers, puts me in mind of Colin Dayan’s reflection that “dogs are the vessels that hold the substance of ancient law.” Spectral dogs are our constant companions when traveling while black. They materialize at moments of chaos, lone or in full patrol: a pack. In contrast, a group of flamingos is a flamboyance, but these aviating migrants are just the opposite. At sunset, their pale poppy feathers vanish into a thin fissure of orange light.



Cherene SherrardCherene Sherrard is a writer and scholar of African American and Caribbean literature. She is the author of Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color and the poetry collection Vixen. She teaches in the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Read Cherene Sherrard’s Letter to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by and Trinity University Press.

All photos by Cherene Sherrard. Photo of Cherene Sherrard by Katie Berry, Smoketree Photography. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.