Curacao history begins, as does the history of most islands in this part of the Caribbean, with the Arawak and Taino indigenous people. These are the people who developed the Papiamentu language specific to the island, a form of patois combining elements of the original native languages, the languages of their conquerors from Spain and the Netherlands, and the African languages of the slaves brought here to work the region’s plantations. The Papiamentu word for the island is Korsou, and the first contact with Europeans occurred in the late fifteenth century when explorers Christopher Columbus and Alonso de Ojeda arrived in the Netherlands Antilles. The resultant slavery was devastating to these people, but the diseases (primarily smallpox) brought by Europeans virtually wiped them out.
Facts about Curacao include its settlement by Spain immediately after discovery, but the Netherlands and the Dutch West Indies Company took over in 1634 as part of its domination of the seas and great Voyages of Exploration. The capital city of Willemstad reflects this beginning as well as the subsequent influx of slaves from Africa, Jews escaping the Inquisition, and the descendants of the original Taino and Arawak peoples. The city is today one of only a few UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Caribbean. The others are in Cuba, which boasts nine; Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic; Haiti’s National History Park; the Morne Trois Pitons National park in Dominica; the Pitons of St. Lucia; Brimstone Hill Fortress in St. Kitts; Bermuda’s town of St. George; and the barrier reef of Belize. Walks through the lovely city are virtual tours of Curacao history and the prestigious Museum Kura Hulanda contains fascinating collections of the multicultural mix that is found on the island.
An important role was played by Curacao during WWII for a couple reasons. Primarily, it was a vital conduit for Allied oil from Venezuela, and there was a large oil refinery here (as well as one on Aruba), which became a target of German U-boats and bombers. At various times during the war, 43 to 100 percent of the oil required by Allied forces came from the refinery on Curacao. When the Netherlands fell to Germany in 1940, troops from England and France were stationed here. Other World War II facts about Curacao include the round-up of German nationals who were sent to internment camps on Bonaire. Several Curacao citizens fought valiantly in the Dutch armed forces, including Segindo Jorge Adelberto Ecury, a black man who fought with the Resistance and was executed by the Nazi occupiers in The Hague in 1944. Even Fort Amsterdam (built in 1635) in Willemstad played a role in World War II, as the United States established gun emplacements here. Today, there is a monument to the part played by the island and its citizens outside the fort.
Like the other islands in the Netherlands Antilles, Curacao history was shaped by its colonial rulers. The status of all these island colonies changed dramatically during the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. One of the interesting facts about Curacao is that it, along with Sint Maartin (the Dutch half of the island of St. Martin), has status aparte (separate status) as an independent country within the Dutch kingdom as of October 2010. All of the islands have voted for status change, but they didn’t all agree on what they would become. Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius are municipalities of the Netherlands. Aruba has been an independent country (that is still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands) since 1986.
The unique Papiamentu language itself is part of the history of the island, and evidence of its use dates as early as the early eighteenth century. Today it is the official language of the island, and a majority of the islanders speak it as well as at least one or two other languages. Learning a few words and phrases can help you out at local dining and shopping spots, and will certainly endear you to the local people.