History of Curacao
The earliest recorded settlers on Curacao were the Amerindian Arawaks. The Arawaks migrated from regions of South America more than 5,000 plus years ago, settling on various islands they discovered. The group that settled on Curacao were the Caiquetios, who some historians believe gave the island its name.
In 1499, the Spanish lieutenant and explorer, Alonso de Ojeda visited the island to chart the South American coast and several offshore islands including Curacao. Not long after de Ojeda's voyage, the Spanish settled in large numbers on the island. However, by the early 16th century the Spaniards abandoned the island because of the lack of fresh water supply and important minerals.
In 1634, long after the Spanish had abandoned Curacao, the Dutch West Indies Company claimed the island. The natural harbour of Willemstad was ideal for trade. Commerce and shipping became Curaçao's most important economic activity and Curaçao played a pivotal role in one of the most intricate international trade networks in history: the Atlantic slave trade. During this period, the local language Papiamentu, a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and African dialects began to develop and Papiamentu became the primary source of communication between slaves and their owners.
By the early 1700’s, Jewish families from The Netherlands, Europe and Asia settled in Curacao. Willemstad’s St. Anna Bay became one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean . Raw materials from South America were traded for ready made goods from Europe and North America. In 1732, the community built the Mikve Israel Synagogue in Willemstad (which is to date the oldest synagogue still in use in the western hemisphere.)
The end of slavery in 1862 led to an economic downturn that lasted until Shell built an oil refinery on the island in 1915. The new oil refining industry was responsible for a long economic boom. Curacao became the seat of government for the newly autonomous Netherlands Antilles in 1954. It was during this period that offshore finance became a major factor in the island’s economy. However, the 1970’s oil crisis ended the long economic boom and a reduction in international investment in the following decade led to a further economic decline. Shell closed the refinery in 1985.
In recent years the island’s fortunes have turned around. The government took over the refinery in the 1990’s and leased it to a Venezuelan company which gave the economy a much needed boost. Other industries like tourism, offshore banking, shipping and ship repair all make considerable contributions to the economy.