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Part One
Historical Overview

I - From Cattle Ranch to Naval Base

“The Dutch were the most enterprising businessmen in seventeenth-century Europe... Primarily, they were middlemen: they bought, sold, and carried other people’s products... With their ample fleet of merchant ships, the Dutch transported... commodities to Amsterdam and other Dutch towns, and sold them to the buyers from all over Europe who congregated there... By gearing their whole society to foreign trade, the Dutch overcame their lack of natural resources, manpower, and military strength...”[2]

Spanish depiction of the first contact with the island's Carib Indians (CHA).

This description of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century could equally well describe Curaçao several decades later. Just a few years after wresting the island from the Spanish, the Dutch had successfully transplanted their highly developed mercantile system to their new Caribbean colony, transforming this small, barren island into a successful, bustling hub of their commercial activities in the Western Hemisphere.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to set foot on Curaçao, arriving in 1499 as part of their widespread conquest of the region from its original Amerindian inhabitants. When Amerigo Vespucci[3] and his men first anchored in port, they found a small but thriving local culture that had developed its own regional trade networks with the neighboring islands now known as Bonaire and Aruba, as well as with coastal Venezuela. Archaeologists believe that the Caquetíos who were living in these areas all belonged to the same ethnic and tribal group[4] and all spoke the same Arawakan language. Archaeological research indicates that Curaçao’s Caquetíos, who probably numbered about 1000 at the time of the conquest, “traded extensively in salt and tobacco,”[5] as well as conch, parrot feathers, shell beads and ornaments, and stones. Shell beads and pendants were used as money. These trade networks seem to have developed as far back as 800 AD, and were critical to the Amerindians’ social organization and economic survival.[6]

Finding sparse natural resources and no precious metals, the Spaniards dubbed Curaçao and neighboring Aruba and Bonaire “useless islands” and gave them relatively little attention compared to their lucrative finds elsewhere in the region. In 1513 they forcibly exported most of the natives to work the profitable mines of Hispañola. The Spanish maintained a larger presence beginning in the 1520s, reimporting some Caquetíos and establishing a half dozen small settlements around the island. Curaçao was also used “as a clearing-houses for red slaves,”[7] who were captured in other Spanish possessions and brought to the island before being sent on to Hispañola. Interestingly, this foreshadowed the same role the island was to play in the transshipment of enslaved Africans almost two hundred years later under the Dutch. (see Chapter 7)

The Spaniards on Curaçao made and retained close ties with the new Spanish settlements along the northern coast of South America. They first tried to grow oranges, sugar cane and cotton for export, with paltry results. They were more successful with livestock raising; soon “the whole of Curaçao had become one Spanish rancho, with the stock propagating unchecked and showing such fertility that the number of animals before long grew to enormous proportions.”[8] Cattle, sheep, horses and goats were raised for their hides; pods from the local divi-divi tree proved to be an excellent source of tannin, which was needed to cure the dried skins. The Spaniards established a tannery on the island and annually exported 500-600 cured cattle hides and a similar number of sheepskins, a respectably-sized operation for its times. They also exported some cheese, wool and brazil wood from Curaçao. Although the Caquetíos had dug salt pans on some of the bays, these seem to have been of limited interest to the Spaniards. Curaçao was a low maintenance possession for Spain, its livestock roaming free and breeding freely, then periodically rounded up for skinning. Contributing just a mite to royal coffers, the island required little attention in exchange.[9] When the Dutch attacked in 1634, they met with very little resistance.

Although the Dutch had commercial ambitions from the beginning, they originally seized Curaçao for its strategic value as a military post, not for its potential as a trade hub. When they snatched the island from the Spanish in 1634 the Dutch were looking for a naval base in the Caribbean from which to coordinate their attacks against Spain, against whom they were then engaged in a prolonged struggle for in-dependence. They also found the island’s salt pans key for their important fishpre- serving industry (especially since the conflict with Spain had cut off their traditional salt sources), and its location a convenient midpoint on the trade route between their recently established colonies in Brazil and on the eastern coast of North America. To fully grasp the island’s strategic importance for the Netherlands, and the role it was to play in the Dutch commercial empire, it is important to understand the Dutch role in Europe at that time.

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