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The original inhabitants of Curaçao were Arawak peoples. Their ancestors had migrated to the island from the mainland of South America, likely hundreds of years before European encounter.
The first Europeans recorded as seeing the island were members of a Spanish expedition under the leadership of Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. The Spaniards enslaved most of the Arawak as their labor force. They sometimes forcibly relocated the survivors to other colonies where workers were needed. In 1634, after the Netherlands achieved independence from Spain, Dutch colonists started to occupy the island. European powers were trying to get bases in the Caribbean.
The Dutch West India Company founded the capital of Willemstad on the banks of an inlet called the ‘Schottegat’. Curaçao had been ignored by colonists, because it lacked gold deposits. The natural harbour of Willemstad proved to be an ideal spot for trade. Commerce and shipping — and piracy—became Curaçao’s most important economic activities. In addition, in 1662 the Dutch West India Company made Curaçao a centre for the Atlantic slave trade, often bringing slaves here for sale elsewhere in the Caribbean.
Sephardic Jews settled here with the Dutch and in then-Dutch Brazil; they have had a significant influence on the culture and economy of the island. Some merchants were part of the Dutch colonial slave trade.
In the Franco-Dutch War, Count Jean II d’Estrées planned to attack Curaçao. His fleet — 12 men of war, 3 fireships, 2 transports, a hospital ship, and 12 privateers — met with disaster, losing 7 men of war and 2 other ships when they struck reefs off the Las Aves archipelago. They had made a serious navigational error, hitting the reefs on 11 May 1678, a week after setting sail from Saint Kitts. Curaçao marked the events by a Day of Thanksgiving, celebrated for decades into the 18th century, to commemorate the island’s fortunate escape from being invaded by the French.
Although a few plantations were established on the island by the Dutch, the first profitable industry established on Curaçao was salt mining. The mineral was a lucrative export at the time and was a major factor for the island being part of international commerce.
Many Dutch colonists grew affluent from the slave trade, and the city built impressive colonial buildings. Curaçao architecture blends Dutch and Spanish colonial styles. The wide range of historic buildings in and around Willemstad has resulted in the capital being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Landhouses (former plantation estates) and West African style kas di pal’i maishi (former slave dwellings) are scattered all over the island. Some have been restored and can be visited.
In 1795, a major slave revolt took place under the lead of Tula Rigaud, Louis Mercier, Bastian Karpata, and Pedro Wakao. Up to 4000 slaves on the northwest section of the island revolted. Over a thousand of the slaves were involved in heavy gunfights. After a month, the slave owners suppressed the revolt.
Curaçao’s proximity to South America resulted in interaction with cultures of the coastal areas. For instance, architectural similarities can be seen between the 19th-century parts of Willemstad and the nearby Venezuelan city of Coro in Falcón State. The latter has also been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the 19th century, Curaçaoans such as Manuel Piar and Luis Brión were prominently engaged in the wars of independence of Venezuela and Colombia. Political refugees from the mainland (such as Simon Bolivar) regrouped in Curaçao. Children from affluent Venezuelan families were educated on the island.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the island changed hands among the British, the French, and the Dutch several times. In the early 19th century, Portuguese and Lebanese migrated to Curaçao attracted by the business opportunities. Stable Dutch rule returned in 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic wars, when the island was incorporated into the colony of Curaçao and Dependencies.
The Dutch abolished slavery in 1863, creating a change in the economy with the shift to non-free labor. Some inhabitants of Curaçao emigrated to other islands, such as Cuba, to work in sugar cane plantations.
Other former slaves had no place to go and remained working for the plantation owner in the tenant farmer system. This was an instituted order in which the former slave leased land from his former master. In exchange the tenant promised to give up most of his harvest to the former slave master. This system lasted until the beginning of the 20th century.