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The poetics of salt, journey 4: Goute Sel/A Taste of Salt

Ghetto Biennale 2013 5 Min

Katy Beinart and Mabelle Williams, Goute Sel.

Port-au-Prince, 13 December 2013.

My salt route to Haiti started out from a shop named ‘Original Products’ in Market Row, Brixton, which sells religious artefacts and herbs from Haiti and the US. Taking the ritual salts sold here as a starting point, I began to explore the role of salt in Vodou and Haitian and wider Caribbean history and politics. In December 2013 I travelled to Haiti, to participate in the Ghetto Biennale, an arts festival that takes place in Port-au-Prince every two years.1

Initially ‘discovered’ by Columbus in 1492, Haiti was made a Spanish colony. After repeated French raids on the western end of the island a treaty was agreed in 1697 which divided the island in two, renaming the colonies Saint-Domingue (French) and Santo Domingo (Spanish).2 The French had established salines (saltworks) at home, but with expansion and trade they saw an opportunity in the salty marshes at the mouth of the Artibonite river, in the place they called the ‘cul-de-sac’ due to its location in the bay of Goniaves, between two promontories.3 They named the area Grande-Saline, or ‘great saltworks’ using the salt produced to barter with the English for other goods.4

As the French colonizers began to develop large sugar plantations on the island, slaves were brought from west and central African countries in large numbers (mainly from the West African kingdom of Dahomey, present-day Benin, but also from the Kongo, and other central and southern areas of Africa).5 By 1794, Haiti was exporting up to 86,000 tons of sugar per year6 made possible through the enforced labour of millions of slaves.7 Salt was a vital part of sustaining the enslaved workforce, with a diet of cheaply produced salted fish.8

An early nineteenth-century book on the history of the British West Indies by Bryan Matthews, a plantation owner and historian, details the provisions given to slaves (two or three pounds of salt per week on Antiguan estates, three pounds of salt fish per week in St Vincent) as well as the imports of goods from France to the French part of St Domingo – in 1788,  which included 1,308 quintals of salt fish.9 Salt was an important product in the European–Caribbean slave and colonial trade triangle.10 In 1831, a slave narrative by Mary Prince, an ex-slave, was published in London.11 Prince described working in salt plantations on the British-owned Turks and Caicos Islands in gruelling conditions. Historian Cynthia Kennedy has used Prince’s slave narrative as a starting point for trying to establish the beginnings of a history that connects slavery and salt, one which she says is a missing link in the history of slavery:12

documenting the parasitic links between European- and American-born slave owners, African and Creole slaves on the West Indian salt islands, and business interests in Britain and North America remains to be done

Literary historian Michele Speitz also writes about Prince’s slave narrative, noting that as a narrative its authorship has been brought into question and therefore its authenticity as a record has been doubted. However, Speitz turns to the material and metaphoric significance of salt in Prince’s autobiography to recover a lost history of the Caribbean slave economy, and to recognize types of rhetorical and artistic nuance overlooked in critical discussions about slave narratives.13 Speitz describes how Prince often linked the effects of salt on her body with her slave labour:14

Prince’s narrative attests to the importance of salt, a central product of slave labor in the British-held West Indies. Although its overall value is largely ignored in literary scholarship, harvesting salt proved harmful enough to inspire Prince’s rendition of a horrific contortion of being. Her repeated detrimental exposure to salt transforms Prince’s body, consciousness, and ultimately, of course, her narrative – making it tantamount to a material history and psychological case study of a forced merger of landscape, labor, body, and mind. Prince’s text records how lethal amounts of salt seep through the skin, forging a visceral, literal, and grotesque union between salt, the commodified substance, and the slave, the commodified worker.

The suggestion here is of a material poetics of salt as slavery, or enslaving, taking over Prince’s body and mind. Charlotte Sussman has also made the link, in relation to Prince, between ‘salt water’ as emotion (as in tears), the physical labour involved in producing salt, and the pain of drinking salt water which implies a close tie between ‘sentimental affect and the material conditions of Caribbean slave women’. 15  Salt was also used in brutal punishment – for example rubbed into the wounds after a whipping.16

In postcolonial Caribbean writing (and that of the Caribbean diaspora), salt has been a central image, which could be seen as a legacy of Prince’s narrative and the poetic meanings Speitz and Sussman apply to her work. Meredith Gadsby uses ‘sucking salt’ as a sign of adversity and survival in the context of African–Caribbean diasporic literature and culture, and links this back to the hardship of migration.17 Gadsby refers to a definition of ‘sucking salt’ as ‘to suffer much hardship; to have a rough time of it’; she suggests that ‘sucking salt’ can be seen as a ‘doubled linguistic sign of adversity and survival’.18 Prince’s narrated experience is, according to Gadsby, ‘beyond metaphor’ in its literal personification of this hardship: 19

Salt in this context is much more than diaspora metaphor; it is a brutal reality that preyed on the bodies and lives of the slaves forced to harvest it.

In postcolonial Caribbean writing, including that of the Caribbean diaspora, salt is therefore used as a metaphor for hardship, and a narrative of transcendence out of that hardship, linking this both to past narratives of slavery and more recent narratives about the hardship of migration. In the work of writers such as the Haitian–American novelist Edwidge Danticat, its historical and cultural significance in the Caribbean is located as central to forced migration and slavery. Novelistic examples are Earl Lovelace’s Salt (1996), Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters (1980) and Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads (2003); poetic examples are Edouard Glissant’s Black Salt (1998) and Fred D’Aguiar’s Feeding the Ghosts (1999).20 Danticat has used salt as a metaphor in books such as Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) and Claire of the Sea Light (2014), and has commented:21

Salt is a powerful symbol in Haiti, as it is elsewhere. … In the life of the fishermen, there were so many little things about salt that I wanted to incorporate. The salt in the air. The cracking of the salt in the fire. There’s all this damage, the peeling of the fishing boats from the sea salt. But there’s also healing from it, sea baths that are supposed to heal all kinds of aches and wounds.

Moving from salt as ‘enslaving’ in Prince’s narrative, to salt as both emblematic of hardship and survival (and even healing) in contemporary literature from the Caribbean and its diaspora, salt’s poetics are not specific to one cultural or historical moment; instead, they have the flexibility to adapt as cultural and historical changes bring new meanings to salt. For example, Prince’s experience of salt is direct and brutal, but in contemporary writing salt’s other qualities are added.
Salt operates as an index by pointing directly to a place, whether that is a saltworks or a wider geographical site of the sea, and in Caribbean literature this is usually the Atlantic. In this context, salt indexes the middle passage, the journey undertaken by slaves crossing from Africa.22 For example,  Glissant, in his poem ‘Africa’ (part of ‘Black Salt’), writes:23 weigh
With sea to measure with black salt
Sown with the blood of peoples who have all perished

Salt therefore stands for enslaving, for hardship, and later, as a narrative of transcendence out of that hardship, towards liberation. There is a particular relationship between salt and liberation in Haitian Vodou, which has its roots in West African vodun. Suzanne Preston Blier suggests that (African) vodun played an important historical role in Haiti in unifying and empowering men and women of African descent in their fight for freedom, and many scholars identify vodun with the beginnings of the Haitian revolution, which is believed to have started with a Vodou ceremony.24 Under French colonial rule, Haitian Vodou was suppressed. What followed was a bloody war and the eventual defeat of the French. The Haitian military leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haitian independence in 1804.
The figure of the zombi features in Haitian Vodou and can be seen as a metaphor for the enslaved person:27

insofar as the zombi represents the slave, or the worker, there is always the possibility that the zombi will wake up, shake off the oppressor and start a revolution.

According to René Depestre, a Haitian poet and activist, ‘the history of colonisation is the process of man’s general zombification. It is also the quest for a revitalizing salt capable of restoring to man the use of his imagination and culture.’ Depestre comments that the awakening ‘trigger will be the metaphoric taste of salt, or spark of political consciousness’.28 An example of this link between the spiritual and the political is the use of salt in Vodou to ‘reawaken’ zombis.29 The Kreyol phrase goute sel means a ‘taste of salt’,30] through tasting salt, the figure of the zombi is reminded that it is no longer living and is subsequently released from the spell of being a living dead.31

Ghetto Biennale 2013 38 Jpg

Katy Beinart and Mabelle Williams, Goute Sel.
Port-au-Prince, 13 December 2013.

For the Ghetto Biennale, I worked with Haitian artist Mabelle Williams to make a performance artwork titled Goute Sel based on the Haitian Vodou ritual of making veves, an act of marking patterns on the ground with cornmeal or similar substances, and sometimes salt.32 The veve has a spatial role in Haitian Vodou as demarcating the space as sacred prior to a ceremony.33 Salt is also used in other African American Vodou rituals for marking or cleansing spaces and thresholds.34 In order to make the work, I needed to find a source of salt.
I took a long and bumpy journey to the Grande-Saline in the hope of collecting Haitian salt. The site of the saltworks was right next to the sea, but, unlike in Portugal the edges of the saltworks were muddy banks. The salty water lay uncrystallized in pools. A local man offered me a tour and explained (via our translator) that in the current season they were not able to produce much salt because the rain kept coming. However, I was able to buy a sack of salt from their stores.

The yard was packed with people and we had to swing our skirts to avoid wiping out the careful work. We had to wait while Papada blessed the yard, and I felt the slowness of making the pattern as our audience watched and the drummers played and Papada sang. Since Haiti is a country at a crossroads, and has been for centuries a crossroads of trade, migration, journeying, it felt right that the veve we made was to ‘Kalfou’, the spirit of the crossroads. Haiti has a troubled and difficult history, but it is also a history of finding identity, an identity which mixes cultures and keeps adapting. Haiti is a place which gets under your skin, and asks you to think about the skin you are in.


Ghetto Biennale 2013 39

Katy Beinart and Mabelle Williams, Goute Sel.
Port-au-Prince, 13 December 2013.

Using my purchased salt Mabelle and I created a twin veve in Papada’s yard, on the opening day of the Biennale, 13th December 2013. Before we began we opened the bag of the salt from Grande-Salines and poured it into bowls ready for drawing the veve. After we created the veve, Mabelle and I handed around the bowls of salt we had used and asked the audience to ‘taste salt’. The act of tasting drew the audience directly into the ritual and connected them to the awakening and regenerative qualities of salt. Grande-Saline, the site from where the salt had come, referenced Haiti’s colonial history, and, in linking this to the meaning of Goute Sel, the audience were being asked to literally encounter the taste of salt as a connection to that history. In addition, my own ancestral story of my salt-trading great-grandfather offered a crossroads, producing a transcultural ritual which brought together a personal story of ancestral migration, with the meaning of the Kalfou veve as a crossroads, between ourselves in the present and our ancestors and others’ ancestors in the past, and a meeting point between the current location and the other locations we have come from.

Vodou ritual recipes

The following recipes are taken from James Haskins, (1978) Voodoo & Hoodoo. Scarborough House: Lanham, reprinted 1990.

To cause confusion:
Take graveyard dirt, salt, and devil powder and mix them together. Sprinkle that mixture around the interior of the person’s home.

To make someone go away:
As the person leaves your house, sprinkle a teaspoon of table salt in his trail. Take your broom and sweep the salt out of your home, calling his name (quietly) and wishing that he not return.

Mix salt with wine and make him drink it. Pray as he is drinking that all foreign substances will be expelled from the body. The person will shortly vomit.
Salt sprinkled thoroughly about the house and especially in the fireplace.
Luck in business:
Before going to the interview, place 3 grains of salt in a handkerchief and put it in your pocket. When you get to the place of employment wait until you are alone or the interviewer is somehow distracted. Then throw the salt onto the north corner of the room. Within 3 days you will have the job.

Haitian Epis

A blend of onions, garlic, bell peppers and other spices is the foundation for most Haitian dishes, and many Haitians have it in their refrigerator at all times.

1/2 cup Fresh parsley chopped
10 sprigs Thyme
1 tbsp Whole Cloves
10 Cloves garlic 
1 cup Bell peppers and onions
1 cup Green onions
2 tbsp Basil
2 Tsp Salt and pepper
2 tsp Cayenne pepper
1 cup Olive oil
1/3 cup Apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup Better bouillon vegetable base paste


  1. Place the ingredients in a blender or food processor.
  2. Blend to desired consistency, but not liquify. Blend in the form of pesto.
  3. Place in a 16oz jar and refrigerate for later use. 

- all images courtesy of the artists, photographs by Jason Metcalf -

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Third Ghetto Biennale 2013, Ghetto Biennale website 

<>[accessed 20 August 2017].

Go to footnote reference 2.

J. Michael Dash, Customs and Cultures of Haiti. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press 2001, pp.1-3; Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment. London: Verso 2007, p.xi.

Go to footnote reference 3.

Eugene Aubin, En Haïti: planteurs d’autrefois, nègres d’aujourd hui. Paris: A Colin 1910, pp.206-7.

Go to footnote reference 4.

Steeve Coupeau, History of Haiti. ‪Westport, CT: Greenwood Press 2010, p.17.

Go to footnote reference 5.

‘African Origins of Haiti’, Haiti 360 website, archived at

<> [accessed 22 March 2018].

Go to footnote reference 6.

Kwame Nimako and Glenn Willemsen, ‘Chattel slavery, sugar and salt’, in The Dutch Atlantic: Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation. London: Pluto Press 2011, pp.52-86, at p.63.

Go to footnote reference 7.

Hallward,p.9, & Joan Dayan, Haiti, History, and the Gods. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 1998, pp.58-59 & 64.

Go to footnote reference 8.

Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History. London: Vintage 2003; Cynthia M. Kennedy, ‘The other white gold: Salt, slaves, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and British colonialism’, The Historian, 69 (2007), pp.215-30, at p.217; Nimako and Willemsen.

Go to footnote reference 9.

Bryan Edwards‪, The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British West Indies, vol.3. London: G. and W.B. Whittaker 1819, pp.218, 266 & 271.

Go to footnote reference 10.

Nimako and Willemsen.

Go to footnote reference 11.

Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian slave. Related by herself, 3rd edn, ed. by Moira Ferguson. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press 1997; originally published in London 1831.

Go to footnote reference 12.

Kennedy, ‘The other white gold’, p.217, referring to Prince.

Go to footnote reference 13.

Michele Speitz, ‘Blood sugar and salt licks: Corroding bodies and preserving nations in The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself’, in Paul Youngquist (ed.) Circulations: Romanticism and the Black Atlantic. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado 2011, p.1, available at <>

Go to footnote reference 14.

ibid, p.2.

Go to footnote reference 15.

Charlotte Sussman, Consuming Anxieties: Consumer Protest, Gender, and British Slavery 1713-1833. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press 2000.

Go to footnote reference 16.

Dayan, p.265

Go to footnote reference 17.

Meredith Gadsby, Sucking Salt: Caribbean Women Writers, Migration and Survival. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press 2006, p.3.

Go to footnote reference 18.

Gadsby, p.3, citing Richard Allsopp, Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. New York: Oxford University Press 1996, p.485

Go to footnote reference 19.

Gadsby, p.79.

Go to footnote reference 20.

Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters. New York: Random House 1980; Fred D’Aguiar, Feeding the Ghosts. London: Chatto & Windus 1997; EdwidgeDanticat, Claire of the Sea Light. London: Quercus 2014; Edwidge Danticat,Breath Eyes Memory. New York: Soho 2004; Édouard Glissant, ‘Black Salt’, in The Collected Poems of Edouard Glissant, ed. Jeff Humphries. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2005; Nalo Hopkinson, The Salt Roads. New York: Warner Books 2003; Earl Lovelace, Salt. London: Faber & Faber 1996.

Go to footnote reference 21.

Maxine Lavon Montgomery (ed.), Conversations with Edwidge Danticat Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi 2017, p.159.

Go to footnote reference 22.

Gadsby, p.40.

Go to footnote reference 23.

Glissant, p.121.

Go to footnote reference 24.

Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. New York and London: Thames and Hudson 1953, p.62; Dayan, pp.3-5; Alfred Métraux, Voodoo in Haiti. New York: Schocken Books 1952, p.41; C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint l’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. London: Penguin 1938, pp.69 & 87.

Go to footnote reference 25.

Philippe Girard, ‘Rebelles with a cause: Women in the Haitian War of Independence, 1802–04’, Gender and History, 21 (2009), pp.60-85.

Go to footnote reference 26.

Susan Buck-Moriss, ‘Hegel and Haiti’, Critical Inquiry, 26 (2000), pp.821-65, at p.833, fn.38.

Go to footnote reference 27.

Elizabeth A. McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora, vol. 1. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 2002, pp.107-8.

Go to footnote reference 28.

Rene Depestre, ‘Change’, Violence II, 9 (1971), p.20.

Go to footnote reference 29.

Sarah J. Lauro, The Transatlantic Zombie: Slavery, Rebellion, and Living Death. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press 2015, pp.26, 46; see also Métraux, p.96.

Go to footnote reference 30.

Lauro, p.124; Amy Wilentz, Farewell Fred Voodoo. New York: Simon & Schuster 2013, p.95.

Go to footnote reference 31.

Lauro, p.208, fn.26.

Go to footnote reference 32.

Karen McCarthy Brown, ‘The Veve of Haitian Vodou: A Structural Analysis of Visual Imagery’, PhD thesis, Temple University, 1976, p.xi; McAlister, p.95; Brad Steiger, Real Zombies, the Living Dead, and Creatures of the Apocalypse. Detroit: Visible Ink Press 2010, p.114.

Go to footnote reference 33.

McCarthy Brown, p.x.

Go to footnote reference 34.

James Haskins, Voodoo and Hoodoo. Lanham, MD: Scarborough House 1978; reprinted 1990, pp.129, 136, 145 & 165.

Go to footnote reference 35.

Beinart, ‘Salted Earth’ blog, 5 January 2014.

Katy Beinart

Katy Beinart is an interdisciplinary artist whose art works include installation, public art and performance. After studying architecture, Katy has practiced as an artist since 2004, combining art and architecture to make artwork in the public realm. She has recently completed a practice-based PhD at the Bartlett, University College London, which brings together her interests in public art practices, urban regeneration, migration - and salt. For more information about her practice and background, see