Salt taxation

 In 2200 BC the Chinese emperor Hsia Yua declared that Shandong Province must supply the Imperial Court with salt. An ancient Chinese philosopher once called salt “the sweetest thing on earth.” Salt’s economic value has meant it has been taxed by governments from the ancient Chinese and Romans to governments of late medieval Europe to those of France, even up to the late 1940s. In 2200 BC the Chinese Emperor Hsia Yu levied a salt tax, which was one of the world’s first documented state taxes.

Since the first salt tax the most notable instances are the gabelle in France, ongoing salt tax in China and the salt taxes in India including that under the British. 

Salt Riot on Red Square in 1648, by Ernest Lissne

Due to salt being fundamental to the food economies of all ancient cultures, the imposition of salt taxes and ongoing increases were universally unpopular. Steep rises in the rates of salt tax often led to popular uprisings. For example, the Moscow uprising of 1648 sometimes known as the Moscow salt riot, started because of the government's replacement of different taxes with a universal salt tax to replenish the state treasury after the "Time of Troubles". This drove up the price of salt, leading to violent riots in the streets of Moscow. The riot was an early challenge to the reign of Alexei I, eventually resulting in the exile of Alexei's advisor Boris Morozov,1648, who had engineered the new universal salt tax.

Funding the Renaissance, the Mediterranean and the rise of Venice

The great trading ports of the Mediterranean dealt in salt as well as spices and textiles. Not surprisingly, the greater of them, Genoa and Venice not only traded in salt, but fought for supremacy over the trade. Because of the hot dry summers and mild wet winters, salt can be made in a saltern or pan in almost any suitable seashore flat or plain in the Mediterranean. So although it is possible to envisage a trader’s cartel from a specific geological region of shallow buried salt in Austria or England, it is much more difficult to control the production of salt in coastal saltpans. So, in hindsight, it is surprising how effectively Genoa and especially Venice, managed to take control of Mediterranean salt production, as well as trading, across the 13th to 16th centuries. Genoa was positioned in the Western Mediterranean and Venice at the head of the Adriatic. Each used all its political and military strength to consolidate its local salt trade, and to encroach as far as possible on that of its rival. However, Venice was more organised politically, which translated into more ruthless and effective use of state power. And Venice made a conscious decision to concentrate on the salt trade, whereas to the Genoese it was just one of a set of potentially profitable cargoes. Where the two came into conflict over salt, the Venetians tended to win.

Venice managed to make a business out of control of the Adriatic salt trade. Venice owed some of its early wealth to the salt trade from salt works in its lagoon, and had a number of contracts with inland Italian cities in the 13th century to supply them with salt. The more that Venice came to control the salt trade in the Adriatic, the more the resulting profits were used by the city to subside other trading activities. Venetian traders delivering salt to the city were given bank credits, for example, allowing them to buy goods quickly. As the historian S. A. Adshead has written, “For the Venetians, salt was not a commodity among commodities... it greased the wheels of all the working parts and fueled its motor”. The salt trade allowed Venetian traders to compete very effectively with their rivals across the board. Salt was “il vero fondamento del nostro stato” (The true foundation of our state).

Always, from their beginnings in the 5th Century, the Venetians were willing to exercise raw power to foster their control of salt. Prior to the rise of the Venetian State, the Roman salt-making center in the Adriatic was at Comacchio, a little north of Ravenna. After the fall of Rome, records of the 8th-century Lombard King Luitpold show that Comacchian salt was being shipped to all the major inland cities of Lombardy, through Ferrara, at least as far inland as Parma, Lodi, and Brescia. By 523 AD Venice was producing salt and in 932 AD the Venetians destroyed Camacchio. They burned the citadel, massacred the inhabitants, and carried off the survivors to Venice, where they had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Doge before they were released. 

Salt warehouse, (Punta Della Dogana) Venice, Italy. These were purpose built strongholds (saloni) for salt storage that allowed the Venetians to control the Adriatic salt trade.

The Venetians began to construct salt works on their own lagoon, and around 1028, we find the Doge of Venice giving permission for Chioggia to build more salines on the Venetian lagoon. However, it turned out that it was not as easy to build salt works in the relatively exposed, storm-prone lagoon of Venice as it had been at Comacchio, and it took a long time before salt production became really successful at Chioggia. Meanwhile, the city of Cervia, south of Ravenna, filled the salt production vacuum left by the destruction of Comacchio and Cervia was in full production at least by 965- 975 AD.

Around 1180, it was clear that Cervia and Chioggia were rivals for salt production, under the protection of Ravenna and Venice respectively. The Archbishop of Ravenna and the Doge of Venice now began exerting political pressure on the Adriatic salt market. Venice declared it illegal for Chioggia salt to be sold or shipped without a Venetian certificate, and Ravenna did the same for Cervia. The salt market was now out of the hands of merchants and in the hands of the politicians and the Catholic church. By 1234, war between Venice and Ravenna ended with a ban on any Ravenna (Cervia) salt being shipped northward, and Venetian galleys enforced the treaty

Then, the Venetians went one logical step further: for all practical purposes they gave up trying to be salt producers, and instead concentrated on being (monopoly) salt traders. Between 1250 and 1280, they came more and more to be the dominant buyers of salt, which they then warehoused, shipped and sold. By the 1350s, no salt could move on a ship in the Adriatic unless it was a Venetian ship bound to or from Venice.

Dorsoduro salt warehouse, Venice

A golden rule of Venetian policy was that all trade goods under their control must pass through Venice. As late as 1590 they were making an 81% mark-up on salt sold inland. But that was not always the case, sometimes, if it would foster trade in higher-value goods that would yield more profit, Venice sold salt at less than normal rates. All this activity was planned and supervised by a special State body, the Collegio del Sal. The rewards were staggering, and help to justify the tenacity and ruthlessness with which the Venetians operated the salt business. Typically, Venetian merchants bought salt for 1 ducat a ton, and it cost them about 3 ducats a ton to ship it to Venice. There they received a State subsidy of 8 ducats a ton. The State collected a tax as the salt left Venice, and after shipping to the customer, the selling price was roughly 33 ducats a ton. That was a profit worth fighting for! And it was not only the merchants who profited. Some of the State profits went to the architecture, sculpture, and paintings that remain today and make Venice so magnificent and help explain why it attached so many Renaissance artisans.

The Venetians had different methods for maintaining their trading monopoly. On the island of Pag, they would buy up all the salt that was not needed locally. It would then be shipped to Venice, warehoused and sold (at very high prices) to customers. At Muggia and Capodistria, the Venetians were given a fraction (about 10%) of the salt produced (presumably as protection money), but the locals were allowed to sell the other 90% only as long as it was carried overland, effectively limiting its value and the sales area.

As late as 1578, the Venetians destroyed the salt works at Trieste, and in the following twenty years were making an 80% profit on salt sold inland on the Lombardy plain. But around 1600, paradoxically with the defeat of the Turks at sea, shipping intensity in the Adriatic became too great for the Venetians to be able to maintain their monopoly by force. Their source of riches in the spice trade had also been cut off as the trade routes to India now passed around Africa, and so their shipping power and wealth declined.

Salt and wealth in inland Europe and the UK

Much of the salt supply of inland central and northern Europe came from the mining of shallowly buried ancient salt (Permian - Zechstein) or associated brines. The great salt extraction centre at Reichenhall, in southern Bavaria, was first operated in Roman times, but was destroyed later, possibly by Attila the Hun, but more likely by the German Odoacer. It was rebuilt in the early 7th Century by Saint Rupert of Salzburg and became the concession of the Bishop of Salzburg, who derived a great deal of power and money from the salt trade. So mother Church promoted the “salt bishops” to Archbishops. About 1190, however, a competing salt works had opened at nearby Berchtesgaden, without the Archbishop’s approval, and a major quarrel between Church and State erupted, with the Archbishop and the Emperor in conflict. The Church lost, and in 1198 the Bavarian saltworks passed into the control of the Duke of Bavaria. Reichenhall’s production peaked at about this time, and it later lost out in competition with a new salt works opened to the south by the persistent Archbishops of Salzburg. During that time it remained an important salt centre for several hundred more years and, even today, derives income from geotourism and from the therapeutic salt baths of Heilbaden.

Thwarted in Bavaria, the Archbishop of Salzburg turned to salt springs closer by, and so a new salt industry sprang up at Hallein, first mentioned in documents in 1232. By 1300 its production had outstripped that of Reichenhall, and as it was situated closer to the Danube, it was able to ship salt as far as Bohemia, as well as into Austria and Bavaria. The Archbishop gradually bought up shares in Hallein, and by the early 16th century he held them all. However, the crown of Bohemia passed into the Habsburg family, and from the early 1600s, the great market of Bohemia was closed to the Archbishop. The other Austrian salt works were small at first. In the Salzkammergut, salt springs emerged from horizontal tunnels in the valley sides, which, although the locals did not know it, were the ancient galleries into the old flooded salt mines that had been worked in prehistoric times. The salt works at Hall, in the Tyrol, provided a power base for its owners, who were the local Hapsburg Dukes from 1363. The Dukes would sell salt to the Swiss, then use the profits to pay for the Hapsburg campaigns against the Swiss!

Saint Rupertus of Salzburg, depicted with a salt barrel at his feet. In the early 7th century Saint Rupert is credited by the Catholic Church with establishing the regions first salt mines, which would become a source of the city’s great wealth and grandeur in later centuries. As the city prospered, wealth from salt mining enabled the arts to flourish. Today, however, the influence of salt (”White gold”) on the city’s growth and prosperity has been all but forgotten. Instead, Salzburg is celebrated as an elegant city of music, the birthplace of Mozart and, more recently, the backdrop of the perennially popular movie The Sound of Music.

Salt production was always limited in Austria by shortages of fuel needed to extract salt by boiling brines. As the boiling houses consumed the local timber, they had to be moved, and fuel was a problem in salt manufacture in this region until modern times and the advent of highly mechanised mining operations. In 1770 there were purpose-built flumes running down the mountain sides, used not for water supply but to float down billets of timber for the boiling houses. Since fuel ran out at Hallstatt very early, the Emperor built a wooden pipeline to take the brine from the ancient mines down the valley to Ischland, on the way it crossed the Gosau Valley via a purpose-built bridge. Salt continued to play a significant role in the politics of the region after 1600, when it was produced by three major players, Austria, Bavaria, and the Archbishop of Salzburg. The Austrian Empire grew to include Bohemia and Moravia, and this salt-less region became a captive market for the Austrian salt producers, with substantial tax revenue accruing to the Habsburg Emperor. Salt production was considered a state monopoly and Salzmonopol was considered “the brightest jewel in the possession of the Hofkammer.” By 1700 it provided some 10% of the total revenue of the state.

In times of military emergency the Habsburgs would regularly use the salt income as collateral for raising money quickly. They did it first when Bohemia revolted in 1618 in the Defenestration of Prague, and Protestant forces besieged Vienna. Emperor Ferdinand II mortgaged his salt revenues to pay for the Catholic army that saved Vienna and won the decisive battle of the White Mountain in 1620. Salt revenue from the Wieliczka salt mine paid the Polish army under King John Sobieski when it rescued Vienna from the Turkish siege of 1683. Interestingly, the Wieliczka salt revenue had earlier passed to the Habsburgs in return for their assistance to the Poles in the Swedish invasion of 1657. Salt was also a state monopoly in Bavaria. Both Austria and Bavaria sought to promote their own salt exports and protect their domestic markets from salt imports, hence there was a flourishing trade in contraband salt.

In 1611 the Archbishop of Salzburg was forced to market his salt through Bavaria, so the rivalry now had only two players. Given that Austria and Bavaria between them controlled all the major salt sources in Central Europe, it is difficult to understand why they did not cooperate to form a cartel. A brief agreement, the Rosenheimer Salt Trade Agreement, was set up in 1649, but lasted for only 40 years. The centrepiece of Bavarian foreign policy became a campaign to sell salt effectively to her western neighbours, given that Austria could sell hers throughout the growing Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is not a coincidence that Bavaria consistently fought on the French side against the Austrians in the War of the Spanish Succession in the early 1700s and during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.

On the British mainland, Mary Queen of Scots was perhaps the first head of state to have the idea of making salt a taxable source of governmental revenue. She granted a patent to an Italian to make salt in Scotland and then placed a heavy tax on it, which she appropriated to herself. Elizabeth, Queen of England, and Mary’s lifelong “dear sister” and eventual executioner, thought this an excellent idea and likewise taxed English salt making. Salt tax was a source of great resentment to everyone, English and Scots alike, and smuggling grew to alarming proportions. In 1785, the Earl of Dundonald wrote that every year in England, 10,000 people were arrested for salt smuggling. During Queen Anne’s reign, the salt tax rose to £30 a ton, an enormous amount of money in those days. The whole of England arose in rioting protest, with the result that the salt tax was finally abolished.


In Burgundy in the 1700s, salt was taxed at more than 100% as it came from the salt-works. This tax was extended to the whole of France when Burgundy was absorbed and the notorious salt tax “la gabelle” became a necessary input to the government’s finances. Cardinal Richelieu said that salt was as vital to France as American silver was to Spain. The repeal of the salt tax was a major goal of the revolutionaries of 1789. A few years later, as soon as he became Emperor, Napoleon restored the salt tax to pay for his foreign wars. Until 1945, a salt tax continued to feed French government coffers.

Gandhi on the salt march.

It is said that income from a salt pan in southern Spain largely financed Columbus’ voyages. Likewise, the Erie Canal, an engineering marvel that connected the Great Lakes to New York’s Hudson River in 1825, was called “the ditch that salt built” as salt taxes paid for half of the cost of construction. The “Great Hedge of India,” the mid-18th century colonial equivalent of the Great Wall of China, stretched 3,700 km from the western border of Punjab down to the Bay of Bengal. It was manned by 12,000 men and planted by the British to minimise salt smuggling into Bengal and so enforce the collection of the Indian salt tax. As late as the 1940s the people of India under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi protested British taxes on salt supply. In 1930 Gandhi led a 200-mile march to the Arabian Ocean to symbolically collect untaxed salt for India’s poor.

Surface expression of salt collapse dolines (chimneys) in the town of Northwich, Cheshire, UK. The rate and intensity of collapse was enhanced by the widespread use of (wild brine) extraction methods in the flourishing salt industry. A) 1891 collapse of the office block on Castle St. B) 1917 collapse of the road adjacent to Dane Bridge.