Posted in: history by bill-o on March 14, 2010

This month is the 80th anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi‘s March to the Sea or Salt March, which occurred March 12 to April 5, 1930. Gandhi and 78 other men made the historic 390-km or 240-mile march down to the ocean in order to perform a simple act: To boil off salt from sea water. Gandhi’s act of mass civil disobedience eventually led to the arrest of 60,000 people on charges of failing to pay the British salt tax. In spite of the skepticism of other leaders for Indian independence, Gandhi chose to initiate the protest against the salt tax because (1) everyone in India used salt and (2) this tax hurt poor Indians the most.

Salt is a symbol that everyone can understand. It is everywhere and used by everyone. The chemistry of salt is so simple that it is the one chemical molecule, along with water, that most of us will remember from chemistry class: NaCl. Unlike precious metals and jewels, like gold or diamonds, salt is for everyday use. And unlike water, a very small portion of salt (i.e. a “pinch of salt”) is useful, whereas water is heavy and cumbersome to transport.

Take a closer look at the phrase “table salt”: Salt is so common, it is found on every dining table, the place of communion for family and friends. Is there any other substance that is given such an honor? Even the word “table” here implies that the grade of salt is good enough to be eaten by people. And to further the symbolism of communion: Unlike the plate, knife, spoon, and fork, the salt shaker is shared by everyone at the table.

Eighty years later, salt is still a potent symbol: To free something that is shared by everyone is a symbol of bringing freedom to everyone.