History of Curacao
The earliest inhabitants probably emigrated from Venezuela around 2500 BC. The oldest archaeological site from this period is in the limestone terraces behind the airport. Here archaeologists have found simple tools made of stone and shells, as well as some of the oldest Indian remains ever found in the Caribbean. Around 500 B.C., the Caiquetío Indians - who spoke the same language as the Arawak Indians - probably also came to Curaçao from Venezuela. They lived in stilt houses and made jewelry, pottery, and tools from shells, stones, and bones. Spread across the island six such villages have been excavated, namely at present-day Kenepa, Santa Cruz, San Hironimo, San Juan, De Savaan and Santa Barbara (at present these sites are not open to the public). Their petroglyphs are well preserved and can be easily seen at Christoffel Park and Hato Caves.
When the Spaniards arrived, it is estimated that about 2,000 Caiquetío Indians lived on Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. According to legend, the rather small Spaniards were impressed by the height of the Indians, so they initially called Curaçao la isla de los gigantes ("the island of giants").
The Spanish Conquest
The first Europeans on Curaçao were probably a group of Spanish explorers, who set foot with the mariner Alonso de Ojeda - a lieutenant at sea to Christopher Columbus - in May 1499, although historians disagree on whether they actually landed. In September of the same year, the renowned seafarer Amerigo Vespucci set foot on the island along with Juan de la Cosa. He was the first European to give a description of the island.
By 1526, the Spanish had set up their legal government and remained in power for 125 years. From Curaçao they also governed neighboring Bonaire, where they established a large salt mine (still in operation), and Aruba.
Another legacy is their religion. Unlike the Protestant settlers from Europe, such as the Dutch, the Spanish were fervently committed to saving the souls of the peoples they subjugated. Even after the Dutch took the island, Spanish priests continued to fanatically convert slaves and their descendants to Catholicism, with the result that Curaçao is one of the few places outside of Africa where the majority of the black population is Catholic.
The Dutch trade
Eager as they were to secure a share in trade with the New World - which was largely in Spanish hands - Dutch merchants founded a trading company: the West India Company (WIC). (A similar company, the East India Company, had brought Indonesia under Dutch rule.) The Dutch were very interested in the salt flats on Curaçao and Bonaire because they needed large quantities of salt to preserve fish. The main reason the WIC was interested in the island, however, were its natural features: a protected deep-water harbor, which made an ideal naval base, and its strategic location near the South American mainland.
The Dutch conquered Curaçao quite easily. On 29 July 1634 Johan van Walbeeck sailed into St. Anna Bay with a small fleet and only a few hundred men. The Spaniards offered very little resistance: they made water wells unusable and burned their villages. The Dutch deported the Spaniards to the mainland along with some 400 Indians, about 75 of whom stayed behind as laborers.
As long as the Eighty Years' War between the Netherlands and Spain raged, Curaçao was primarily a naval base. The first permanent structure was the simple Waterfort, built in 1634 at the entrance to the harbor near Punda. Later, the larger Fort Amsterdam was built with the headquarters of the director of the WIC, who became the local administrator. To this day, Fort Amsterdam is the seat of government.
When the Netherlands and Spain signed the Treaty of Munster in 1648, Curaçao became less important as a naval base and the island developed into a trading center. Less than fifty years after the Dutch conquered Curaçao, they declared the island a free port and began to promote trade throughout the area. Pretty soon, bustling activity developed in the natural deep-water harbor. From the mid-17th century, Curaçao was the centerpiece of the Dutch trading empire in the Western Hemisphere.
Prosperous Dutch and Jewish merchants conducted a thriving trade with nearby South America, although this trade was officially prohibited by Spain.
The French and the English
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, rival European nations fought their economic and political power struggles in the Caribbean. But because the Dutch had their fortresses well secured, Curaçao had little to fear from piracy, which was common in the rest of the Caribbean during these turbulent times. Nevertheless, French and English adventurers made several more attempts to conquer the island.
The Slave Trade
The Dutch soon played a prominent role in the international slave trade. The WIC took over the main Portuguese trading posts on the west coast of Africa, bought up enslaved Africans and transported them to Curaçao and Brazil, where they were sold to wealthy plantation owners from all over the New World. Curaçao became one of the largest slave depots in the Caribbean.
Relatively few African slaves remained on Curaçao. As a result of the dry climate, there were never any large-scale plantations on the island.
The largest slave revolt on Curaçao began on August 17, 1795, when some fifty slaves, led by Tula and Carpata, revolted on the Kenepa plantation. Later, more than a thousand other slaves from nearby plantations joined them. The leaders were inspired on the one hand by reports of large slave uprisings elsewhere in the Caribbean, and on the other by the ideals of freedom of the French Revolution and the recently obtained independence of Haiti-the first country in the world whose majority population was black.
Eventually the leaders were captured and executed at the Rif, behind the present Holiday Beach Hotel. A small park with a statue in memory is located on this spot today.
When slavery was abolished in 1863, nearly 7,000 people regained their freedom. For many enslaved Curaçaoans, however, freedom consisted merely of a formal declaration. Most continued to work in the fields as sharecroppers, according to a system known on the island as the "paga tera" (pay for the piece of land). Over time, some freed Negroes established themselves as independent artisans and local traders. As the freed slaves and their descendants left the countryside, they created a dynamic urban culture in the narrow alleys of Otrobanda.
The 20th-century development
The discovery of large oil fields in Venezuela at the beginning of this century transformed Curaçao in a few years from "an ailing island" - as the Dutch had come to call it - to a bustling, cosmopolitan center. The rich Venezuelan oil fields lay in a bay that was not deep enough for large overseas oil tankers, but they were close to Curaçao's natural deep-water harbor.
Royal Dutch Shell began construction of a large oil refinery in 1915, and its commissioning in 1918 marked a complete change for Curaçao.
The island became an international center overnight, and the independent artisans turned into an unadulterated working class. Thousands of immigrants came from the Caribbean and even all the way from Portugal to work in the refinery. The population suddenly increased dramatically, as did the prosperity of the refinery workers. This was a boost to virtually every segment of the economy, ranging from commerce to construction.
After the Second World War
The prosperity continued until after World War II. Since all of Europe was occupied or under siege, almost all of the fuel for the Allied planes came from the refinery on Curaçao, which was Dutch after all. American soldiers were stationed here to protect the precious fuel, while German submarines lurked in the surrounding waters.
As a result of the increased political and economic independence enjoyed by the islands during the war, the Netherlands Antilles was granted autonomous status within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1954. For the first time in history, an independent government was installed in the Netherlands Antilles, whose members were elected by the people. Each island also established its own government. Nevertheless, to this day the islands belong to the Netherlands, which is responsible for defense and foreign policy.