ETHNONYMS: Curaçaoënaar (Dutch: an islander by birth), Korsou (Papiamento), Kurasoleño (Papiamento), Yu di Korsou (Papiamento: child of Curaçao).
Identification. Curaçao is the largest of the six islands comprising the Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao, Bonaire, Saint Martin, Saba, Saint Eustatius) and Aruba. Several theories exist as to the origin of the name "Curaçao," none of which can be proven conclusively. It may have been derived from the Indian Caiquetío language, or it may have evolved from the Spanish corazón or the Portuguese curazon (heart). After 1525, Spanish maps refer to the island as "Curaçote," "Curasaote," and "Curasaore." By the seventeenth century the island was generally known as "Curaçao" or "Curazao."
Location. The island of Curaçao has a land area of 448 square kilometers. It is located in the Caribbean Sea within view of the Venezuelan coast, between the islands of Aruba and Bonaire. Its landscape is arid and mostly flat, except in the northwest, where hills rise to 375 meters. Deep bays are found along the southern coast, the largest of which, Schottegat, provides the capital, Willemstad, with one of the most important harbors in the Caribbean. The flora is very similar to the flora of the neighboring islands. Its best-known specimens are the divi-divi tree, the campech or brazilwood tree, the aloe, and a variety of cactuses. Coconut palms and tamarind, guyaba (guava), mango, and papaya trees are found in cultivated areas.
Besides the biná, a small deer, there are no large native animals. Goats, horses, and cattle were imported by the Spanish conquerors. There are no poisonous snakes but many varieties of lizards, of which the largest is the iguana. Among the best known of the more than one hundred types of birds are the palabrua (barn owl), the trupial (a songbird; both the orange Icterus icterus and the yellow I. migrogularis are present), and the tortolica (a small pigeon); pelicans roam the coast in great numbers.
Demography. The population in 1990 was about 148,000. Migration is the primary factor that determines population development in the Netherlands Antilles. In 1947, 20 percent of the population consisted of foreigners, in particular Europeans and Surinamese. During the 1950s, the number of emigrants surpassed the number of immigrants, yet the population continued to grow because of an excess of births over deaths. Since then, however, the population of Curaçao has barely increased. Beginning in 1965, the birthrate steadily decreased from 35 to 20 children born per 1,000 inhabitants, virtually reaching the same level as in industrialized countries. After 1965, the number of Antillean emigrants to the Netherlands gradually increased. In 1981 only 10 percent of the population was foreign born. Life expectancy is 72 years for males and 76 years for females. The death rate, in 1987, was about 5 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants, but the rate is increasing again as the population ages, a development partly owing to the emigration of a large percentage of the younger population.
Linguistic Affiliation. The official language of Curaçao, as throughout the Netherlands Antilles, is Dutch, but the mother tongue of most of the islanders is Papiamento, an Iberian-based creole. Papiamento is also the colloquial language of Aruba and Bonaire. English is the spoken language on Saint Martin, Saba, and Saint Eustatius. Papiamento is a relatively new language that formerly existed only in spoken form. Originally a slave lingo, Papiamento was eventually adopted by the Dutch rulers.
History and Cultural Relations
When the Spanish conqueror Alonso de Ojeda discovered Curaçao in 1499, he found it to be inhabited by the Caiquetío, a coastal tribe of Arawak Indians occupying the nearby mainland. The insular Caiquetío were primarily fishers, but they also did some cultivating, and they collected salt from the Charoma salt pan for barter trade with the coast dwellers. In 1513 many Indians were evacuated by the Spaniards and were forced to work in the copper mines of Hispaniola. During the Spanish period, cattle raising was the principal means of subsistence, along with trading Indian slaves.
In 1634 the Dutch conquered Curaçao after defeating the Spaniards. The Dutch West India Company (WIC) mounted an expedition under Johan van Walbeeck, establishing a maritime base in the heart of the Spanish colonies. With the occupation of the Dutch, most of the remaining Indians scattered to the mainland. Those who stayed were gradually absorbed into the new population of Dutch traders, Spanish and Portuguese refugees, Sephardic Jews, and African slaves.
After 1648, Curaçao became an important base for smuggling, privateering, and the slave trade. The Dutch, venturing with their ships to the coast of Spanish America with slaves, cloth, and spices, soon established regular contact between Curaçao and the South American mainland. From 1662 until the end of the century, most of the African slaves entering the Spanish colonies were shipped by the WIC via Curaçao.
Alongside the slave trade there bloomed a contraband trade among the Spanish colonists in every sort of desired merchandise. Dutch Sephardic Jews played a central role in this lucrative traffic, holding probably more than a 20percent share of the Dutch trade with Spain. By 1702 the Dutch Sephardic community accounted for 34.5 percent of Curaçao's wealth. Most of these Jews were agents, factors, and brokers.
When the slave trade had begun to prosper, the WIC established several small plantations to produce food for the many slaves in the island's warehouse awaiting shipment to the Spanish colonies. Curaçao, however, remained mainly a trade island. It was never a real plantation colony in the typical Caribbean sense. Climatological factors and soil conditions did not permit the development of large-scale agriculture. Consequently, the Euro-Antillean upper class, composed of merchants and high-ranking Dutch authorities, did not merge into a class of plantation owners (as in Suriname, for example).
The absence of a genuine plantation economy might account for the fact that relations between the White European rulers and the Black African slaves on Curaçao were less strained than elsewhere in the Caribbean. Although social distance was maintained, contact was usually on a much more personal basis than on the plantation. Nevertheless, the division between the Afro-Antilleans and the Euro-Antilleans is still of significance today.
The Black people belonged to the weakest economic sector of the population both before and after the abolition of slavery in 1863. The same can be said of the Mulattoes. Although sexual relations between White, Mulatto, and Black people were not uncommon, marriage was commonly reserved for members of the same group. There did exist, however, a notable cultural exchange between Europeans and Africans.
In 1918, when the Shell company established a large oil refinery on the island, dramatic changes occurred. The immigration of thousands of laborers and an increasing number of births caused rapid population growth. Moreover, the great variety of national and ethnic groups resulted in a complex system of social stratification.
Willemstad is the capital of the Netherlands Antilles as well as of Curaçao. The center of Willemstad is divided by the Sint Annebaai. This bay connects the Caribbean Sea with the natural harbor, Schottegat. After the establishment of the oil refinery, the city grew rapidly. New residential areas were built at Schottegat to accommodate a growing labor force. The countryside is sparsely inhabited.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Curaçao's economy centers on the oil refinery, shipbuilding and repair, construction, small local industries, tourism, financial services, and the transit trade. Agricultural production is decidedly modest, and almost all consumer goods have to be imported. There is an extensive informal economic sector in which people who have no access to formal jobs earn a living by selling foodstuffs and illegal lottery tickets. The island has a very open and dependent economy based heavily on imports. As a result, exports and Dutch development aid are essential to pay for the inflow of goods and for public expenditures.
Industrial Arts. With the exception of straw hats, which were manufactured in the first half of the twentieth century, industrial arts were not of great significance on Curaçao.
Division of Labor. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Afro-Antillean women were engaged in various spheres of paid domestic work, petty production, and home industry for the local market. Before industrialization came to Curaçao, women performed many of the agricultural tasks, engaged in crafts such as weaving straw hats for export, and sold agricultural products, fish, homemade foodstuffs, and handicrafts. Industrialization brought the end of agriculture and craft. More and more articles that were formerly homemade were replaced by machine-made substitutes. Even the traditional female domain of small trade was taken over by males of foreign minority groups that had settled on the island, and the oil refinery, with its highly mechanized production techniques, provided no alternative employment for Afro-Antillean women.
Until the 1920s, the island economy was based on large-scale international trade and shipping, operated by a small group of Euro-Antillean elite families. Within this group there was a highly patriarchal family system. Women were completely subordinate to their husbands and fathers; their primary biological and social role was that of wife and mother of legitimate heirs. In the Afro-Antillean population, however, many households had a female head, who was often the chief provider for herself and her children. Men, in various roles (father, husband, son, brother, lover) might make material contributions to one or more households. The sexual alliances between men and women were often not enduring, and marriage was the exception rather than the rule. The prestige and authority of women in the kinship network is still celebrated in a great variety of songs, proverbs, sayings, and expressions in Papiamento. Women held the family together both during slavery and afterwards. The emotional bond between mother and child was intense and permanent. In order to promote legal marriage, the Catholic church introduced and maintained a number of punitive measures against the offspring of those "living in sin."
Marriage and the nuclear family have since become the most common relationships in the lower Afro-Antillean strata. Economic and social progress enables men to fulfill their roles as husbands and fathers, thus undermining such traditional institutions as matrifocal household groups, visiting relationships (bibá ), and extramarital liaisons. Marriage in Antillean society, however, still differs from that institution as known in the Western world. Family ties, including mutual responsibility, are much stronger in the Caribbean, whereas monogamy is not as institutionalized as in Europe and Latin America.
Socialization. During adolescence, Afro-Antillean males are generally very mobile. Peer groups provide a meaningful social context by which males achieve an identity as a person. Peer groups are not centered on the household; for many males the house is little more than a dormitory. For females, more then for males, kinship networks and the household are the principal social environments.
Social Organization. It is often said that, in the Caribbean, there is a weak sense of community cohesion and that local communities are loosely organized. Indeed, the same can be asserted of Curaçao. Nowadays, although Curaçao is a highly urbanized and individualized society, informal networks play an important role in the daily lives of men and women.
Political Organization. Constitutional structure is complex. There are three levels of government, namely, the Kingdom (the Netherlands, the Netherlands Antilles, and Aruba), the Land (the Netherlands Antilles-of-five), and that of each island. The Kingdom administers foreign affairs and defense; the government is appointed by, and represents, the Dutch Crown. Aruba now has its own governor. The governments of the Antilles and Aruba appoint ministers who represent them in The Hague. These ministers enjoy a special and powerful position and, when called upon, partake in discussions in the Kingdom cabinet.
Theoretically, the Land governs judicial, postal, and monetary matters, whereas the islands take care of education and economic development; however, the tasks of the Land and the islands are not specifically outlined, and duplication often occurs. The population is represented in the Staten (parliament of the Land) and the eilandsraden (insular councils). Both legislative bodies are elected by universal vote for a four-year term.
Political parties are organized island by island; Antilleans have a wide range from which to choose. This diversity prevents any one party from gaining an absolute majority. Consequently, coalitions are necessary in order to form a government. These coalitions are often forged on a shaky basis: machine politics and the so-called patronage system lead to instability. Therefore, a coalition seldom manages to serve a full four-year term, a condition that is not conducive to efficient government.
Conflict. Serious riots took place on Curaçao on 30 May 1969. According to an investigatory commission, the direct cause of the riots was a labor dispute between the company Wescar (Caribbean Rail) and the Curaçao Workers' Federation (CFW). The commission determined that the riots were not part of a larger plan to overthrow the government of the Antilles, nor was the conflict primarily along racial lines. Antilleans raised strong opposition to the fact that Dutch marines were brought in to restore law and order.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Even though the Dutch colonizers were Protestant, Catholicism was—and remains—the prevalent religion. Catholic missionary activities, mainly by Spanish priests from Venezuela, were directed toward Afro-Antilleans, and the Franciscans even preached in Papiamento to establish closer ties with potential converts. After Abolition, Catholic friars, nuns, and priests from the Netherlands came as missionaries to Curaçao and the other Dutch islands. The predominance of Catholicism has led to the foundation of a far greater number of Catholic schools than of state schools. Since around 1970, nonmainstream Christian sects have become increasingly widespread. Most of these movements are based in the United States.
Religious Practitioners. Brua is an agglomeration of non-Christian spiritual practices, similar to the obeah of the West Indies. These practices include preparing and using lucky charms, eliminating purported and declared enemies, ensnaring spouses, divining, making amulets, spirit possession, and consultation with the dead. By manipulating supernatural powers, a practitioner attempts to restore the health of his patients and heal disturbed social relationships (which are often considered the cause of certain illnesses). Today most Brua specialists combine their practice with other jobs, such as selling groceries or other small-scale ventures.
Arts. Both music and dance are important facets of Antillean culture. The tambu and tumba are probably the most popular dances. "Tambu" is the local name for an African drum, the main instrument in the tambu dance music. In contrast to the tambu, the tumba is a more intimate dance. "Tumba" is also the name of an African drum, yet in this music it is not the main instrument.
In contrast to music and dance, interest in literature is largely confined to the educated class. Although the literature of the Netherlands Antilles is multilingual (English, Spanish, Papiamento, and Dutch), most authors from Curaçao have preferred to write in Papiamento or Dutch. Colá Debrot, one of the well-known writers of the Netherlands Antilles, once suggested a distinction between "popular literature" and "art literature." The former—in Papiamento—is realistic, and contains strong Afro-Caribbean elements. The so-called art literature is mainly written in Dutch.
Abraham-Van der Mark, E. E. (1984). "The Impact of Industrialization on Women: A Caribbean Case." In Women, Men, and the International Division of Labor, edited by J. Nash and M. P. Fernándes-Kelly, 374-386. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Ansano, Richenel (1990). "Balia ku Almsola or Dance with the Lone Soul." In Op de bres voor eigenheid: Afhankelijkheid en dominantie in de Antillen (In place of identity: Dependency and domination in the Antilles), edited by Rose Mary Allen, Paul van Gelder, Mike Jacobs, and Ieteke Witteveen, 165-189. Amsterdam: Caraïbische Werkgroep A WIC , Universiteit van Amsterdam.
Goslinga, Cornells Ch. (1979). A Short History of the Netherlands Antilles and Suriname. The Hague: Martinus Nijhof.
Huisman, Piet (1992). Sephardim: The Spirit that Has Withstood the Times. Son, The Netherlands: Huisman Editions.
Koulen, Ingrid, and Gert Oostindie (1987). The Netherlands Antilles and Aruba: A Research Guide. Dordrecht: For is Publications.
CURAÇAO , an island near the northern coast of Venezuela, South America, under the Dutch Crown part of the Netherland Antilles. Sighted by the Conquistador Alonso de Ojeda in 1498, it was captured from the Spanish by the Dutch in 1634. The Dutch West India Company was interested in populating the island, and among others to attract Jews from Dutch Brazil and to stem the flow of experienced Jewish planters from Brazil to Barbados. The first organized group of Jews was headed by Joao de Yllan (1651), and a second group by David Nassi (1652). The Jews were given an area called the "Jewish Quarter," several miles from the fortress which today is Willemstadt, capital of the island. Their efforts to plant sugar cane and other tropical products were not successful on this arid island. In 1659, however, a grant was given to another group of Jews from Brazil to settle in Curaçao, led by Isaac da Costa. He received the right of free exercise of religion, the right to protection, and permission to build a synagogue. Contrary to the situation prevailing in other Dutch possessions, the Jews had to adjust to some restrictions. They were treated as foreigners and were not even allowed to be inside the fortress after nine o'clock in the evening. Upon his nomination as governor of Curaçao, Peter Stuyvesant tried his utmost to limit the Jews' rights. All this could not prevent the Jews from transforming Curaçao into the main commercial center of the entire area. The proximity of Venezuela and Colombia facilitated the promotion of so-called illicit trade with the Spanish colonies. Owing to the shortage of Spanish vessels, Jews of Curaçao dealt through the conversos in these countries for their import and export.
The community "Mikve Israel" was founded in 1659 and the Jewish cemetery consecrated that same year. The first synagogue was dedicated in 1674 and coincided with the arrival of the first Haham (rabbi), Joshiau Pardo of Salonika. The present-day synagogue was established in 1732.
Curaçao became the center of Jewish life in the Caribbean and was called "Mother of the Caribbean Jewish communities." The establishment of the yeshivah Etz Haim ve-Ohel Yahakov (1674) gave spiritual guidance of the Jewish communities in the area. Bodies of Jews who died in places with no Jewish cemetery (mainly those under Spanish colonial rule), such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo, were transported to Curaçao for burial. The mohalim (circumcisers) of Curaçao attended to persons who arrived from Europe or other parts of the Americas with the aim of reconverting to Judaism. Among those who came from Spain and Portugal were a Dominican friar, a Franciscan father, and a Catholic priest. This continued until 1821.
The Jewish population continued to grow. Jews came from Amsterdam and Bayonne, exiles arrived from Pomeroon (Guiana) and Martinique, and conversos from Spain and Portugal. By 1729, the Jewish population exceeded 2,000, about one-half the total white population of the island. The small island was overpopulated and this led to Jewish immigration to other areas. Curaçao, however, remained their center.
In 1693, a party of 70 Curaçao Jews joined the Jews from Barbados in Newport, Rhode Island. That same year a group of Leghorn Jews left Curaçao to found the enclave at Tucacas, on the Venezuelan coast. The enclave, with its community and synagogue, existed until 1720, when captured by Spanish forces.
Curaçao Jews settled on the Dutch islands of Sint Maarten (Saint Martin) and Aruba; in the towns of Coro, Barcelona, Barquisimiento, Valencia, Caroa, and Puerto de Caballo in Venezuela; Carabobo, Rio Hacha, and Santa Marta in Colombia; in St. Thomas and St. Croix of the Virgin Islands; in Cap Haitien in Haiti; and in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Panama, Cuba, New York, New Orleans, and Mexico City. In each location they still remained attached to Curaçao which, in turn, attended to their spiritual needs.
The commmunal importance of Curaçao has diminished today, and with it its Jewish population. Reform Judaism came to Curaçao in 1863, causing a rift and dividing Curaçao into two communities. The Reform "Temple Emmanuel" was dedicated in 1867. The dispute led to many Jews distancing themselves from the community. The conflict continued for almost 100 years, harming Jewish life. To resolve the situation, in 1964, the two communities merged to form "The United Netherlands Portuguese Congregation Mikve Israel – Emmanuel," which adopted Reconstructionism and decided "to include Sephardi rites so long as these do not conflict with Reconstructionist principles." In 1969, the Ashkenazi community "Shaarei Tzedek" was founded and an Ashkenazi synagogue built.
As of 2000, some 300 Jews lived in Curaçao, with the Ashkenazim being the majority.
Israel is represented in the Netherlands Antilles by the ambassador in Caracas and an honorary consul in Willemstadt.
M. Arbell, The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean (2002); I. Jesurun Cardozo, Three Centuries of Jewish Life in Curaçao (1954); A. Herbert Cone, "The Jews in Curaçao," in: pajhs, 10 (1902): 147–52; J. Corcos, A Synopsis of the History of the Jews of Curaçao from the Day of Their Settlement to the Present Time (1897); I and E. Emmanuel, History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles (1970); R. Maduro, Our Snoa, 5492–5742…Synagogue Mikve Israel (1982); C.A. Arauz Monfante, El Contrabando Holandes en el Caribe, Durante la Primera Mitad de Siglo xviii (1984).
[Mordechai Arbell (2nd ed.)]
The Netherlands Antilles, consisting of three Leeward (Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire) and three Windward islands (Saint Maarten, Statia, and Saba), were before 1954 officially known as "Curaçao and its dependencies." After they acquired autonomy within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in that year, Curaçao remained the administrative center, with 50 percent of its total population. The official language is Dutch; however, most of the people speak Papiamento, a Portuguese-based Creole language familiar to the Criolo of Cabo Verde. The people on the Windward Islands speak English; the population of those islands is largely Protestant, whereas those in the Leeward Islands are predominantly Catholic with a (mostly white) Protestant minority.
Curaçao was a trade post in colonial times, slaves, sugar and salt being its principal commodities. Slavery was common to all islands, with the exception of Aruba. Curaçao had a large slave population; in 1780 there were 13,000 slaves, 70 percent of the island's population. When slavery was abolished in 1863, a third of the population of the Netherlands Antilles was officially registered as having that status. For all the Antillean islands, but especially for Curaçao, the basis of the subsequent "segmented society," with its fascination and fixation on color and race relations, was laid out. The most obvious characteristic of the Curaçaoan social structure up to the 1970s (and perhaps into the early twenty-first century) was the powerful dividing line between "white" and "colored."
After the discovery of huge oil reserves in Venezuela, Shell built a refinery on Curaçao in 1916; Standard Oil was established on Aruba. In 1958 the per capita income of the Antilleans was almost one and one-half times as much as in the motherland. But when Venezuela built its own refineries, the Antillean ones were forced to cut back and rationalize. In 1966 between 15 and 20 percent of Curaçao's workforce was unemployed. The result was a transgenerational poverty underclass of from 20 to 25 percent of the population, concentrated in from ten to fifteen squatter neighborhoods.
Curaçao sought the solution to its economic woes in offshore banking, maintaining a certain standard of prosperity until the mid-1980s, when the U.S. government restricted access to Caribbean banks and tax havens. In the 1990s the island government tried, in a lukewarm way, to promote external tourism, an endeavor that had only a limited success. The island, together with the other remaining Antillean islands, became gradually more dependent on development aid from the Netherlands, thereby accumulating huge internal debts.
The political structure of the Netherlands Antilles—with six, and later five, islands—was established in 1954 with the perspective of incorporating Indonesia with the Antilles into a kind of commonwealth, with dual levels of "national (i.e., Antillean)" and "island" governments with overlapping powers and conflicting loyalties. In 1986 Aruba left the political structure of the Netherlands Antilles, considering Curaçao as a kind of colonizer. Aruba received a status aparte as the third "country" within the Netherlands, the Netherlands Antilles, and Aruba]. Political splits between the island governments and between the islands and the central Antillean government in Curaçao produced and produces ill-feeling towards what was called the "colonization by Curaçao." After several efforts at restructuring the complicated political relation between the European and the Caribbean parts of the kingdom, the Dutch in 2006 succeeded in convincing the government of the Antilles to dissolve the political structure of Antillean "country." The Dutch offered in return a privileged status of municipality in the case of Bonaire, Saba, and Statia and a status aparte like Aruba's for Curaçao and Saint Maarten. If the island populations would agree, the Dutch would exonerate the Antillean internal debt of around € 3 billion (US$ 4.2 billion) in exchange for remission of the internal debt. The island government of Curaçao initially refused to agree and announced a renegotiation of the internal debt. After elections in mid-2007, however, Curaçao's island government also agreed with the new status aparte.
Oostindie, Gert. Paradise Overseas; the Dutch Caribbean: Colonialism and Its Transatlantic Legacies. Oxford: Macmillan, 2005.
Jong, Lammert de, and Dirk Kruijt, eds. Extended Statehood in the Caribbean: Paradoxes of Quasicolonialism, Local Autonomy and Extended Statehood in the USA, French, Dutch and British Caribbean. Amsterdam: Rozenberg Publishers, 2006.