Taissumani, June 22
The strange history of the igloo flag
Here is a good question for a parlour game—perhaps for a new edition of Trivial Pursuit.
What place (country, colony, jurisdiction) had Arctic imagery on its flag for 99 years, but has nothing to do with the North? And not just Arctic imagery, but Inuit imagery.
Here’s a clue. It’s not in the North, not even close. At the time, no Inuk had ever been there.
Give up? It’s the Turks and Caicos Islands, in the Caribbean region, just north of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They have a population of 31,000, about the same as Nunavut.
Turks and Caicos was a British colony—and still is. In the 1800s, before refrigeration was common on ships, salt was used as a preservative for fish and other products transported aboard ship. Salt dries food by absorbing water, making the food too dry to allow the growth of harmful mould or bacteria. It has been used that way for centuries. That’s why seafaring stories are filled with references to sailors eating salt beef, salt pork and salt fish.
Before refrigeration, in the heyday of its cod fishery, Newfoundland alone used 25,000 tons of salt a year. Salt was so precious that it was known as “white gold.”
The Turks and Caicos Islands are very low-lying. The dominant feature of Grand Turk island and of Salt Cay and South Caicos was, and still is, a series of extremely shallow salt-water ponds. An industry developed dependent on these ponds—the harvesting of salt.
The islands flooded with the incoming tide, the hot sun evaporated the water from the ponds, and the inhabitants could scoop up the salt. Enterprising businessmen added refinements—sluice gates to control the ebb and flow of water to maximize the harvesting of the precious crystal. By 1772, nearly 40 million pounds of salt were exported annually.
The salt was harvested by raking it from the beds of the ponds at low tide or when the sluice gates had prevented a tide from rushing in. Salt-raking became the main occupation of labourers on the islands.
In due course, the islanders and their British governor decided that they needed their own flag. Some sketches were prepared, showing some possibilities for the flag. The most popular one was a scene of a freighter offshore, with a beach in the foreground, and an islander busy raking the white gold. On the beach were two large mounds of salt awaiting transport to the ship. This picture was duly sent off to London to be incorporated into a flag for the colony.
The official responsible in England—perhaps someone like a chief heraldic officer—was confused. In the 1870s, Britons knew—or thought they knew—about the Arctic. The Franklin expedition was still a recent memory, and other expeditions periodically left for the North, bringing back tales of the “Eskimos.”
The official actually had no idea where the Turks and Caicos were. Rather than ask anyone, he assumed that they were in the Arctic and that this was an Arctic scene—the two white mounds, of course, must be igloos.
The perplexed official thought that he needed to improve a little on the rude sketch supplied by the islanders. An igloo, of course, needed a door. And so he drew a small doorway on the snowhouse on the right—it turned out to look like a small black smudge.
The error remained for 99 years, until the islands became a separate Crown colony in 1974—they had previously been united with the Bahamas and before that with Jamaica—and got a new and distinctive flag with no igloo.