Walking along a cobblestone road in the small Caribbean country of Curaçao, past a row of colorful Dutch-style homes, you might hear a few words in Dutch, another few in Spanish. Then a phrase in Portuguese and another in English.
How did this delightful mesh of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and African cultures end up on a small island in the Caribbean? Here’s our look at a slice of Curaçao history.
Caiquetios and Spaniards
It starts more than 6,000 years ago, when the first known inhabitants of Curaçao, the Amerindian Arawaks, migrated north from South America and settled on islands all around the Caribbean. The ones that called Curaçao home were the Caiquetios. They lived there for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived.
It’s not clear which European arrived there first, but there are records from the 1500s of both the Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda and the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who were on a charting voyage together, stopping at the island.
(People might tell you a little story about a group of sailors on this voyage who came down with scurvy and were unloaded at Curaçao to lighten the load. Upon the ship’s return, the sailors were happy and well, cured by the island’s Vitamin-C filled fruits. Who’s to say if it really happened, but there’s definitely a whole lot of delicious tropical fruits on the island, so it’s not a hard sell.)
Soon Spaniards began arriving in Curaçao in higher numbers, likely in search for gold. When they didn’t find any they, called it an isla inutil, which literally translates to useless island. Instead, they started shipping off natives to other Caribbean islands as slaves, beginning the nation’s long history with the slave trade.
The Dutch arrive
In 1634, the Dutch attacked the Spaniards on Curaçao and gained control of the island, control which they maintain today (In 2010, the island was granted autonomy from the Dutch government. Today it’s a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which means it’s a country that’s a part of another larger entity.) Editor’s note: This paragraph has been updated to correct the year Curaçao gained autonomy.
The Dutch built plantations and intended to establish the island as an agricultural hub, growing peanuts, maize, and fruit. But their real money maker was salt production, which was dried from the saline ponds found around the island. That is, until the slave trade began.
Parts of the main town, Willemstad were built in 1634, starting with the construction of the colorful, waterfront area, Punda. The area is preserved well, and in 1997 Willemstad and the harbor it rests on were designated a World Heritage City by UNESCO — something the locals are very proud of.
Outside the city, Dutch residents who moved to Curaçao home built sprawling plantations with large main homes, smaller surrounding slave homes, and farmland.
The slave trade, rebellion, and freedom
For two centuries, beginning in 1639 after the Dutch defeat of the Portuguese in Ghana, Curaçao became a hub of the brutal global slave trade.
The Dutch West India Company was one of the leading suppliers of slaves to the Spanish, Portuguese, British, French, Danish and American plantation owners throughout the region. During this time, the country’s language, papiamentu — a melodic mix of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and African dialects — began to form. (Learn a few phrases in the video below! Dushi is an especially useful word to know.)
Also around this time, Jewish families also made their way to Curaçao. Many were Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal who had fled the Inquisitions, settling first in Holland and northern Brazil before making Curaçao their home. In 1732, the Jewish community, which had grown to 2,000, built the Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue in Willemstad, which is now the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere that is still in continuous use.
In 1795, a slave known as Tula and 40 other brave slaves led a revolt, refusing to work on the plantation and demanding freedom from their Dutch masters. A month later, Tula was captured and brutally tortured, and many of the other slaves were killed. While freedom would not arrive for 70 years, his rebellion planted the seeds of freedom in Curaçao, and it’s commemorated in a statue along the waterfront in Willemstad.
In 1863, slavery was abolished, and Dutch industry on the island subsequently suffered for more than a century – until 1920 when oil was discovered off of the coast of Venezuela. Curaçao became a center for distilling Venezuela’s crude oil. A large refinery still runs at the center of the island.
Curaçao today is a product of this long history, embracing the diverse elements that make it a multicultural and textured country, while also paying homage to parts of its painful past. We think exploring Curaçao history is a vital part of seeing and understanding the island.