Travel: Curaçao, the unexpected 

Caribbean island melds African, European and South American cultures


The penultimate country in the archipelago of the Caribbean, Curaçao is not what you expect when you think tropical island . At first glimpse Curaçao seems a barren, desolate island - with little annual rainfall and no freshwater lakes or rivers, the lushness you expect from the tropics doesn't exist here.

Upon closer inspection, however, what at first seems to be a monotonous desert landscape is actually a stalwart country with enormous biodiversity.

Located 56 kilometres north of Venezuela, Curaçao is the "C" of the ABC Island set of the Netherlands Antilles, with Aruba and Bonaire being the "A" and "B." The country is a real miracle, with multiple cultures existing peacefully on a small, resource-restricted dot of dirt - there is only 444 square kilometers of land.

Sixty-five ethnic groups contribute their many flavours successfully to the stunning art and architecture of the country. There is something to be said about the ability of one country to create a Creole-type language, called Papiamento , which melds six different languages together: Dutch, Spanish, English, French and African tongues, with a Portuguese base. Eighty-five per cent of the people on the island speak Papiamentu, with many people able to speak four out of the six main languages.

Historically, Curaçao has been a refuge for its inhabitants. The population is largely people of African descent. Over 80 per cent of the population is Catholic - Curaçao is one of the few places outside of Africa with a majority black Catholic population - but the small Jewish and Dutch Protestant communities also have considerable influence. Each immigrant group has its own customs, religious practices and food, thereby creating a unique culture with a high percentage of inter-ethnic and interracial marriages.

However, this peaceful coexistence didn't always exist.

About 4,000 years ago the Caiquetios, an agricultural tribe of the Arawak natives, fled Venezuela to Curaçao and set up maize and manioc farms. They also hunted local rabbit and deer, believed to have been brought there by them from mainland South America.

They lived peacefully as hunter-gatherers/farmers until 1499, when Alonso de Ojeda, a lieutenant of Columbus, claimed the island for Spain. As there was no gold or other useful commodities found on the island to be traded, the Spanish sold a few thousand Arawaks as slaves to work in mines on other Caribbean islands. The few Indians who were not deported were forcibly relocated into two villages, one at present day Ascençion and the other at St. Annabaai.

The Spanish ruled the island until 1634, when the Dutch took over. The Dutch captured Curaçao relatively easily. On July 29, 1634, Johan van Walbeeck sailed into St. Annabaai with a small fleet and only a few hundred men. The Spaniards put up minimal resistance, poisoning wells and setting fire to the villages. The Dutch deported the Spaniards and most of the remaining Caiquetios to the mainland, fearing they would be spies for Spain.

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