- 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
At first the congregation met in various locations for services; by 1674 they could afford to build the first Jewish house of worship in the Western Hemisphere. The present building dates from 1732, making it the longest-lived synagogue in the Western Hemisphere and its congregation, Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, the oldest. It’s an impressive structure, yellow stucco, gabled, and, behind a low wall, taking up most of a city block. Its design based on the main Amsterdam synagogue of the seventeenth century, the building radiates a sense of being rooted in the ages and in this place. From its earliest days the congregation offered money and other forms of support to fledgling communities in America. Their donations helped build the 1763 Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City.
After the British took over what remained of Holland’s North American colonies, ties still bound America and CuraÇao, especially through the slave trade. In the most profitable years— between 1635 and 1713—more than fifteen thousand slaves awaited auction in CuraÇao at any one time, making it one of the busiest depots in the Caribbean. About six thousand more worked the island’s plantations until emancipation in 1863.
With farming and slavery mostly out of the picture by the mid-1800s, CuraÇao looked for prosperity as a free port, where imported goods were, as they still are, untaxed. But what really saved the Netherlands Antilles was the embrace of the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company, which, starting around 1915, turned the islands virtually into company towns. On the cover of an otherwise handsome 1951 picture history of the Antilles I found in a New York flea market is a black-and-white photo showing smoking refinery towers. Within, the writer rhapsodizes about “slow smears of soot and smoke, the proud banners of CuraÇao prosperity [that] drift down from the Isla on the tradewind.” About ten years ago Shell gave up doing business here, and a Venezuelan refinery has taken its place. Descending by plane into CuraÇao, one can easily spot a belching circle of stacks not far from Willemstad. But a later drive through the thirty-two-mile length of the island proves that industry hasn’t damaged the countryside.
Away from the city center the landscape takes on a remote, sparsely settled quality similar to that of the American high desert. Cactus, wind-stunted trees, and shy, not showy, wildflowers frame decidedly undesertlike emerald green bays. Pink flamingos cluster here and there on little salt ponds, and lackadaisical herds of goats (the island has thousands, and they are looked upon as pests) aimlessly and dangerously cross the road. Brushing away the heat are the sweet-smelling trade winds, a gift from the northeast. In 1942 a reporter for National Geographic asked some American soldiers guarding the island, “How do you like it here?” “Fine,” one GI answered. “It’s just like Texas. I feel right at home.”
You know you’re not in Texas anymore when you spot one of the old Dutch plantation houses, called landhuizen , that stand as lonely proprietors of CuraÇao’s windswept hills. Often these were country estates for wealthy merchants and officials who lived mostly in town. Today no one even pretends to scratch a living from them. Some are still privately owned, some have fallen into ruin, and others have been restored, thanks to CuraÇao’s small but energetic Monument Conservation Foundation. Many of these are open to the public on a varying schedule, so it’s good to check with the tourist office before setting out on a house tour.
I was lucky to find Brievengat open. Built in the mid-eighteenth century, this plantation, later owned by the Shell company, was scheduled for demolition and saved at the last minute in 1954, when the Monument Conservation group took it over. It’s scrupulously restored, with an orange tiled roof, galleries that catch the breeze, and heavy old-country furnishings that speak of the taste of CuraÇao’s transplanted haute bourgeoisie . In the kitchen dark terra cotta walls covered with large white spots are meant, according to divergent legends, to confuse the flies or to represent eyes that scare away the ghosts of murdered slaves. Another well-restored landhuis , Chobolobo, was formerly a small salt plantation. Later, in the days of Shell’s dominance, it became a social club, and now it’s the distillery of the liqueur that takes its name from the island.
Closed the afternoon of my visit, the late-seventeenth-century plantation Knip and its string of outbuildings are where one of CuraÇao’s two slave uprisings flared up. It is said that turbulent times in Haiti and even the teachings of the French Revolution helped spark the 1795 revolt, which ended when authorities overpowered more than a thousand slaves and executed their leaders. A statue in town honors the main instigator, Tula. When I ask at the hotel, the clerk immediately locates the memorial on my street map. Tula is not forgotten.