Aruba: History

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History and Culture

The first people to inhabit the island were a nation of Arawak Indians called the Caiquetios who migrated north from the Orinoco Basin in South America and settled here approximately 2,000 years ago. Remnants of their culture can still be found at a number of different sites around the island: pottery, earthenware, and other artefacts at the Archeological Museum in Oranjestad and at the Historical Museum of Aruba at Fort Zoutman and William III Tower; and cave drawings and petroglyphs in the Fontein and Guadiriki Caves and at Arikok National Park.

In 1499, the Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda made his way to this remote corner of the Caribbean Basin and laid claim to the territory for Queen Isabella. According to one tradition, he christened the place Oro Hubo meaning there was gold there, but the name Aruba seems to have derived instead from the Arawak Indian word oibubai which means guide. In any event, the Spanish made little use of the island, finding the climate too arid for cultivation and discovering little evidence of the gold they were eagerly searching for. For the most part, they abandoned Aruba to the Caiquetios for the next 150 years and devoted themselves to other more lucrative conquests. Before long, however, the island became a clandestine hide-away for pirates and buccaneers who preyed on ships transporting Indian treasures back to the Old World. At Bushiribana on the northeast coast, the ruins of an old pirate castle still remain standing.

In 1636, Aruba once again came to the attention of Europeans. The Dutch, who had recently been expelled by the Spanish from their base in St.Maarten, set out looking for another place to establish a colonial presence. They soon captured the islands of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire from the Spanish who, in truth, put up very little resistance. Curacao became the administrative capital for the Dutch West India Company in the Netherlands Antilles, with Aruba operating as one of its chief satellites. From this early period dates the construction of the historic fortress Fort Zoutman and William III Tower, which is the oldest building in the country. Except for a short period from 1805 to 1815 when the island fell to the British during the Napoleonic Wars, Aruba has remained under Dutch control ever since.

The year 1824 saw the discovery of gold near Bushiribana. The ruins of a nineteenth-century smelting plant still survive in Balashi northwest of the Spanish Lagoon near the center of the island. The gold rush continued until 1916 when the mines finally became so unprofitable that they had to be shut down. Not long afterwards, however, in 1924, another valuable commodity replaced it, black gold --oil. Aruba became home to one of the world's largest refineries. The strength of the economic boom that followed made San Nicholas into a major commercial center and the island's second largest city. To this day, Aruba's two main industries have been oil and tourism, and when the refineries were closed down in 1985 due to the worldwide glut in petroleum, the emphasis on tourism became especially important. Even after oil refining was resumed in 1991, the island continued to invest heavily in tourist development, and new projects are still going on all the time.

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