Curacao is a semiarid island of 444 square kilometers near the coast of Venezuela. Earliest traces of inhabitation are almost 5,000 years old. When it was colonized in 1499 by the Spanish, the indigenous Arawak population was enslaved and transported to Hispaniola. The island was conquered by the Dutch West Indies Company (WIC) in 1634 as a stronghold for trade and privateering. Around Fort Amsterdam the later capital Willemstad developed. Settlement for agriculture was encouraged, both for food supplies and for commercial crops such as indigo, cotton, tobacco, sorgo and sugar cane, and this led to an influx of enslaved workers. But the island’s dry climate was not suited for large-scale plantations and Curacao developed into a hub in the slave trade. Willemstad became a free port in 1674, which allowed it to develop into an important commercial center. People in slavery were transported from Africa to the market in Willemstad, from where they were transported mainly to Spanish colonies. Only a minority remained on the island. A famous slave revolt in 1795 led by Tula was suppressed by the colonial authorities.

map of Curaçao 1836Just like Suriname, Curacao was captured by the English during the Napoleonic wars and returned to Dutch rule in 1816. Between 1828 and 1845, the island fell under the authority of the Governor-General of the Dutch West-Indies in Paramaribo. After 1845, Willemstad was the administrative center for all Dutch islands in the Caribbean: nearby Bonaire, Aruba, and the Leeward islands Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten (the southern part of the island of Saint Martin). In 1817, Curacao counted about 12,000 inhabitants—less than half living in slavery. In 1863, the population had increased to about 19,000, about a third of which consisted of people that were emancipated from slavery in that same year. Because of the absence of a plantation economy, the ratio between free population and enslaved was much more balanced compared to Suriname.

After Great Britain (1834), France (1848) and nearby Venezuela (1855), the Dutch abolished slavery in the colonies in the West-Indies in 1863. Slave owners in Curacao received 200 guilders compensation per enslaved person for the loss of their property (the emancipated received nothing). The abolition did not really change the social relations on the island. Many former enslaved went to Willemstad to work in the city and its harbor. Other former enslaved remained at work on the island as tenants of the former slave owners, leasing land under the paga tera system, a form of sharecropping which existed in some places well into the second half of the twentieth century.

In the half century after the abolition of slavery, the population of Curacao grew from almost 20,000 to 34,000 persons. At the same time many inhabitants of Curacao emigrated to Venezuela and to other islands, such as Cuba, due to the difficult economic situation. This lead to a skewed sex ratio on the island between 0.74 and 0.85 in the second half of the nineteenth century. An economic shift only occurred when large petroleum reserves were discovered in Venezuela and Shell established an oil refinery on the island in 1918. The opening of the refinery led to a growth in wealth on the island and with it a rapid growth in population after 1920. At the same time, the arrival of new workers and their families for the oil industry did not lead to a major change in colonial social relations. It was not until well after World War II that these would change profoundly.

View of plantation Plantersrust in Curaçao, Jacob Hendrik van de Poll, 1862


Allen, Rose Mary (2007). Di ki manera? A Social History of Afro-Curaçaoans, 1863-1917 (Amsterdam: SWP).

Klooster, William (2014). Curaçao In the Age of Revolutions, 1795-1800. Edited by Gert Oostindie. Open Access E-Books. Leiden: KITLV Press.

Roitman, Jessica Vance (2016). Land of hope and dreams: slavery and abolition in the Dutch Leeward islands, 1825–1865, Slavery & Abolition, 37:2, 375-398, DOI: 10.1080/0144039X.2016.1140457.

Roitman, Jessica Vance (2020). “The Price You Pay.” Journal of Global Slavery 1 (2-3): 196–223.

Rupert, Linda M. (2009) Marronage, Manumission and Maritime Trade in the Early Modern Caribbean, Slavery & Abolition, 30:3, 361-382, DOI: 10.1080/01440390903098003

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