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Part Two
Major Economic Sector

VII - International Trade[1]

"The island of Curaçao, which is so barren, which doesn't even have firewood or water except rainwater collected in cisterns and wells, is provided with everything it needs by its proximity of fifteen leagues to the coast... Every month there arrive from Europe six or eight or ten Dutch vessels filled with clothing and spirits and they return with hides, cacao, tobacco and sugar."[2]

"Curaçao... soon became the great smugglers' den of the New World. Throughout all the wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, fleets sailed openly from this island laden with contraband goods... This island was not only used as a basis for a vast smuggling trade but as a refuge for Dutch privateers."[3]


The major streets of Punda have been at the heart of the island's commerce for hundreds of years (CHA).

Although the island's original inhabitants were not known to be major regional traders, barter and exchange nevertheless were an integral part of their economic activities. Such a small, desert island with such limited natural resources could hardly support human life without some regular commercial intercourse with other places that were more blessed by nature. According to archaeologists, Curaçao's original Caquetío people traded locally-produced salt, cotton, parrot feathers, conch shells and meat, shell beads, stones and some tobacco with Amerindians on the neighboring mainland coast, with whom they maintained close
commercial ties.[4] "Though Curaçao did produce some pumpkins and other crops [including corn and cassava], many of the necessities of life could only be obtained from the fellow-tribesmen on the Firm Coast;" this included arms and implements such as spears, arrowheads, hatchets and knives, as well as fruits and vegetables,[5] and live wild deer.

Under the Spanish, Curaçao's first export was human beings. Following the initial discovery in 1499 the Crown largely ignored the island for over two decades, although it was probably visited occasionally by itinerant shipmasters who captured small groups of natives to sell into slavery. Seeing that the island lacked any valuable natural resources which could be exploited for profit, in 1513 the Crown officially declared Curaçao and neighboring Aruba and Bonaire as "useless islands," clearing the way for the systematic capture of almost all of the 2000 or so inhabitants, who were sent to work in the mines of Hispañola. In the 1520s a high level Spanish civil servant and merchant who was living on Hispañola, Juan de Ampués, took an interest in Curaçao "because of its being favorably situated for fetching brazil wood and slaves from the coast,"[6] and reimported several dozen Amerindians to repopulate the island. So-called red slaves were caught on the mainland and brought to Curaçao, where they were branded with the letter C before being sent to the mines. Already by the early sixteenth century, then, Curaçao was being used as a transshipment center and a slave depot, albeit on a small scale. Ampués also was granted exclusive rights to cut and export the island's hardwood timber.

In the course of their 135 year occupation, the Spaniards found Curaçao's dry climate most suited to livestock raising. They amassed several thousand head of sheep, goats and cattle, which roamed the island freely before being slaughtered; their hides were cured at a small local tannery using the pods of the divi divi tree. These skins soon became the island's most important export; by the early 1600s over 1000 were shipped out annually. The Spaniards also exported a handful of agricultural products, including dyewood, divi divi pods, goat cheese, wool and brazil wood.

It was under the Dutch, however, that the name of Curaçao practically became synonymous with trade. In the first fourteen years of Dutch rule (1634-1648), trade was an incidental, if highly felicitous, outcome of warfare; the Dutch domination of the seas was key to their commercial success. When Dutch attacks on Spanish galleons yielded far more riches than the island's small population could possibly use, Curaçao quickly became a transshipment center; produce was stacked high on the quays along St. Anna Bay before being transported back to Europe by the Dutch merchant marine.

After the 1648 Treaty of Munster the Dutch expanded their use of Curaçao as a regional trade base, quickly finding highly receptive markets in other European colonies throughout the Americas. Trade with mainland Spanish America was particularly key, and in various forms, it would dominate much of Willemstad's commerce for several hundred years. But the 1648 commercial treaty between the Netherlands and Spain strictly forbade Dutch trade with Spanish possessions, and so, in effect, all this trade with the neighboring continent was illegal.

In 1675, at a time when most European powers imposed severe trade restrictions and colonies were only allowed to trade with their Motherland, Curaçao was opened to ships of all nationalities, an exceptionally bold move for the times. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were the heyday of Willemstad's reign as a regional trade hub. International commerce became Curaçao's "fount of life;"[7] this included the legitimate transshipment of a variety of goods between Europe, North America, the Caribbean and northern South America, as well as a thriving contraband trade with Spanish and British colonies, and a brief but highly lucrative traffic in enslaved Africans.

Initially most of the island's trade was controlled by the Dutch West India Company (WIC). As long as the WIC existed all products that were transshipped on the island, regardless of their origin, were levied a flat import/export tax which went directly into WIC coffers. After the demise of the slave trade, this tax became the WIC's most important source of income until the company was disbanded in 1791. Throughout the eighteenth century a class of independent Dutch and Jewish merchants also arose who became serious rivals to the WIC; by mid century they were dominating the island's trade. They fell into two main groups: those who were agents of major Dutch commercial houses, and those who conducted their own regional trade. Jews dominated both groups but they were not the only players. There were many upper level Dutch merchants in the first group, while the second group included upper and middle level Dutch merchants and even some free blacks and mulattos.[8]

By the early 1700s regional trade had become a cornerstone of the local economy and "Curaçao had established trade relations with all the important places in the Caribbean and North America, giving life to an entire system of commercial traffic and distribution that sprang from its relationship with Amsterdam."[9] Contraband and legal trade usually went hand-in-hand. For Curaçao's enterprising merchants, "the difference between legitimate and illegitimate commerce was neither understood nor heeded. The point was to make money."[10]

In 1776, a full hundred years after the island had been made a free port, Adam Smith, in his "Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations," noted that, in spite of its barrenness, this status "has been the great cause of prosperity," for Curaçao, "in the midst of better colonies whose ports are open to those of one nation only."[11] Already by then, however, the Netherlands was in its twilight years as a world commercial power, with France and Great Britain in clear ascent.

Curaçao's role as a regional trade center declined precipitously throughout the nineteenth century, beginning with the demise of the WIC in 1791, and continuing with the British occupation of the island (1800 - 1802 and 1807 - 1816). After the British occupation, the emerging class of independent Dutch and Jewish merchants prospered, consolidating their position. Freed from the legislation which had prohibited them from participating in politics until 1825, the island's Jews in particular rose to new heights of power. This was the era when the great merchant families came into their own; names such as Jesurun, Cohen Henriquez, Maduro and Penso ruled. Wealthy merchants dominated all of the island's important economic sectors, including shipping, banking, and local industries, as well as the political structure. Trade with the northern coast of South America, especially Venezuela, was the mainstay of the nineteenth century economy, and much of it was outright contraband. The rise of steam shipping in the second half of the century radically changed trade patterns and opened up opportunities for new markets and merchant groups (see Chapter 8).


Salt was traded by the island's first inhabitants, and continued to be exported until the mid twentieth century (CHA).

The nineteenth century was also the heyday, such as it was, of the export of native products. Among the local agricultural commodities that found an international market were salt, dyewood, orange peels (used to make the distinctive Curaçao Liqueur), goat skins, divi divi pods, livestock, cochineal, aloe and for a brief period, phosphate (see Chapter 10). Many of these had been exported continuously on a small scale for the past two hundred years, but the
overall decline in the island's transshipment trade in this period made them seem relatively more important. Goods that were primarily made for local consumption, such as woven sandals and furniture, were also exported in small quantities within the region, especially to neighboring Venezuela. Straw hats that were woven by rural women were the island's single most important export during several periods in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, making their way onto the heads of a wide range of international clientele, from fashion-conscious New Yorkers and Parisians to field workers in rural South America and the United States.

After the oil refinery opened in the twentieth century, international trade was no longer the mainstay of the island's economy, for virtually the first time since the arrival of the Dutch almost three hundred years before. However, Royal Dutch Shell was well within the island's commercial tradition, bringing a highly desirable foreign material to be processed locally and then launching it on the international market. The prosperity brought by the refinery also benefitted the trade sector, creating opportunities for new immigrant groups and new economic sectors. By the second half of the century, a diverse group of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia had carved out their own niches in the island's commerce, posing a serious competitive threat to the established merchant class. Emerging economic activities such as offshore banking and tourism, although they took place locally, were new variations on the theme of international trade.

Curaçao's excellent deep water harbor and its favorable geographic location just off the coast of South America have enhanced the island's role in international trade over the centuries. Changing regional and international economic forces have modified the character of this trade, with different types of commerce dominating in different periods, but nothing has ever come close to replacing trade as the island's raison d'etre. The international economic climate, and geo-political happenings around the globe have always had a local impact.

Historically, Curaçao's merchants have always been internationally-oriented and the local market has always been of secondary importance. As a result, the island has had many more commercial firms than one would expect given its size, limited purchasing power and the relatively low level of prosperity. Lacking many resources of its own, Curaçao has always depended almost exclusively on the transit trade, transshipping goods between different markets. Whatever the commodity du jour - cacao in the seventeenth century, enslaved Africans in the eighteenth, arms in the nineteenth, oil and offshore capital in the twentieth - Curaçao has been able to successfully place it on the international market.

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