Salt Pans And Salt

The toponymy of the area: O ULLÓ and AS SALINAS

Toponymy is the science that studies the origin, history and meaning of place names. The places where salt was extracted appear in Galician toponymy under the common term of salinas (Las Salinas da Seca in Cambados or As Salinas in Illa de Arousa) along with the variants saíñas, sinas or siñas (As Saíñas in Ribeira, Noia or Baldaio or As Siñas in Mougás (Oia). In Portugal they are also called Marinhas de Sal.

Ulló is a hydroponym. According to scholars, its name is related to water. The Lugosa region of A Ulloa, where the river Ulla springs for the first time, took its name from the diminutive *Uliola from Ulia. Therefore, Ulló could come from the term OCULOLU, diminutive of ojo (eye), also written with a double -o (Ulloó) in the form of a graphic archaism present in the documentation when referring to a place where water is sourced or “next to the river bed” (ui-on). Ulló is not a term accepted by the current Dictionary of the Real Academia Galega. However, the first dictionaries of the language from 1858, 1863, 1873, 1900 or 1926 included the meaning of ‘marsh’, ‘jetty’, ‘swampy place’, ‘puddle’ or ‘islet, ford, marshy area near an island’. They understood it as a variant of illó, a word that is accepted nowadays to refer to a ‘place where water springs up on a piece of land’ and, by extension, to very wet ground.

Image of the O Ulló salt pans showing their marshy character.

Salt in the Crown of Castile

Since ancient times, salt has been used mainly for preserving foodstuffs. It was so important by 1564 that it became a limited product, i.e. a commodity monopolised by the Crown, which began to control its export. Since medieval times, salt produced on the Iberian Peninsula was shipped to the Netherlands or the Baltic. On a daily basis, this crystalline substance cured meat but also fish such as sardines, as well as seasoning the bread baked by the bakers in the village ovens. It was a circulating product of prime economic interest from the late Middle Ages onwards. 

Workers at a salt works in the Marinhas de Aveiro. M. Munné. 1935

Salt: between laws and kings

As manufactured sites for its extraction, the salt pans first interested the monasteries (9th-13th centuries) and, later, attracted the desire of kings (13th-14th centuries) to control a growing export trade along a north-south axis. Production in the southern salt mines of the peninsula, at the same time, was increasing, especially from the last quarter of the 14th century. The Crown of Castile began to impose taxes on this branch after Navarre charged salt in the 11th century with the portazgo (transport) and alvara (production). From King Alfonso VII (1105-1157) onwards, royal duties on salt revenues were regulated (1130). Alfonso VIII (1155-1214) was able to lease the salt mines to supply the royal coffers with his royalties, partially disengaging himself from their government and care. King Alfonso X the Wise granted customs duties on salt (1260) in order to encourage its importation and the development of its exploitation. Alongside the salt mines, Sancho IV (1258-1295) allowed the creation of alfolíes or salt warehouses, not subject to royal supervision and therefore subject to local price variability. The Order of Burgos (1338) finally regulated the Castilian-Leonese trade, for example, limiting the unloading ports to the banks of Viveiro, Ribadeo, Ortigueira or Baiona. Although it was Alfonso XI who declared the salt flats to be Crown property in 1386, it was not until John II in 1409 that the creation of official watertight shops was ordered. Smuggling became common and, in the time of the Catholic Monarchs, the routes for transporting salt were drawn up in Castile in order to avoid any deviation from the norm (1498).

King Alfonso X or wise man portrayed in the Book of the Games

Salt pans and salt cellars: extraction and custody of salt

In the 16th century, although some salt works remained in the hands of the Crown, the majority continued to be private or municipal, owned by local councils, exposed to variable prices for their product and with great personal interests behind each of their warehouses. Owning a port and warehouse did not mean a good supply for the locality. From the time of Philip II (1556-1598), the consumption of salt and its production declined due to the heavy taxation on exports. The salt flats were only worked where the Crown deemed it appropriate, so the shortage of salt forced even the bakers to try to knead with salt water. In 1566, twenty salt warehouses guarded the salt in the Kingdom of Galicia. They were insufficient to meet the demand of the time, so it was necessary to limit the sales measures to a quarter of a fanega (Spanish Bushel) (real and cuartillo), half a fanega (2 Reals and half) or an eighth of a fanega (twenty-one Bushels and half a Blanca).

Drawing of a maritime salt works included in D’Alambert and Diderot’s Encyclopédie de D’Alambert e Diderot of 1772.

Secrets of office

The person in charge of guarding and administering the salt storehouse was called the alfolinero. The trade kept secrets about the handling of the deposited salt, which arrived at the storehouse in crates, trampled or crammed, i.e. compact and thick. In the storehouse, they used shovels to shake it or sprinkle it so that they earned a few more ferrados (measure of salt) when they resold it. In O Ulló, the Jesuits of Pontevedra obeyed the orders also issued in Seville on 21 December 1706 for the sellers to take “the salt measured bushel by bushel, pouring the salt into it naturally with a shovel and without violence”. In addition, the men who worked in salt exploitation were called marnotos, marnoteros, marlotos or salineros (salt mine workers). The shovel loaders completed the intermediate process between the salt mine and the deposit.

Workers at a salt works in the Marinhas de Aveiro. M. Munné. 1935

A salt mine at the bottom of the Vigo estuary

It is possible that the 17th century salt works may have been built on the site of O Ulló at the end of the 16th century by Portuguese surveyors. If so, it would have been after the years of the famine of 1574-1575 and the crisis in the supply of salt, which caused prices for this crystalline substance to reach up to sixty Reals per bushel in the town of Pontevedra. The shortage in the thirties of the 17th century must have encouraged Antonio Mosquera Villar y Pimentel to apply for a licence to work salt, taking advantage of his position as General Administrator of the salt works. He took land in Vilaboa “on the seashore, in the sandy and reedy areas that lead to its crescent”. Antonio Mosquera and his wife gave some of their property in 1655 as financial support for the new foundation of a Jesuit school in Pontevedra. Among them were “those of O Ulloó sites destined for the salt works”, deeded in 1637 and 1700. Melchor Mosquera, son of the couple, took the step to “manufacture salt flats” in Vilaboa under the protection of the Royal Decree of 1679. He finally transferred his rights in 1694 to the Jesuit College.

Aerial view of the Salinas do Ulló.

The Jesuit Farm in O Ulló

The Jesuits ended up building, a league and a half from the town of Pontevedra, an agricultural and livestock farm with stables, stables, farmyard and dovecote. The farm had a residence or main house for the administrator and houses on the land for the housekeepers in charge of “tilling the mountain and lands that this College has in this place”. Next to it, the beneficiaries improved the salt pans with a Royal Order of 1699 that obliged “those who had clods of earth, turf and other materials” to give them at a moderate price under penalty of five hundred ducats. In 1710, the municipal councillors of Vilaboa, Santo Adrián and Santa Cristina dos Cobres received from the justice of Pontevedra a safe conduct so that their neighbours would be exempt not only as “marlotos and carters” but also as officials “who assist in the salt works”.

Detail of the “lareira” of the Granxa das Salinas
One of the constructions of A Granxa das Salinas

Between 1694 and 1709, the Jesuits had to invest in the improvement of the exploitation, which they divided and named San Xosé do Ulloó (Gordenla and Freixeiro), A Cruz (Porto Muíños) and San Ignacio (Ulló de Abaixo or Larache). The latter, also known as Salina Vella (old saline), may have been the original salt works founded in the 17th century by the Mosquera Pimentel family. In 1709 the Jesuits were already exceeding, in the opinion of the neighbours, the limits granted for the salt works. Between 1710 and 1712 they acquired and exchanged many of the nearby lands with the aim of “making a piece all together”. In 1726, the pressure on the area of common use around O Ulló ended in a lawsuit between the Jesuits and the residents of Vilaboa, who were obliged by a 1727 ruling to “clean the royal road, ditches and headwaters of their estates”, thus preventing any drainage into the salt flats.

O Ulló in the Cadastre of the Marquis de la Ensenada 

In the mid-18th century, the state of the salt works was “completely destroyed”. We do not know the value and production of salt in general terms. However, the profits they brought to the Jesuit college were very low, judging by their complaints. In 1736, production did not exceed two hundred bushels of salt “when at other times they gave 600 to 800 bushels”. The land began to be leased out to the neighbours, both for the use of reeds and for grazing. The production of salt in O Ulló declined at the same time as the prosperity reached the Andalusian and eastern Spanish salt mines, coinciding with a new organisation of the salt income or attempts to improve its production. When the Cadastre of the Marquis de la Ensenada (1749-1754) was carried out in an attempt to restructure the Treasury of the Crown of Castile, the Interrogation General of Vilaboa, St Adrián y St Cristina dos Cobres (1754) records the operation of the last of the salt works “on the shore of the Redondela estuary that bathes that place”. They had not been producing salt for at least thirty years ‘due to the excessive force of the sea and their poor location’.

Detail of Vilaboa and its salt pans on a map of the Vigo estuary from 1752.

Some farmers from nearby parishes were employed in the salt works as “loaded shovel gaugers”. This was the case of Ángel de Novas, Francisco Carrera and Gerónimo Conde, from Vilaboa. They were paid one hundred and fifty reales a year. From Santa Cristina came Pedro Garrido and Manuel Filgueira, both with lower salaries, between fifty and one hundred reales. Francisco Pérez, Joseph Conde, Antonio Conde, Antonio del Río, Silvestre de Acuña, Miguel de Acuña and Antonio Rodríguez de los Cobres were also employed as salt manufacturers, who received a salary of three Spanish Reals (reales) and ten maravedís per year for the salt manufactured per five-year period.

O Ulló in the face of secularization

In 1767, King Charles III issued a pragmatic sanction expelling the Society of Jesus from the Crown’s territory after it was accused of participating in or instigating the Esquilache Mutiny. Its assets were confiscated and became part of the Royal Treasury. 

At the time of the secularization, Vilaboa’s assets were leased to Francisco Pérez and his wife Jacinta del Río. The process of liquidation of the assets, in the hands of the council of Temporalidades, began in 1783 with the holding of public auctions that were left deserted for the farm of O Ulló given its state of abandonment, the low productivity of its lands and the claim of the residents of Vilaboa to recover lands that they considered “of the commons” as wastelands of their parish.

At that time, the sale value of the assets of San Martiño de Vilaboa amounted to 10,000 reals, while the value of its rent was barely 72 reals. The storehouse that “was used to bring in the salt that was made in the salt pans nearby when they were in use” was “completely ruined because it was next to the sea”. The Salinas Vellas de Larache, by then, had a terrain “dominated by the sea that bathes it daily”. Between 1783 and 1793, no one wanted to take possession of the property, no matter how many announcements were made in Pontevedra, Tui, Vigo or Vilaboa.

Charles III was King of the Crown of Spain and the Kingdom of Galicia in 1767, when he decreed the expulsion of the Jesuits. Oil on canvas painted by Mariano Salvador Mella in 1783.

The ruin of O Ulló in the second half of the 18th century

In Galicia, the climate worked against salt exploitation. The heavy rains of 1763, 1768 and 1769 caused the floods to destroy the southern bank, which was ruined in 1786 despite its thick stone wall and facing, in the form of turf or crushed clods, which served as a buttress or embankment in the form of a slope. The landlord of the farm, Francisco del Río, reported to the authorities that “on the fifth day of the current month [December] the bench of the salt pans was ruined and destroyed, most of it in part with holes that could fit two or three carts a pair”. The “strong storms of wind and water” experienced between the fifth and twelfth of December 1786 turned the maintenance of the salt pans into “costly work”. This is what the stonemason Pedro Candendo, a native of Santa María de Mourente (Pontevedra), declared when he inspected how the complex was completely flooded with the rising tides.

Order before the Royal Municipal Board of Temporalities on the destruction of the bank of the Salinas do Ulló due to the storms. 1786-1788

A landlady on the warpath: Manuela Pérez

In September 1788, Manuela Pérez, widow of Francisco del Río, landlord of O Ulló, complained about the uselessness of the pastures due to the flooding of the land because of the broken bank. Without any production, she had been paying fifty-five ferrados of maize and twenty-two and a half ferrados of one hundred for that wasteland every year. To these were added six hundred reals in money. A “poor woman with a broken family”, she refused to renew the lease unless the payments due to her were reduced. She was prepared “to leave her property and would go out into the world even if she had to beg”. When Manuela left O Ulló in 1789, despite a reduction in the rent of four hundred Reals, nobody wanted to take over the farm. Ruin was assured. The residents of Vilaboa, Domingo de Novas being the parish priest, began to work the land.

Plan of the Vigo Estuary and the Bayonne Isles. Year 1788

The neglect of the Salinas: the long 19th century

In 1814, the schoolmaster, canon of Santiago cathedral and prior of Santa María de Sar, Don Pedro de Acuña Malvar (1755-1814), a native of San Martiño de Salcedo, left in his will his wish that “if the Jesuits return to these domains, all the possession that S.Y. has in Ulló de Villaboa will be returned to them”. The old splendour was reduced to salt pans completely flooded, the stables demolished or the buildings, such as the house, “whose windows and glass had been damaged since the French occupation”. The Jesuits could have returned in 1815 but did not. The political forces of the Liberal Triennium (1820-1823) would again expel them from Spain.

Record of the measurement, valuation and demarcation of the Quinta das Salinas, when they were the property of the Marquis of Arana.

Between 1842 and 1880, O Ulló was owned by Doña María Fernández Molina, widow of the Catalan D. José Villoch. On her death, it was divided into two parts, one acquired for eight thousand reals by residents of Vilaboa and the other in the hands of José Nazario de Arana y Ageo de Zaragoza, Marquis of Arana. Both parts were unified by the latter in September 1880. The Marquis was the owner until his death in 1887. However, the farm was looked after by landlords and administrators who resided in O Ulló throughout the year. Taking advantage of their absences, the neighbours of Vilaboa used to access the property to take advantage of the “flooding left by the sea”. The seaweed was laid out on the wall of the bank to dry in the “salt spray” before being transported in carts to the farms where it was used as manure.

A second golden age at the end of the 19th century

Throughout the 1870s, the Marquis of Arana, owner of O Ulló, intended to convert the farmland into vineyards and its woodlands into copses or pine forests. The rushes were to be replaced by willows “whose plants, as well as producing good wood for vineyards, absorb wool and humidity from the soil”. He intended to plant corn. The reforms also reached the house and its outbuildings. In the reform of the chimney, for example, the instructions that the Marquis of Arana had given in writing in 1874 were disregarded:

“With regard to the repair of the chimney in the main house by supporting it on another column, I agree that the whole of the south side from the roof itself to the foundations can be removed except for the part that takes the box of the chimney itself, and it will be convenient that the column that is placed in the corner where the wall is today be similar to the one that exists in the other, unless the weight requires greater thickness”. 

On the first of May 1874, the Vilaboa stonemason Isidoro Núñez undertook, within forty days, to carry out the work, valued at five thousand four hundred and ninety-five reales. 

Detail of the bottom of the Vigo estuary in a plan from 1800

Did you know that…?

The farm’s cellar, during the works of 1874, was adapted for the installation of an industrial grape press, made of cast iron, which came from the Pamplona factory of Pinaqui y Sarvy. The Marquis of Arana argued in one of his many letters that, little by little, “the wine presses would be abolished” (Zaragoza, 1874). The novelties even reached the intervention itself, using for the first time “an apparatus for boring stone, published in France by Mr. Laferrier, which shortens and facilitates the work”.

The roads of A Granxa

From 1877 the farm also improved its accessibility along the Porta Muíños road, with better walls, drainage ditches and stone culverts along its route. The carriages would arrive, according to the expert from Pontevedra, Francisco García Castro, to “one of the best areas that make up the valley of the aforementioned area”. O Ulló opened up to the Atlantic, sheltered from the winds from the west and northwest, two kilometres from the Figueirido railway stations and some two hundred metres from the railway that, from 1884, connected Vigo with Pontevedra.

From a bourgeois farm to an engineer’s project

At the end of the 19th century, the French engineer Felipe Auguste Cazaux, in charge of the railway works in Redondela (Madrid viaduct, 1876) or over the river Miño in Tui (International Bridge, 1885), took over the property of O Ulló. There were more than four hundred and seventy plots of land around a house with a private oratory in honour of the Virgin, a kitchen and cellar open to an outdoor threshing floor around which the cutlery, the henhouse, the courts, two stone granaries (with ten staddlestones), the dovecote and the “garage of the lords” were organised.

One of the viaducts in Redondela on which the engineer Felipe Auguste Cazaux worked.

One of the last consolidations of the southern bank (popularly known as A Banca de Casó) is attributed to Cazaux’s initiative, as well as the construction of a tide mill that was used to grind cereal and generate electricity. It required a wall about 375 metres long, between two and two and a half metres wide, with an average height of 2.5 metres. Four sluice gates were responsible for controlling the water that had to be dammed for it to work properly. A spillway on the right abutment prevented overflows. In the widening of the wall, which reached a height of ten metres, stairs allowed the dam to be lowered before it was interrupted by two openings separated by cutwaters. We do not know from documents whether the mill project was actually completed, although the millstones remain of the mill next to the bank of the salt works.

A place of passage at the end of the Vigo estuary 

At the end of the Ancien Régime, O Ulló ceased to be a salt landscape. It retained its status as a place of transit and passage, like other Galician towns located at the bottom of the estuaries. Its strategic location allowed small boats, from a small wharf, to serve as “passage and transport for people travelling to the town of Vigo, Redondela and other parts of the estuary”. Since the mid-19th century, Vilaboa Town Council has used as its municipal coat of arms “the barriers with a gate of the extinct O Ulló gate”, which are included both in the municipal seal (1839) and in the Public Instruction seal (1854).

The current heraldic coat of arms, approved in 1996, is designed around a single quarter of azure with two silver towers and at the top, waves of azure and silver; gules border with a gold chain and, at the helm, a closed royal crown.

Detail of the Casó Bank in the Ulló Salt Pans
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