History of Curacao


Regarding the origin of the name Curaçao, there are multiple theories. One explanation is that it is derived from the Portuguese word for heart (coração), referring to the island as a centre in trade. Spanish traders took the name over as Curaçao, which was followed by the Dutch. Another explanation is that Curaçao was the name the indigenous peoples of Curaçao had used to label themselves (Joubert and Van Buurt, 1994). This theory is supported by early Spanish travel reports, which refer to the indigenous peoples as "Indios Curaçaos". The name "Curaçao" has become associated with a shade of blue, because of the deep-blue version of the liquer named "Blue Curaçao". Today, locally, the island is known as "Dushi Korsou" (Sweet Curaçao).


(Source: wikipedia)


The earliest traces of human habitation on Curaçao are found in Rooi Rincon. It is a shelter, a natural rock overhang used by the pre-ceramic residents. These Indians were not familiar with pottery. The remains found were heaps of shells, animal bones and stones. The artifacts were made of stone and shell, which could be used for different purposes. There are also petroglyphs present. The dating of the oldest remains of Curacao is between approx. 2900 and 2300 BC. Similar graves and human remains are known from the Mount St. Michael (approx. 2000-1600 BC).

Remnants of pottery from the ceramic period were found at ‘Knip’ and San Juan. The dates are between approx. 450 and 1500 AD. The material belongs to the Dabajuroid culture. These people are called Caquetio. Based on their language these former Indian inhabitants belong to the Arawaks. The Caquetio lived in small settlements with up to approx. 40 inhabitants. The villages were often located near inland bays mainly at the south coast. The later Caquetio lived of fishing, gathering shellfish, hunting small game and small-scale cassava cultivation among others. In addition, they were trading with Indians from other islands and the mainland. Places of residence were found at ‘Knip’ and Santa Barbara.

Scientific interest to the first inhabitants of the Netherlands Antilles started early. The amateur A.J. of Koolwijk already did field reconnaissance in the 19th century. He also made an inventory of petroglyphs on the island. Since then, many have followed in studying the earliest inhabitants of Curaçao.

Spanish perdiod

Curacao was "discovered" by the Spaniard Alonso de Ojeda on 26 July 1499. At that time there were an estimated 2000 Caquetio on the island. In 1515, almost all Caquetio wetre deported to Hispaniola as slaves. The Spaniards finally settled on the island in 1527. The island, however, was controlled from one of the Spanish-Venezuelan cities. The Spanish were importing many exotics to Curacao. Horses, sheep, goats, pigs and cattle were introduced from Europe or the Spanish colonies. Various exotic trees and plants were planted by the Spaniards.

That was often a matter of trial and error. Thus it is that they also got to know and use the crops and farming methods of the Caquetio. Parallels on other Caribbean islands are known from sources. Not all exotic species were imported with much success. The cattle adjusted generally very well, the Spaniards let their livestock run free in the kunuku and on the savannas. The cattle were herded by the Caquetio and the Spanish. Sheep, goats and cows were relatively the best. According to historical sources, there were thousands of them on the island. On the other hand, the agriculture was going much worse. Because the profits of the Curaçao agriculture were disappointing; the salt did not have high yields and no precious metals were located, the Spaniards called the island "isla inutile", a useless island.

Over time, the number of Spaniards living on Curaçao was going down, however the number of Indian residents stabilized. Presumably natural growth, return and colonization made the Caquetio population even grow. During the last decades of the Spanish occupation Curaçao was used as a large Ranch. At that time, the Spaniards were living around Santa Barbara, Santa Ana and in villages on the western part of the island. The Caquetio lived all over the island.

De West India Company

The West India Company (WIC) signed the surrender of the Spaniards at San Juan in August 1634. The approximately 30 Spaniards on the island and much of the Taíno were brought to Venezuela by the Dutch and put ashore. About 30 Taíno families were allowed to  live on the island. The reason for the invasion and conquest was that the WIC was looking for a base for trade and privateering. Curacao’s geographic position was convenient towards the Spanish colonies on the mainland. Also it had the best port known in the Caribbean. Furthermore, the WIC was looking for a good source of salt. On the coast of Venezuela and Bonaire were good salt pans. On Curacao logwood (a raw material for a natural dye), livestock, lime and fuel was plenty available.

After the conquest the WIC consolidated its claims by building fortifications. Because water was vital in 1634-35 a fortress was built at the water on the northeast side of St. Anna Bay. This fort consisted of earthen ramparts with a palisade and several guns. Around the fort pitfalls were installed. In 1635-36 the construction of Fort Amsterdam began at Punda. The first phase was led by Admiral Johan van Walbeek and built in the form of a five-pointed star and consisted of a core of earth and coral. Against this was a shell was built of clay brick with coral. Later this shell was made of masonry.

In the first three years the living conditions were very poor for the people of the WIC. For food and building material it was largely depending on import from Europe. The supply was very irregular and more than 6 months could pass without landing. Result, many stray cattle were caught and slaughtered and other foods were rationed. Water from the source had to be brought to Punda. Soldiers and commanders slept in very basic housing; canvas was stretched on a few poles. Some of the soldiers ware, because of the harsh living conditions, poor food and hard work, but mostly by the monotony and boredom dissatisfied. It seemed that mutiny was on hands, but with increasing the rations and beverage supply it was avoided. Van Walbeek wrote to the Lords XIX and advised to increase salaries and rations as the soldiers were not hired to build fortifications.


The Spaniards were planning to reconquer Curacao from the Dutch. Information on troop strength, fortifications, outposts, food supplies and ammunition were collected in three ways. Indians who lived on Curaçao were abducted and interrogated. WIC-ers who came to get salt on the coast of Venezuela were captured and interrogated. Spaniards finally sent spies to Curacao. Two landing sites were obvious: Piscaderabaai and the Spanish Water. Schottegat was too well defended. The Spaniards carried out their plans and sailed out with a number of ships. These were driven off by a storm and have never reached Curaçao. For the WIC a blessing, since the Spanish forces were stronger and had probably won.

The Lords XIX in Amsterdam were, since 1634, divided over the future of Curacao. The fortifications and troops had been very costly and yields were poor. Still, Curacao was not abandoned, probably more a result of indecision rather than a reasoned one. Over time, Curacao proved its value for WIC. After the loss of Brazil in 1654, Curaçao became increasingly important. Due to its fortunate geographical position trading with Terra Fierme (Venezuela) and other Caribbean islands was possible. They also maintained contact with  colonies in North America, including New Netherlands.

Curaçao's population grew steadily, partly due to the arrival of Sephardic Jews from Brazil. Also, the WIC opened up Curacao to planters; Europeans who wanted to work in agriculture. Even soldiers who had served their time were welcome to stay. Obviously, the goal was to produce enough food for the population of Curacao. Furthermore, the WIC also wanted that planters were growing commercial crops. These included, indigo, cotton, tobacco, Turkish wheat (sorghum) and sugar cane. The oldest gardens (farms) are listed from the beginning of the Dutch presence; the first plantations were built from around 1650. Hato, Savonet, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Piscadera, Great and Little St. George and San Juan are just a few. Part of the plantations remained in possession of the WIC.

Slave trade and free port

WIC started the slave trade in 1665. The slaves were brought in from West Africa to Curaçao, where, after the "middle passage", they could recuperate for some time. The slaves were traded at a place now called Asiento called and on the plantation Zuurzak. Soon this became the main regional slave market. The WIC slaves were delivered at very competitive prices and therefor outpriced English, French and Portuguese slave traders in the market. Slaves were bought by traders and shipped to various destinations in Central and South America. A relatively small proportion of the arrived Africans remained on Curaçao. Most of them ended up on one of the plantations. A portion was bought by traders and craftsmen and remained in the area of ​​Willemstad. Willemstad originated in the second half of the 17th century and was right next to the fort, on the current Punda. In the 18th century they started to build (ware) houses in Otrobanda houses. Because of the free gun lines there were rules associated with the construction of houses on Otrobanda.

Curaçao was made a free port in 1674 and  therefore obtained a key position in international trade networks. Partly because of this, Curaçao was one of the wealthiest islands in the Caribbean in the 17th century. This led to bad blood with other powers, like Britain and France. Thus in 1713, Curaçao was temporarily besieged by the French merchant captain Jacques Cassard, who eventually left after he was paid off. Cassard had caused a lot of damage to the inhabitants of the island. Extensive lists of itemized damages have been preserved in the OAC in the National Archives in The Hague.

In the 18th century Curaçao attempted to consolidate its trade position. Trade in Venezuela and other Spanish colonies, however, was prevented by the Spanish coastguard. They had been specially appointed to halt the illegal trade in tobacco and cocoa from Venezuela. The British and French were increasing their position in the Caribbean. Because of these factors the status of  Curaçao decreased in importance. Another reason was that Curaçao proved not to be suitable for large-scale cultivation of sugar cane, cotton, tobacco and other tropical plantation crops. Attempts to make the large-scale cultivation work were stopped in the 17th and early 18th century. Other islands, like Barbados, did have substantial revenues generated by plantation agriculture. The agriculture of the island focused on food for their own people. Nevertheless, a portion of the food was imported. Slave trade remained the main source of income for Curacao, not least because of the competitive prices of slaves.

Dutch Colony

Map of Curaçao in 1836

After the bankruptcy of the WIC in 1791 Curaçao became a real Dutch colony of. Instead of being a possesion of a consortium of private shareholders of the WIC, Curaçao became a part of the kingdom. In 1795 the slaves on Curaçao rebelled. The uprising was led by Tula, a slave who plays a central role in the history of Curaçao. Tthe uprising was beaten down after a short period. In 1800, Curaçao was occupied by the British, who in 1803 were driven away by locals. In 1807 the English captured the island again. Since 1816 Curaçao is under Dutch control. To reduce administrative costs, the West Indies in 1828 reduced to one colony, under control of a Governor-General in Paramaribo. In 1845 the colonies were seperated, since control from Suriname was not working. From that year on  there were two West Indies:
• Suriname
• Curacao and Dependencies (consisting of both the Windward and the Leeward Islands)

In 1830 the English banned the international slave trade. This led to economically unattractiveness of the slave trade. In 1863 slavery was abolished in Curaçao. The local economy fell into the doldrums. Many former slaves found it difficult to provide in their on Curaçao livelihood needs. Local residents emigrated in large numbers to places like Cuba to work in sugar plantations. 

Until the early twentieth century Curaçao lived off trade, agriculture and fishing. The economic tide turned in 1914 when large oil reserves were discovered in Venezuela. Immediately Shell established an oil refinery on the island. The refinery was situated at Asiento - which was previously used for the trading in slaves. During the Second World War, the island played an important role in the supply of fuel to allied troops.

Together with the other Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao obtained political autonomy in 1954. In the forties and fifties the refinery brought modernization and prosperity for the island, but the wealth was uneven. The emerging working class became increasingly dissatisfied with the pay practices of the Royal Shell. Also, the participation of Afro-Curaçao population in the political process was still limited. On May 30th, 1969 a workers' revolt broke out at the entrance of the Shell refinery. During the march downtown, Union leader Wilson Godett, among others, was shot. Furious workers set buildings in Punda and Otrobanda on fire. After the local government flew in Dutch marines to restore order, they were working in order to make the government more Antillian. This event is still remembered as Trinta di May. Wilson Goddett even has performed an administrative function for some time. In the eighties Shell left Curaçao. The oil refinery, from then on, was leased to the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA.

Legacy of the past

On Curaçao, there are many remains of the colonial past. This is clearly visible in the specific architecture of 17th to early 20th century buildings in Willemstad.

Due to the nature and concentration of buildings parts of downtown Willemstadare on the UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are also manors and former plantation homes  declared a monument.