When the Netherland Antilles officially disappeared as a political entity on October 10, 2010 Curaçao gained the status of autonomous country within the Dutch Kingdom. It was the latest development in the formulation of the self-governance that the Dutch Parliament ostensibly awarded its Caribbean colonies back in 1954, adding Curaçao and Sint Maarten to the fold of countries in the world and, just like that, elevating the two islands to the same level as Aruba, which has been an autonomous country since 1986. Thus, it could be said that Curaçao is not even one year old –and yet, this new-born baby’s cultural heritage counts among the most fascinating and diverse in the entire region.
Even geologically, Curaçao –together with Bonaire and Aruba– stand out from the rest of the Caribbean islands, as it sits, not on the volcanic arc of the atoll, but rather on the South American plate, roughly 40 miles north of the Paraguaná peninsula in Venezuela. Indeed, at the time of the European arrival in Curaçao, the island was inhabited by Amerindians from the Caiquetio tribe, a branch of the Arawak ethnic group, which ruled over the entire peninsula on the mainland and whose people were, seemingly, mighty tall. That is why Alonso de Ojeda, the ruthless conquistador who first sighted the island in 1499, called it “The Island of the Giants” when he claimed it for the Spanish crown. Or, at least, so the story goes.
Either way, Spain found little interest for an arid territory with few riches, and in 1513 declared Curaçao a “useless island”. Interest returned, however, roughly a decade later, when Juan Martínez de Ampíes, Regidor of Santo Domingo, was given Royal License to repopulate the area, including the Paraguaná peninsula. Ampíes and, subsequently, his son-in-law, Lazaro Bejarano, a roguish poet who was trialed and chastised by the Holy Inquisition, governed Curaçao at least until 1565. By then the population of the island had waned considerably and, indeed, it would not be until the emergence of a rivaling European power that Curaçao would be of any relevance at all. But after the Dutch West India Company established the colony of New Amsterdam (later New York) in 1624, and seized the settlement of Pernambuco, in Brazil, from Portugal in 1630, they sought a middle point between the two new colonies to facilitate trade. In 1634, the Dutch retaliated to their expulsion from Sint Maarten by conquering Curaçao from the Spaniards, who, it must be said, hardly noticed.
And this is where the true story begins, for if the Dutch craved for a middle point between Pernambucco and New Amsterdam it was not for nothing: soon enough Curaçao became a major trading post, central in the triangular trade chain, where slaves were nurtured, sold and shipped onwards to their final destinations, given that few large plantations existed on the island. From 1634 to 1814, the year of the abolition of the slave trade in the Netherlands, over 110,000 slaves changed hands in Curaçao, even if “only” some 7,000 of them would benefit from the final abolition of slavery in 1863. Still today, the influence of the African Diaspora on the island remains enormous and everywhere to be seen, from the features of the vast majority of the local population, to the boldly irreverent nature of its Carnival celebrations, to the cadence of the indigenous language, Papiamentu.
Which links us nicely with another important ingredient in the concoction that is the cultural heritage of Curaçao, because there is a palpable Portuguese vein to the language, which was likely brought into the island when the influx of Sephardim (Spanish) Jews increased dramatically, after the Portuguese recovered Dutch Brazil in 1654. Always to be found where there was trade and enterprise, the Jewish community, expelled from Spain and welcomed by the Dutch Republic after it declared its independence in 1581, was instrumental in the creation of the Dutch West India Company in 1621 and the emergence of the country as a super power. In Curaçao, they left their footprint as early as 1674 with the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue (rebuilt in 1730), which today is the oldest serving synagogue in the western hemisphere.
Curaçao’s fortunes saw a steady decline from the end of the slave trade until the 1920s, when so much oil was found in the basin of Lake Maracaibo, in Venezuela, that no one knew exactly what to do with it. The decision by Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil was to build refineries in the nearby islands of Aruba and Curaçao, where they might be sheltered from the volatile politics of Latin American countries. Isla refinery in Curaçao soon became one of the biggest in the world, bringing a large influx of Dutch, North American and Caribbean immigrants into the island who blended in one place, Willemstad, to create a thriving society marked by its diversity, where food and traditions from every region imaginable interacted on a daily basis to forge a place where baseball is a passion and mondongo is regarded a delicacy. And yet, it is in the music where we can most appreciate the effects that the melting pot that is Curaçao has conjured. From Afro-Cuban beats to South American rhythms, from merengue to calypso, from the reveries of the Carnival, with Curaçao’s own Tambú, to the lustful twirls brought about by the Salsa Festival, to the heartfelt bravado of the North Sea Jazz Festival, music has carved a place in the lifestyle of the island that goes beyond the commonplace and that demands to be witnessed in full.
Today, Curaçao’s troubled history can be experienced, first hand, in the richness of its culture, in the uniqueness of its style, in the myriad buildings that jump to greet you with exciting tales of years gone by as you stroll down the lanes of Willemstad, eased by the knowledge that the comforts of the most modern technology in the newest country in the world await just around the corner. So enjoy Curaçao, and allow yourself to be enthralled by its magic.
PUBLISHED IN THE 2012 EDITION OF EXPERIENCE CURAÇAO.