Curacao (pronounced KUR-∂-sow) is a friendly, relatively safe, southern island in the Caribbean located 40 miles from the northern coast of Venezuela. I knew little about it before I traveled here, except for postcard-perfect photographs of its historical capital city, Willemstad.
Willemstad is a Dutch colonial city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its Spanish and Dutch architecture explodes in a kaleidoscope of Caribbean colors –colors typical of Easter baskets and southern seas. Streets echo the sounds of markets, multilingual bartering, the rhythm of Africa and ocean tides, and music from other worlds. Unfamiliar aromas drift from the marketplace, mixed with the smell of fresh catches and salt air. Its famous waterfront of brightly colored buildings suggests how Amsterdam might have looked were it located in the Land of Oz. Fantasy-inspired colors adorn its marketplaces, distracting from the stains on Curacao’s past.
Curacao consists of one main island and one small, uninhabited island called “Klein Curacao” (“Little Curacao”). Although tourist brochures promote its swimming beaches, not all of its swimming beaches share a good reputation. While there are several beautiful swimming beaches here, beaches must be approached with caution. The beach I visited here was beautiful, unspoiled, windswept, and secluded, but it was strewn with broken coral and known by locals for its dangerous undertows and unpredictable rip tides. As tempting as it was to swim on this hot January day, I knew better. Not here and not alone.
Curacao has a good reputation as a snorkeling and scuba diving destination and it has popular wreck sites and dozens of dive sites. In addition to divers, Curacao is a favorite destination of cruise ships, shoppers and sailors, which simultaneously awaken its island hospitality and edginess.
A less well-known view near Willenstad, Curacao
The island country of Curacao is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which is administered by the European country of the Netherlands. It is the largest island in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It is about 171 square miles or approximately 40 miles long and up to 10 miles wide. Although it’s self-governed, it still has the feel of a colony. Public education is compulsory and based on the Dutch educational system. Dutch is the official language here, but Papiamentu (an oral language mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and several African dialects) has been the island’s unofficial language for 300 years. Traveler’s take heart, however, as Spanish (and to a lesser extent English) is also widely spoken.
Although they are nationals of Curacao, its citizens hold Dutch passports. Curacao’s administration, foreign affairs, and defense are the responsibility of the Netherlands thousands of miles away, and the highest levels of politics and policy-making usually involve the Netherlands’ acquiescence, participation, or approval. Several locals told me that Dutch heritage or support is an unspoken requisite of high political office here
Like many, my first impression of Curacao was surprise at an oil refinery so near the city center. There were endless silhouettes on the horizon of oil tankers at sea, signaling both Curacao’s proximity to oil-rich Venezuela and the importance of Curacao’s oil refinery. Stone stacks of its refinery dominate the horizon, reminiscent of the masts of slave galleons that until 1788 had dominated that very horizon. A billowing chain of black smoke from the refinery drifts uncomfortably close to the historical city center. As I watched, trade winds transported the gritty chain away from Curacao and beyond my view. Otherwise, the skies here were Caribbean perfect.
Curacao has a complex history and I don’t pretend to know it well. Yet, Curacao is defined by its past and to know Curacao at all one must understand that.
Curacao was inhabited by the Arawak people hundreds of years before it was discovered by Europeans. When the Dutch took possession of Curacao in the 1600s, it was known for its value as a trading harbor and pirates. Many of the Arawak people native to the island already had been enslaved by Spaniards and relocated. Under Dutch rule, Curacao became one of the largest slave depots in the Caribbean. Slave trade thrived on Curacao during much of the 17th and 18th centuries.
African slaves transported to Curacao were in addition to indigenous people of the Caribbean or South America who were also enslaved and brought here during the same period. Upon arrival in Curacao, the slaves were interred in camps until they recuperated from their inhuman voyages. Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch slavers sold the slaves who survived at an infamous Dutch slave depot that once stood where Curacao’s oil refinery stands today.
Surprisingly, the history of slave trade on Curacao is not as well-researched or documented as might be expected — despite growing public sentiment to do so. Much about the slave trading period has been passed down orally from generation to generation in the Papiamentu language, a language not based on written words. Some people speculate that the history of Curacao’s past might be better known if it were less influenced by the Netherlands, which understandably wants to put the shame of its slaving days behind it.
My understanding from locals here is that relatively few African slaves who were originally brought to the Dutch slave depot remained in Curacao. Most African slaves sold at the Dutch depot were eventually taken as forced labor to other islands in the Caribbean. Of those who remained, it appears most were from the region of present-day Ghana. Today, most of Curacao’s current population is of African slave descent — but racially mixed.
Wall mural by local artist, Curacao
Reggie, my delightful, spiritual, and passionate guide from Curacao, described himself as “Black Dutch.” He stated proudly that he is descended from African slaves brought to Curacao. Reggie reflected how much things have changed since those harsh times, how far his country has come, and how proud he is of the fact that he is a Dutch citizen because of his island nationality. When he spoke of historical slavery, he spoke of it in a way that respected his ancestors, his country, the Dutch, and those historical times.
Prior to 1800, there were slave uprisings on the island resembling others that had occurred elsewhere throughout the Caribbean. The largest rebellion on Curacao occurred on August 17, 1795 under a slave of African descent, Tula. Although the rebellion he led began peacefully and met with initial success, Tula was betrayed, captured, and publicly tortured to death on October 3, 1795. Although unsuccessful in freeing island slaves permanently, the short-lived rebellion heralded the winds of change. In 2010, Curacao declared Tula a national hero and now the rebellion is celebrated each year on August 17th. American actor Danny Glover co-starred in the 2013 Dutch film, “Tula: The Revolt,” which was based on the rebellion here. The film marked the 150th anniversary since slavery was abolished on the island.
Reggie repeatedly stated to me that despite its history of slaving, “there is no discrimination by the Dutch on this island.” This statement puzzled me because when talking to other residents here I detected tension that hinted not everyone has equal access to justice or opportunities here. They hinted that citizens who are born in the Netherlands fare better here than citizens born on the island. As in the U.S., there are also illegal immigrants in Curacao who do not have the entitlements or protections of citizenship, including victims of alleged, illegal sex trafficking who may end up in Curacao’s brothels (like the Netherlands, prostitution has been legalized here).
According to a 2016 U.S. Department of State report relating to illegal trafficking in persons, “Curacao is a source and destination country for women, children, and men subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Vulnerable populations include: women and girls in the unregulated commercial sex industry; foreign women from South America and other Caribbean countries in the regulated commercial sex industry; and migrant workers, including from other Caribbean countries, South America, India, and China in the dry dock, construction, landscaping, minimarket, retail, and restaurant industries.”
Perhaps Reggie is correct that there is no discrimination here, perhaps he hasn’t experienced it himself, or perhaps he wants to believe what he says because his country and livelihood depends on tourism-promoting concepts that must be ideally drawn. I believe Reggie’s perceptions were honest from his point of view and most probably colored by his profound pride in and love for his beloved, “Sweet Curacao” — and his enthusiastic eagerness to embrace it for the best it has to offer.
And I don’t have a problem with that. I can color outside the lines with the best of them.
Originally Posted on February 5, 2015/Revised April 23, 2017
Feature Photo of Willemstad, Curacao licensed by 123rf
All other photos taken by Jazzdat