By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM
Curaçao: The Western Hemisphere’s Newly Independent Micro-State
Curaçao became a quasi-independent country Oct. 10, 2010, making it one of the world’s 195 recognized countries, according to the U.S. State Department. In a change of constitutional status that dissolved the Dutch Antilles, Curaçao (pronounced “cure a sow”) is now an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The small Caribbean island has an unusual history, is culturally diverse and offers beautiful scenery to tourists.
Located in the south Caribbean Sea, Curaçao lies between the islands of Aruba and Bonaire, just 35 miles (56 km) north of Venezuela. Curaçao has an area of only 171 square miles (444 sq. km), about twice the size of Washington, D.C. The island is 38 miles (61 km) long and about seven miles (11 km) across at its widest point.
Curaçao has a semi-arid climate influenced by the northeast trade winds, which bring mild temperatures year-round. The island receives only 24 inches (600 mm) of rain yearly. Limestone cliffs, volcanic rocks and rocky beaches are common sights.
With its desert-like vegetation, Curaçao is different from most tropical islands. It has numerous species of cactus, thorny shrubs, evergreens and a national tree called the divi-divi, whose branches point westward, or downwind.
The first settlers to Curaçao were Arawak Indians, who migrated from South America. When a Spanish expedition landed there in 1499, they sent most of Curaçao’s indigenous population to other Spanish colonies to work as slaves.
In 1634, the Dutch conquered Curaçao, along with the neighboring island of Bonaire. The Dutch built a port city called Willemstad, which became the center of Curaçao’s shipping- and commerce-based economy.
In 1662, the Dutch West India Company made Curaçao a center of the Atlantic slave trade. Dutch merchants operated under a contract with Spain. This relationship allowed the Dutch to acquire slaves from Africa and market them to many locations in South America and the Caribbean. The slave trade brought considerable wealth to Curaçao and led to the construction of many classic colonial buildings.
When the Netherlands abolished slavery in 1863, Curaçao’s economy quickly declined.
Many residents emigrated to other Caribbean islands in search of work. In the early 20th century when oil was discovered in the Maracaibo Basin of western Venezuela, Curaçao’s government built a refinery to service the oil fields. The refinery rejuvenated the island’s economy.
In 1954, the Dutch reorganized Curaçao and several other holdings as the Netherlands Antilles, part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. When the citizens of Curaçao voted to become autonomous within the Kingdom in referenda in 2005 and 2009, the Netherlands complied. The new changes took place in October 2010.
Today, Curaçao’s population of 137,000 is a mix of many different ethnicities and cultures. According to Marjie Lambert’s article, “Explorations of an Arid Island,” Curaçao has an Afro-Caribbean majority of mixed African and European descent. Inhabitants include descendents of the Dutch, of course, but also of the Spanish, British and French, who occupied the island or worked there.
In the 1500s, Jews from Portugal migrated to Curaçao, founding the oldest continuously inhabited Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere. The Jewish population has had a significant influence on Curaçao’s culture and economy.
Curaçao’s economy is based on financial services, oil refining and international tourism. Offshore investments and banking has become a major segment. Oil refining continues to be important, even as the government has leased the refinery to Venezuela.
Tourism is an increasingly important sector of Curaçao’s economy today. Since most of the island’s beaches are rocky rather than sandy, however, most tourists come to scuba dive. With 50 species of coral and hundreds of species of fish, Curaçao’s dozens of dive sites are popular. One unusual feature of diving in Curaçao is that the sea floor drops off abruptly a few hundred feet from the shore. This allows divers to reach the coral reefs without using a boat.
Curaçao is the latest newly independent micro-country to claim independence since World War II. Of the 195 recognized countries in the world, Curaçao joins 103 others that have claimed independence or changed their names just since 1960. Nearly half of these are classed as micro-states. This trend of smaller and smaller independent countries is clearly a trend worth recognizing
And that is Geography in the News.
Sources: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/cc.html; Lambert, Marjie, “Explorations of an Arid Island,” The Bulletin (http://www.bendbulletin.com), Nov. 18, 2010; and “Towner, Betsy, “In 50 Years…A Whole New Map,” AARP Bulletin, Nov. 2010.
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.