On the surface, Aruba's history looks to have followed the same patterns as the histories of other Caribbean islands. But the location and unique climate of Aruba caused its history to be truly one of a kind. Similarities between Aruba and other Caribbean nations include its European colonial past and injustice to its native people, but essentially end there.
The native Arawak tribe on Aruba, known as the Caquetios, lived a relatively peaceful existence, but one also very separated from the other Caribbean islands. The natives were more closely tied to the mainland of South America due to the problems they encountered traveling between other islands and Aruba in man-powered canoes. Aruba's association with the mainland began due to the strength of the currents that forced travelers south.
When the Spanish came to Aruba in 1499, Alonso de Ojeda took the island as a colony. Aruba had its fair share of visits by pirates and buccaneers who sailed the high seas and stashed their finds in the island's caves, but the Spanish found little of interest there. Their only economic action was to ship many of the Arawak natives to Hispaniola as slaves for the mines.
The Dutch took possession of Aruba in 1636, near the end of the 80-year war between Spain and Holland and at the end of the 1600s, the Dutch began efforts to colonize it. Because of the arid climate and poor soil, agriculture never truly developed, and slavery never truly took hold, though the Dutch used the Arawaks to graze livestock (the meat of which was then sent to other Dutch Caribbean colonies). During the Napoleonic Wars, the British took hold of the island, but their reign was short, lasting from 1805 through 1816.
A short while later, in 1824, Aruba experienced its first economic boom due to the discovery of gold. The island's initial industry held the economy high until the mines stopped prospering in 1916.
Fortunately for the Arubans, this wasn't the only kind of gold that could be mined here. Black gold - oil - became their new top economic priority. In 1929, Exxon built what was then the world's largest oil refinery in the city of San Nicolas. Over the course of time, two oil refineries were built on the island: Eagle Oil Refinery on the western side and Lago Oil & Transport Company on the eastern side.
This, too, came to an end when Eagle Oil Company was dismantled in the 1950's. Then, in 1985, Exxon closed its refinery due to a drop in worldwide demand for oil. Aruba was forced to search for a new direction for its economy. The year 1991 heralded the re-opening of the Exxon facility by the Coastal Oil Company, bolstered by the success of Aruba's other industry - tourism.
When all else failed, Aruba turned to tourism. Until 1959, almost all of Aruba's tourism came via cruise ship. Aruba's first cruise arrived just two years earlier, and the industry sprang up quickly. In 1959, the first luxury hotel opened on Aruba, and for the next 28 years additional hotels formed the backbone of the island's economy.
The government recognized the possible revenue available through tourism, and has supported the creation of many hotels and tourist-oriented businesses. Recently, Aruba's tourism has shown a constant increase. Additionally, entrepreneurs looking to establish new industrial enterprises, tourism projects, and off-shore companies can take advantage of a variety of attractive incentives.
While Aruba was developing its economy, it was also developing a culture and a country all its own. During the 1940s, Aruba began to resent its place behind Curaçao among the Netherlands Antilles, and the population began to ask for autonomy. This continued for 40 years until 1986 when Aruba finally became an autonomous state within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In 1996, economic problems associated with the closure of the gold mines and oil refineries forced Aruba to set aside plans for complete independence despite the help of tourist growth.
The peaceful island of Aruba may not quite be its own nation, but it is clear that its people are truly developing a culture that can hold its own, and an economy that will continue to support the tiny island.
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