The Dutch were already active as traders in the Americas from the late sixteenth century onwards. Most of this trade came under the control of the Dutch West Indies Company (WIC), established in 1621 as a chartered company, which was granted a monopoly on trade in the Atlantic region by the states general of the Dutch Republic. Its main trade activities included the trade in sugar, coffee, tobacco and enslaved people from Africa. The WIC colonized various territories in South and Central America. Besides a section of present-day Brazil that was in Dutch hands until 1654, the main WIC possessions were concentrated in the Guianas and on several islands in the Caribbean. Curacao, an island near the coast of Venezuela, developed into the main Dutch colony in the Caribbean Sea. It was colonized by the WIC in 1634. Unsuitable for large plantations, it was transformed into a major trading hub and slave depot. Suriname (or Dutch Guiana) on the coast of South America, was captured from the English by the Dutch in 1657. Ruled by the ‘Societeit van Suriname’, in which the WIC cooperated with other partners, it became the most important Dutch plantation colony in the Americas. In total, the Dutch imported some 510,000 enslaved Africans to the Americas. Many died in slavery and many others were sold to Spanish, British and French colonies.
In 1792, the WIC was dissolved and its colonies fell to the Dutch Republic. After the Napoleonic wars, during which the Dutch lost control of their colonies in modern-day Guyana, Suriname and the Dutch Caribbean islands formed the Dutch colonies in the Americas. They were combined in one colony called the Dutch West Indies in 1828, but split again in the colonies of Curacao and Suriname: Curacao, which was later renamed into the Netherlands Antilles, consisted of the island of Curacao and the smaller nearby islands Bonaire, Aruba, plus the Leeward islands Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten (the southern part of the island of Saint Martin). The vast majority of enslaved people in this colony lived in the main island of Curacao were some 6,000 persons lived in slavery, more than a quarter of the population. This number was small compared to the plantation colony of Surinam. In 1830, there were still 50,000 people in slavery in Surinam, some 85% of the population of the colony. Slavery was only abolished in the Dutch colonies in the West Indies on July 1st 1863, years after the abolishment of slavery in the British (1834) and French (1848) colonies and neighboring Venezuela (1855). After 1863, the plantation economy in Surinam was continued with the import of indentured indentured laborers from China, British India and the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (nowadays Indonesia), which led to a remarkable ethnically mixed culture. Curacao followed the regional migration patterns of the Caribbean region: the population rose and fell according to its economic situation. Around 1920, Surinam had 108,000 inhabitants and Curacao 35,000 inhabitants.