Over the course of a single day spent in Curacao, one might hear Portuguese, eat Iguana stew, and munch on a stroopwafel while gazing upon colorful Dutch Colonial architecture. Also, in that very same day, one could visit the Caribbean’s oldest synagogue.
The History of Curacao
How on Earth can so many cultural practices, cuisines, and languages be experienced in one day on one small island? To understand, we must look at history! Curacao’s history is nearly as colorful as the UNESCO buildings lining the streets of Willemstad.
Original Inhabitants: Amerindian Arawaks
The earliest known inhabitants of Curacao were the Amerindian Arawaks. A group of humans who migrated from South America around 6,000 years ago, and settled on various islands throughout the Caribbean. Curacao’s inhabitants were known as the Caiquetios, and they lived peacefully on the island for hundreds of years. As is the story with many other Caribbean islands, their existence became threatened when the Europeans eventually arrived.
Next Chapter: The Europeans
There are contradictory accounts of which Europeans arrived at the island first. Some say it was the Spanish led by Alonso de Ojeda and the Italians, led by Amerigo Vespucci. Supposedly they were on a voyage together. Eventually more and more Spaniards arrived at Curacao, only to be disappointed with the lack of gold.
Then, The Dutch Arrived
Around 1634, the Dutch arrived and laid an attack on the Spaniards to gain control of the island. The Dutch maintained that control until 2010 when the island was given autonomy and became a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The Painful Chapter
As was common during this period, Curacao became a central hub of the slave trade, spearheaded by the Dutch West India Company. It was because of the mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and African dialects all mixing together that the language Papiamentu began to form, which is spoken widely on the island today.
Aside from the slave trade, The Dutch were also profiting from the agriculture of their plantations. Most large plantations were growing peanuts, maize, and fruit. Saline ponds discovered around the island were used to produce salt, which also turned out to be extremely profitable.
Portuguese and Spanish Jews Arrived
Sephardic Jews, from Spain and Portugal, were fleeing the Inquisitions in their countries and migrated to Holland, northern Brazil, and eventually Curacao. In 1732, the Jewish community constructed the Mikve Israel Emanuel Synagogue, in Willemstad, which has since been given the designation of the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.
Eventually, in 1863, slavery was abolished at last.
The next major historical happening on Curacao was the discovery of oil, in 1920, off the coast of Venezuela. Curacao then became a crude oil distiller.
Today, Curacao is an idyllic slice of paradise for those who live on the island, and for everyone lucky enough to visit. All cultures and walks of life coexist, sharing bits and pieces of their cultures with one another. These days, visitors get the benefit of Curacao’s colorful history by being able to listen to Papiamentu, Portuguese, Dutch, and English throughout.
Equal parts Dutch and Caribbean cuisine can be enjoyed in a formal sit down environment, or at laid-back local hangouts such as the Old Market.
With over a dozen museums chronicling all the different parts of Curacao’s history, both positive and painful, visitors can experience the full spectrum of the island.
Sip on a drink featuring the iconic blue liqueur named Curacao on a picturesque beach and marvel at humanity, nature, and history!
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