Dearest Rachel –
Oddly enough, this report is coming to you from Oranjestad, as we’re not leaving Aruba until something like 11 o’clock tonight. We’re still going to be pulling in to Curaçao by 8 in the morning tomorrow – that’s how close these two islands are to each other – and I’m told that I should make an effort to get up early to watch as we pull in. Apparently, the houses along the way in are beautiful and colorful, but the port itself is literally nothing to write home about. I may yet comment on those assessments, regardless, so stay tuned.
Anyway, I ought to be filling you in on Curaçao and Willemstad. As with Aruba, the island’s name has a few different possible sources – some more colorful than others, with the natural result being that the more colorful the story, the less likely it is to be true. Most likely, it’s taken from the name the original indigenous islanders gave to themselves, backed up by the fact that the Spanish referred to them as far back as the early 1500s as los Indios Curaçaos. There is also a theory that the island, being well-stocked with citrus and other vitamin C-rich fruit, was a fairly well-known recuperative spot for sailors suffering from scurvy. This led to it being referred to as the ‘Island of Healing’; in Spanish, this would be Isla de la Curación, and in Portuguese, Ilha da Curação.
As with Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao was taken by the Dutch in the 1630s as part of the results of the Thirty Years’ War. It was at this point the first of the quarters of the old city of Williemstad, Punda, was founded, on the east side of the Sint Anna Bay, followed by Pietermaai further to the east of the walled city (set some 500 meters away from the walls, so as not to obstruct the cannons of Fort Amsterdam), Otrobanda (literally, otro banda, ‘the other side’) on the west side of the bay, and Scharloo on the north side of Waaigat Harbor. The fact that Punda was a walled city – as well as its development into a major trading center – made it an appealing destination for Sephardic Jews, and as a result, it contains the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas, the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel. On a less commendable note, one of the main commodities being traded in those days were slaves, so… yeah.
Most of the twentieth century saw Curaçao’s trade blossom in oil and phosphate industries, as the island is (as are the other ABC islands) part of the Venezuelan oil patch. The refinery on Willemstad (owned by Royal Dutch Shell, and leased to the state-owned Venezuelan company PDVSA) is one of the largest in all of the Caribbean. The refinery, in fact, is said to be responsible for Curaçao’s position as one of the world’s highest per capita CO2 emission-producing countries (13.74 metric tons per person in 2019 [12th of 148] and 19.12 in 2010 [5th of 147]. Compare that to the U.S., at 12.98 tonnes per capital in 2019 [13th] and 17.28 in 2010 [9th]). It wouldn’t surprise me if, while us passengers are running amok on the island, the crew are spending their day filling the tanks for the two-plus-day trip back to Fort Lauderdale. One can only imagine how many gallons to the mile a vessel like the Odyssey gets, and it’s well over a thousand nautical miles to get there from here.
Surprisingly, oil doesn’t make up the majority of the island’s economy, the way it does in Aruba. In fact, no specific industry predominates on the island, but their dealing in gold and other precious metals represents an unexpected plurality in terms of exports. To be sure, like with so much of the Caribbean islands, it is a tax haven within the EU, even though it does adhere to the Union’s code of conduct regarding tax practices. Interestingly enough, its central bank dates back to 1828, making it the oldest such in the entire Western Hemisphere (compare that to the Federal Reserve, which was set up in 1913, some eighty-five years later).
As for the famous bright blue liqueur that takes its name from the island? Hard liquor of any sort makes up but one-third of one percent of the island’s exports. That’s outstripped by even its trade in the island’s postage stamps. Maybe I should get a few of each, just to boost their standings.
As Willemstad is a much more populous city than Oranjestad (at some 137K, it’s larger than that of all of Aruba, and includes approximately 85% of Curaçao’s population), it served as the capital of the Netherlands Antilles until its dissolution in 2010. Aruba (which left the union in 1986), Curaçao and Sint Maarten became their own countries under the Kingdom’s aegis, while Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba are still united as part of the Caribbean Netherlands.
The nice thing is, as a tourist, I don’t have to worry about all this political interconnectedness; I can just enjoy the weather on the beach, as well as the local museum, caves and yes, the distillery, while I’m on my planned shore excursion. As with here in Aruba, I’m hoping to be able to have fun without worrying too much about this or that.
So with that in mind, honey, wish me luck; I doubt I’ll need much of it, but it couldn’t hurt.