November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
CuraÇao’s island culture reflects the colonial reach of many nations over centuries, but its buildings belong to Holland’s golden age
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.
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.
All over Willemstad stand monuments to important historical figures, bearing inscriptions in Dutch. Unless I can find them in my minimal guidebook or can make a wild, deductive translation, their significance escapes me. Therein lies my only gripe. Without bilingual historical plaques I’m ever forced to seek the kindness of strangers, who will, I know by now, respond in perfect English. And where are the walking tours? CuraÇao’s tourist literature disingenuously promises a regular supply. But each time I call I find none are scheduled this day, they’re not in English that day, and anyway, the woman who gives them is in Holland right now.
There are vast riches to be mined in every part of the city: the bustling commercial center of Punda; the old Jewish neighborhood of Scharloo, with its many sleeping, half-derelict mansions; and the agreeably seedy back streets of Otrabanda, a neighborhood favored by architects, artists, and the down-on-their-luck, not to mention regular working folk. What is this building? I ask a policeman. What is that one? I inquire at an art gallery. What about the disintegrating lookalike Tara, alone on an abandoned block in Otrabanda? Everything is torn down around it, and a tree grows from the roof. Here I find no one to ask.
There is a plan afoot right now to put the historic section of Willemstad on the World Heritage List, which means United Nations recognition and funding and other help on a large scale. I wish the Monument Conservation people the best of luck in this. When I return—and I mean to—I’d like to find Tara all fixed up and gleaming and with a plaque out front revealing who once lived there.