The Dutch Caribbean islands are divided into two groups: Aruba (pop. 105,000), Curacao (pop.135,000) and Bonaire (pop. 18,000) which are north of Venezuela and are called the ABC islands. The other group called the Dutch Windward Islands, are east of the Virgin Islands and includes St. Maarten (pop.40,000), Saba (pop. 2,000 ) and St. Eustatius (pop.3,000).
The ABC Islands
The first inhabitants of the ABC islands were the Caiquitío Indians, an Arawak-speaking tribe from South America that established themselves on all three of the islands centuries before the arrival of the Spanish in 1499.
During the early 1630’s the Dutch, on a quest for a suitable Caribbean base from which to launch attacks against the Spanish, took control of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. The next century saw a drastic increase in commerce on all three islands. Prized for its naturally deep harbor, its strategic location and its saltpans (salt was an important commodity for preserving fish and meat shipped back to Europe), Curaçao quickly developed into an important Dutch naval base. Bonaire was also valued for its vast quantities of salt and tracts of agricultural land left behind by the Spaniards. Slaves from Africa and the Caribbean were brought in to work the salt fields and the plantations. Curaçao became the Caribbean’s busiest slave depot during the seventeenth century when the Dutch West India Company shipped tens of thousands of slaves to Curaçao and Brazil where they were sold to plantation owners from across the Caribbean and the Americas. Slavery wouldn’t be abolished in the ABCs until 1863, after which the Dutch West India Company closed many of the plantations.
Economic prospects were bleak until the discovery of rich oilfields off the coast of Venezuela at the beginning of the twentieth century, which proved to be a boom for all three of the islands. Aruba and Curaçao both built refineries, attracting workers from Bonaire and around the world.
The Winward Islands
In 1493, during Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the West Indies, upon first sighting the island he named it Isla de San Martín after Saint Martin of Tours because it was 11 November, St. Martin’s Day. The French and Dutch both coveted the island.
The Dutch found San Martín a convenient halfway point between their colonies in New Amsterdam (present day New York) and Brazil. In 1648, they signed the treaty of Concordia which divided the island in two. After abolition of slavery, plantation culture declined and the island’s economy suffered.
In 1939, St. Martin received a major boost when it was declared a duty-free port. The Dutch side began focusing on tourism in the 1950s, with the French side following suit two decades later. Because of being split up into a Dutch and a French part, the tourist boom was heavier on Sint Maarten than on the surrounding islands.