Working Life

People bag salt at the Great Salt Pond. (Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen)

Work is a big part of life for almost everyone. On St. Martin, working life has changed dramatically over the last century. Official records report the rise and fall of industries over the years. Photos and stories can tell us more about what working life was really like.

Until recently, much of the economy depended on natural resources. Fish and lobster were harvested from the sea, cattle were raised, salt was harvested and a variety of crops were grown. Today, few people make their living this way on St. Martin.

Tourism also brought a huge change in the amount of work available on the island. Before the 1960s, many people left the island to work in the oil industry in Aruba or farms in the Dominican Republic. Over the last 50 years, the reverse has happened. People from all over the Caribbean and the world have come to St. Martin to find jobs.

What did these bigger trends mean for the average person? In an image of salt production from about 100 years ago, we see men, women and children at work. A breaker, high on the mound of salt, wields a pickaxe to break up the crystal crust. The salt slides down to the foot of the mound, where others shovel it into bags. All the workers are Black. In the photo, their faces, hands and feet are silhouetted against the white of the salt.

Men bale hay. (Nationaal Archief)

One thing most jobs had in common was the heat. In a photo from the early 1940s, several men are using a machine to bale hay. There isn’t a single leaf on the bare branches of the tree above them. Though the photo is in black and white, the hills look parched in the background.

By contrast, the job of setting lobster traps in the Simpson Bay Lagoon looks much more enjoyable. In a photo from the late 1940s, two men are surrounded by mangroves. One is rowing a small boat, the other wading out with it, one hand on the lobster pot to make sure it is well balanced.

Setting lobster traps. (Nationaal Archief)

These images start to give us a feeling for the working life in St. Martin’s past. But they don’t tell the whole story. In each case, these photos were probably taken to document one of the island’s major industries. Many other kinds of work, including building, farming, cooking and child care are very poorly documented. This is a space where personal photos and stories about life can fill in important gaps, if we can save them in time.

Do you have a story about work in St. Martin? Share it by sending it to [email protected] or to The Daily Herald.

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