Dutch West Indies

Part of the Lesser, or Leeward, Antilles.  Also called the Dutch Antilles.


Unlike much of the Caribbean-American region, Aruba has a dry climate and an arid, flat, cactus-strewn and boulder dotted landscape. Located west of Curaçao

Europeans first learned of Aruba when Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Ojeda came across it in August 1499. Vespucci in one of his four letters to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici described his voyage to the islands along the coast of Venezuela. He wrote about an island where most trees are of brazilwood and from this island he went to one ten leagues of where they had houses built as in Venice. In another letter he described a small island inhabited by very large people, which the expedition thought was not inhabited.

Aruba was colonized by Spain for over a century. The Cacique or Indian Chief of the arawaks in Aruba, Simas, welcomed the first priests in Aruba and received from them a wooden cross as a gift. In 1508, Alonso de Ojeda was appointed as Spain’s first Governor of Aruba, as part of “Nueva Andalucia”.

Another governor appointed by Spain was Juan Martinez de Ampues. A “cédula real” decreed in November 1525 gave Ampués, factor of Española, the right to repopulate the depopulated islands of Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire. The natives under Spanish rule enjoyed more liberty than the average northern European farmer of the period.

Aruba has been under Dutch administration since 1647, initially under Peter Stuyvesant. Under the Dutch W.I.C. administration, as “New Netherlands and Curacao” from 1648 to 1664 and the Dutch government regulations of 1629, also applied in Aruba. The Dutch administration appointed an Irishman as “Commandeur” in Aruba in 1667.

The Arawaks and Dutch settlers have a forced relationship. There are no open hostilities but they avoid each other as much as possible.

There is a third group of inhabitants: Pirates. Aruba has nothing that passes for a proper town or port, only fishing villages and plantations. Pirates, have turned many of these villages into small havens. Despite this, Aruba is still not as large a center for Pirates as Port-Royal, Nassau or Tortuga, nor as lawless. This population has given Aruba an inflated economy due to the pirate presence and the their free spending habits.


Bonaire’s first inhabitants were the Caiquetios, a branch of the Arawak Indians who sailed across from what is now Venezuela around 1000 AD. The Caiquetios were apparently a very tall people, for the Spanish dubbed the Leeward Islands ‘las Islas de los Gigantes’ (the islands of the giants).

Bonaire was claimed for the Spanish by Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. Under Spanish occupation, the natives were enslaved and transported to Hispaniola, but the island’s physical resources were largely ignored. By 1526, the island was depopulated. That year, Juan de Ampues, regional governor, turned it into a cattle plantation and repopulated it with Indians.

In 1633, the Dutch, having lost the island of St. Maarten to the Spanish, retaliated by capturing Curaçao, Bonaire, and Aruba. While Curaçao emerged as a center of the slave trade, Bonaire became a plantation of the Dutch West India Company. A small number of African slaves were put to work alongside Indians and convicts, cultivating dyewood and maize and harvesting solar salt around Blue Pan. Slave quarters, rising no higher than a man’s waist are built entirely of stone.

The only generally recognized towns on the island are Kralendijk and Rincon

Rincon is one of the only two towns on Bonaire, situated in the north of the island in an inland valley. It was established in the 16th century by the Spanish.

Kralendijk is the main port with the Customs House and fort.


The original inhabitants of Curaçao were Arawak Amerindians. The first Europeans to see the island were members of a Spanish expedition under the leadership of Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. The Spaniards decimated the Arawak with diseases such as smallpox and measles.

By the early 16th century the Spanish had pretty well determined that the island had little gold and not enough of a fresh water supply to establish large farms, and so they abandoned it.
The island was occupied by the Dutch in 1634. The Dutch West India Company founded the capital of Willemstad on the banks of an inlet called the ‘Schottegat’.

With its deep port and protected shores, and with the establishment of several large forts, Curacao soon became a safe place for the Dutch West India Company to conduct commerce.
Commerce and shipping (also piracy) became Curaçao’s most important economic activities. In addition, Curaçao came to play a pivotal role in the Atlantic slave trade. The Dutch West India Company made Curaçao a center for slave trade in 1662. Dutch merchants brought slaves from Africa to the trading area called Asiento. From here, slaves are sold and shipped to various destinations in South America and the Caribbean.

Landhouses, the central plantation houses, are strategically located on top of hills to oversee the plantation and to maintain visual contact with each other. This allowed for communication in case of emergencies. Built to typical Dutch architecture styles, they are fortified and can, in the event of an attack, hold out for days or weeks. There are about seventy plantations and Landhouses.
Early on many of the plantations foundered in various forms of agriculture, but some were successful in growing peanuts, maize, and fruits. Others soon found their niche in the production of salt, dried from the island’s saline ponds.


Also during this time, Jewish families from Amsterdam established settlements on Curacao and attracted others from Europe and South America, fleeing from the remnants of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. At this point the Jewish population in Curacao has reached about 2,000.