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Maine Sail Freight Revives: A Salty History of Revolution, Independence


By Rivera Sun

In this new millennium marked by the looming threat of transnational trade deals like the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), one unusual trade adventure, Maine Sail Freight, will embark on a creative and bold journey as an act of defiance against what has become a poor standard of business-as-usual. When Maine Sail Freight launches its maiden voyage at the end of August carrying 11 tons of local, Maine-made cargo, the Greenhorns - a plucky band of young farmers - and the sailing crew of a historic wooden schooner are declaring their independence from corporate tyranny and re-invigorating sail freight as a wind-powered transportation agent of the booming local food economy.

And, interestingly, they will be carrying one freight item that has a long history of revolutionary potential: salt.

Yes, salt.

More than a hundred years before Gandhi's independence movement kicked the British Empire out of India, the American colonies were roundly beating the same empire using tools of nonviolent action – noncooperation, civil disobedience, boycotts, strikes, blockades, parallel governments, marches, rallies, and self-reliance programs. The two independence movements even shared parallel salt campaigns.

Gandhi's 1930 Salt Satyagraha campaign is famous. The 1776 New England saltworks expansion is virtually unknown. Indeed, several well-organized, clearly identifiable nonviolent campaigns are often overshadowed by violence and war in the retelling of revolutionary era history. The research, however, testifies to the nonviolent campaigns’ pivotal role in the struggles.

Know your history. The British certainly should have. In 1930, 150 years after American Independence, Lord Irwin, Viceroy of India, commented on the brewing salt law resistance saying, "At present the prospect of a salt campaign does not keep me awake at night." Too bad – if he had stayed awake, studying the history of salt, colonial governments, and independence movements, he might have lost sleep – but he may not have lost India.

In 1776, the British Empire lost the American colonies over a famous tax on tea … and salt.

Most everyone has heard the story of the Boston Tea Party – rowdy colonists, incensed by the tax on tea, dressed up as Indians and stormed Boston Harbor to dump the contents of a ship carrying import goods into the water. The colonials boycotted tea and demanded "no taxation without representation.” The tax on tea also contained a tax on salt. At the time, salt was a necessity for household survival and the economic functionality of the colonial fisheries, which exported salted fish. There were, however, no saltworks along the lengthy coastlines of North America. The salt used by the colonists was imported from the British Caribbean.

When the new tax laws were announced in the colonies, the colonists declared they would boycott imported goods from Britain, refusing to cooperate. Of course, they didn't use the term "boycott,” which would not be coined until 1880 when the Irish rebelled against the land agent Charles C. Boycott.

The colonists rebelled against the tax laws, declaring independence. A crippling embargo was placed on the colonies, cutting off the supply of imported salt entirely. In response, the Continental Congress placed a "bounty" on salt to encourage the young nation to build saltworks and produce this essential resource. Cape Cod responded to the call, even inventing new elements of the salt production process. They rejected the process of boiling out the water, as it used too many cords of wood, and instead developed a system of producing salt that used wind power to haul the seawater to the drying troughs, natural solar power to evaporate the water, and a unique construction of rolling canvas roofs that would keep the rain out of the troughs and could be pulled back on sunny days to allow the light in. The production of salt increased the American’s self-reliance, reduced their dependence on the empire, and strengthened their ability to resist British oppression.

These three dynamics – increasing self-reliance, reducing dependence, and strengthening the ability to resist oppression – are all elements of what Gandhi would later call "constructive program.” Gandhi employed 18 different constructive programs in his movement, one of which was the production of salt. The 1930 Salt Satyagraha was a powerful demonstration of the two-fold strength of nonviolent action. In addition to the constructive dynamics, it also utilized the "obstructive" dynamics of noncooperation and mass civil disobedience, as well as many acts of protest and persuasion including marches, rallies, picketing, letter writing, and demonstrations.

The story is simple: the British Empire enforced a monopoly on the production of salt in colonial India, operating the saltworks to their own profit and charging the Indians for the staple. In 1930, Gandhi decided to openly defy the salt laws, inciting thousands of Indians to make and sell salt, rendering the salt laws unenforceable through mass noncooperation. Gandhi added his usual political clarity and dramatic flair to the undertaking. Where the Americans pragmatically made salt as a necessity of survival and a tool of self-reliance, Gandhi's marches, public announcements, mass disobedience, and inimitable sense of humor made humble salt the downfall of British authority over India. Gandhi overtly challenged the British over salt--and won.

Today, many contemporary struggles revolve not around colonies and crowns, but rather between citizens and transnational corporations. The basic lessons of salt still hold true for modern times. To win our freedom one again, we must increase self-reliance and lessen our dependency on products of our oppressors. We must refuse cooperation with injustice and build parallel institutions that benefit people rather than some company’s bottom line. As Maine Sail Freight travels from Portland to Boston, reinvigorating traditional ocean trade routes, the participants are also joining the growing popular resistance to global corporate domination. As history will attest, their success lies in the willingness of the people to non-cooperate with business-as-usual and instead participate with the constructive actions of local, sustainable, and renewable economies. Here's where to find out more and join the Portland to Boston adventure.

Rivera Sun, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection and other books, and the cofounder of the Love-In-Action Network.

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