The Historical Crossroads of Curaçao

by Ray Roman | Last updated on January 12, 2024

Curaçao stands as a pivotal historical cornerstone within the Netherlands Antilles. Its grand natural harbor charted before the 16th century, turned the island into a thriving hub for mercantile trade.

As the birthplace of the unique creole language Papiamentu and the namesake of the world-renowned blue liqueur, Curaçao’s influence extends well beyond its shores.

History of Curacao
History of Curacao

The Island’s Formative Years

Native Roots: The Arawaks and Caiquetios

Curaçao’s story stretches back 6,000 years with the Arawaks and their subgroups, who ventured from South America and settled across the Caribbean.

Curaçao was christened by the Caiquetios, one such subgroup, solidifying its place in the archipelago’s diverse cultural landscape.

European Engagement and Naming Mysteries

The end of the 15th century witnessed the Caribbean’s inclusion on world maps, courtesy of Christopher Columbus’s expeditions, thereby launching an era of European exploration.

In the subsequent years, Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci journeyed to chart the coastal regions and islands, including Curaçao.

The Colorful Lore Behind Curaçao’s Name

Rife with intrigue, one anecdote tells of sailors, afflicted by scurvy, who found respite on the island, leading to its name from an old Portuguese word for ‘cure.’

While this tale remains debatable, the more plausible explanation is the Spanish naming the island ‘Curazon’ for ‘heart,’ later adapted to ‘Curaçao’ by Portuguese cartographers.

The Dutch Era: A New Direction

Spanish Disinterest Turns Dutch Opportunity

The Spanish, after realizing Curaçao’s scarcity of gold and fresh water, forsook the island in the early 1500s. It wasn’t until 1634 when the Dutch West India Company seized the opportunity, declaring the island its territory.

Governance and Agriculture under Dutch Rule

With Peter Stuyvesant’s appointment as governor in 1642, plantations sprang up, famed for their landhuizen—historical structures still standing today. Though attempts at agriculture experienced ups and downs, the salt harvested from Curaçao’s ponds became a lucrative venture.

From Mercantile Might to the Engine of Slavery

Curaçao’s deep, sheltered harbors and formidable forts transformed it into the Dutch West India Company’s stronghold for safe trade, most infamously, the transatlantic slave trade. It was during this dark period that Papiamentu emerged as the lingua franca among the African slaves and their Dutch captors.

Jewish Refuge and Cultural Synthesis

Jewish families seeking sanctuary from the Inquisition found a new home on Curaçao, establishing a community that erected the Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue in 1732, one of the longest-standing synagogues in use in the Western Hemisphere.

Battles, Oil, and Autonomy

A Turbulent 18th Century

Curaçao’s valuable port made it a target during the 1700s, leading to temporary British and French occupations. However, the 1815 Treaty of Paris returned the island to the Dutch West India Company.

The Black Gold Revolution

The discovery of oil off the Venezuelan coast in 1920 heralded a new epoch for Curaçao. The Royal Dutch Shell Refinery became the island’s economic powerhouse, attracting a diverse influx of immigrants and solidifying Curaçao’s strategic importance, as evidenced by the American military base established during World War II.

The Winds of Change: Seeking Independence

Post-war Curaçao, like much of the Caribbean, yearned for independence. Instead, it was granted autonomy within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, forming the Netherlands Antilles with an administrative hub in Willemstad. Aruba later splits from this group, resulting in the three-partner kingdom we see today—The Netherlands, the Netherlands Antilles, and Aruba.