Curaçao is one of the largest and most prosperous islands in the Lesser Antilles. It evolved from an uncharted land mass in the Caribbean to a large mercantile center of commerce. As a part of the ABC islands, Curaçao has its own unique history, which makes it an intriguing place to visit.
The history of the magnificent island of Curaçao starts with accounts of the Arawak Indians, who inhabited the island long before it was found by Christopher Columbus. The Arawaks and their subgroups came to the Caribbean from South America about 6,000 years ago in 2500 B.C. and settled on different islands that they discovered while on their northbound voyage. Curaçao was named after the Caiquetios, the group of Arawaks who settled on the island after leaving Venezuela around 500 A.D.
Columbus put the Caribbean on the map in the late 15th century and paved the way for European exploration. The first explorers to arrive in Curaçao were the Spanish soldier Alonso de Ojeda and the famous Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. The two voyagers set out on their quest between 1499 and 1500 to map the South American coast and various offshore islands, including Curaçao.
Some say that a number of sailors aboard de Ojeda's and Vespucci's ship were dropped off on Curaçao when they came down with scurvy, but this information has been the subject of much dispute. When the pair of explorers returned to the island almost a year later, they found that the sailors they had left behind were in good health, apparently cured by the abundance of Vitamin C on the island. Here then it is said that the explorers named the island Curaçao, after the archaic Portuguese word for "cure." But Vespucci was Italian, and de Ojeda was Spanish, so it's more likely that the island was named Corazón, which is the Spanish word for "heart," and that later the name was converted to the Portuguese spelling. The historical accuracy the European naming of Curacao is somewhat questionable, but makes for an interesting story about the island, if not more.
After de Ojeda and his crew arrived on Curaçao, more Spanish explorers flocked to the island. But by the beginning of the 16th century, they realized that the island didn't have enough fresh water to sustain large scale farms and that there was little to no gold on the island. As a result, the Spanish abandoned Curaçao, claiming it was useless. Although the island remained under Spanish control, Curaçao was mostly uninhabited until the Dutch West India Company, which was a government-backed company in Holland, seized it in 1634.
The Dutch government instated the explorer Peter Stuyvesant as governor of the island in 1642. Stuyvesant soon began establishing plantations on the island with the famous landhuizen structures, which were the popular plantation houses of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many landhuizen plantation houses are still around today. They are popular tourist attractions well worth checking out because they are a great part of Curaçao's history.
The plantations that were established on Curaçao cultivated various crops, but many plantations were successful in growing fruits, maize, and peanuts. The settlers soon found that the most prosperous industry on the island was salt, which farmers harvested and dried from the island's saline ponds.
With the island's central location and the natural harbor's deep ports and protected shores, Curaçao was the perfect place for the Dutch to set up several large forts. The island soon became a safe haven for the Dutch West India Company to conduct their trade. The island's strategic position and deep port caught the attention of the British and French in the early 18th century, who immediately went into predatory mode, each trying to control the islands with the best trade routes and highly profitable sugar plantations.
Curaçao became involved in the slave trade in 1639 when the Dutch West India Company requested to import slaves from Africa. In 1732, the Dutch West India Company granted private merchants the right to participate in the slave trade. During the slave trade, the Papiamentu language took form. This dialect is a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and African languages, and was the primary means of communication between slaves and slave owners.
The slaves endured harsh treatment and inhumane living conditions on Curaçao. From 1750 to 1751, the slaves at Hato Plantation established an uprising against their masters, but the slave population on Curaçao peaked at 12,804 in 1789. By 1795, the island saw the largest slave revolt at the Kenepa Plantation.
Although the British had very little success in completely taking over Curaçao, they managed to steal the island away from the Dutch twice. The island fell under British rule from 1800 to 1803 and then again from 1807 to 1815. The British attacks destabilized the Dutch island, and at one point, Curaçao was even leased to a merchant from New York. Then in 1815, the Treaty of Paris returned Curaçao to the Dutch West India Company. Almost 50 years later, the island's slaves were emancipated. This spelled disaster for the island's plantation-based economy, which was already experiencing a great decline.
In 1920, oil was discovered off the coast of Venezuela, and Curaçao soon became one of the centers for distilling the crude oil that was imported from Venezuela. With the opening of the oil refinery on the island, oil-related industries became the mainstay of the economy, and Curaçao's Royal Dutch Shell Refinery became the island's biggest employer. Curaçao's booming economy attracted immigrants from all over the Caribbean, South America, and Asia.
Once a part of the Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao became an independent nation under the Kingdom of the Netherlands on October 10, 2010. After several years of voting and continually pushing back the date of independence, it finally came to be that Curaçao would govern itself. The people of Curaçao hope to use newly freed up tax dollars to promote tourism, thus pumping more money into the economy and improving the lives of the islanders.
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