- Historic Sites
CuraÇao’s island culture reflects the colonial reach of many nations over centuries, but its buildings belong to Holland’s golden age
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
To promote their Caribbean island, the CuraÇao tourism authorities like to use a specific image. It shows up as the line drawing in a logo or as a seductive sun-struck photograph. The waterfront block of narrow buildings, painted in bright, luscious colors—“tropicalized Dutch,” someone has called it—offers an exuberant variety of gables that to gather form a complex yet unforgettable icon. You can understand its persistence as an advertising tool. But I wondered if when I went there, I would find that Handelskade, as the street is called, was no more substantial than the false front of an old town in the American West. Would the city of Willemstad and the island that stretched beyond it turn out to be a dusty disappointment?
Still, the ad worked well enough during one of the snowiest winters ever in New York City to draw me nearly two thousand miles south to CuraÇao, which lies just off the Venezuelan coast. I can now report that the charming poster image not only is real but is the merest hint of a past that is deep and rich and dense. Indeed, this is a place where the early fingerprints of European colonial settlement are still visible.
It was a Spanish expedition of 1499 led by Alonso de Ojeda, a lieutenant of Christopher Columbus, that landed on CuraÇao and its neighbors, Aruba and Bonaire, now called the Netherlands Antilles. Nothing tangible remains of that earliest incursion. The native population fell before the Spanish conquerors, and in a 1634 battle a Dutch West India Company fleet of six ships took possession of CuraÇao. Today even with strong Afro-Caribbean and Spanish cultural contributions, the Dutch influence predominates—in the architecture, the language, the street names, and the fact that CuraÇao is still part of the kingdom of the Netherlands, with total access to all the social and legal benefits that implies.
American visitors are surprisingly scarce. By evening of my first day I realized that except when checking into the hotel, I hadn’t heard a word of English spoken. Of course, whenever I asked a question, the response—from CuraÇaoans and Dutch tourists alike—came in perfect English. Aruba, with its many large hotels and its nonstop flights from the United States is far more popular with Americans, only thirty thousand of whom stopped in CuraÇao in 1995. That was up from a mere eleven thousand a few years earlier. This instant foreignness is very pleasant, allowing the traveler the best of both worlds. You can enjoy the sense of having truly ventured beyond the influence of your countrymen (hard to do almost anywhere in the world), while still knowing that when you ask someone where the bus stop is, you’ll understand the answer.
Although the first Spanish arrivals imagined finding quantities of gold or making fortunes from ranching, CuraÇao, with its desertlike climate, never rewarded such dreams. It was early seen that its destiny lay as a center for commerce, making it a prize worth contesting for almost two hundred years. First Holland sought and won CuraÇao during its war of independence against Spain in the 1630s; later France tried to capture the island, and twice Britain held sway, departing for the last time in 1816.
For all the intruders the island’s attraction lay in its deep natural harbor and its position as a base to protect trade routes between North and South America. The Dutch found CuraÇao’s one homegrown product useful; that was salt for the herring industry. They also used the island as a depot for an infamous import, slaves. After the punishing trip across the Atlantic from Africa’s Gold Coast, the human cargo was put in CuraÇao’s “slave camps” to regain health and thereby salability.
Four of the Dutch-built forts still stand in the capital city of Willemstad. All have been altered to one degree or another to accommodate restaurants and shops. From the Waterfort, first erected in 1634 and rebuilt in the late 1820s, a ten-story hotel sprouts. Peter Stuyvesant, the colonial administrator here from 1642 to 1647, lived at the Waterfort and ruled CuraÇao and the other Dutch possessions from Fort Nassau, high on the city’s hills. In the Caribbean and later in New Amsterdam, Stuyvesant spun a huge administrative web, certain that trade between the two, backed by Holland’s seagoing power, would win the Dutch hegemony in the New World. In 1644, fighting the Portuguese for the Dutch side of the island of Sint Maarten, Stuyvesant received the injury that required amputation of his right leg. That limb was buried in a CuraÇao cemetery, while the rest of its owner lies under New York’s St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery.
Although Stuyvesant was known to harbor fiercely anti-Semitic sentiments, Jews were among CuraÇao’s first settlers, arriving as early as 1651, shortly after he had departed. Having fled Portugal and Brazil for the more tolerant Holland, many now longed for a warmer climate. The charter that guaranteed them freedom of worship in CuraÇao is the first such contract allowing Jews religious liberty in the New World. The immigrants tried to make a go of farming but soon found the island’s agrarian prospects as dismal as everyone else did. They then moved within the city walls, starting over in business and launching dynasties that persist in CuraÇao to this day.