Although Bonaire's future seems inextricably entwined with its remarkable coastal reefs and its austere natural beauty, the island's past is tied to an altogether different set of resources and attributes. With a comfortably dry climate and steady trade winds (the very conditions that have made it a windsurfing mecca), Bonaire has long been recognized as an ideal locale for the production of salt. For over three centuries, the island's culture and prosperity was dependent upon this most important of the world's spices. Salt is still produced on Bonaire, though the stunning salt beds of Pekelmeer are also home to one of the hemisphere's great populations of flamingoes.
To bring a rich history into context, meet Adelfa St. Jago, Honorable Leader of Culture, explaining the importance of history in the video below by Jermaine Fletcher.
Bonaire's first inhabitants were the Caiquetios, a branch of the Arawak Indians who sailed across from what is now Venezuela around 1000 AD. Traces of Caiquetio culture are visible at a number of archaeological sites, including those at Lac Bay and northeast of Kralendijk. Rock paintings and petroglyphs have survived at the caves at Spelonk, Onima, Ceru Pungi, and Ceru Crita-Cabai. The Caiquetios were apparently a very tall people, for the Spanish dubbed the Leeward Islands 'las Islas de los Gigantes' (the islands of the giants). The name the Caiquetios gave to their island was adapted into Spanish as 'Boynay.'
After a falling out with Queen Isabella in 1495, Columbus lost his exclusive rights to explore the New World, and the Caribbean became open territory. Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci (from whom the Americas derive their name) were among the first to take advantage of the situation: in 1499 they landed on Bonaire and claimed it for Spain. Bonaire had neither gold nor sufficient rainfall to encourage large-scale agricultural production, so the Spanish saw very little reason to develop the colony. Instead, they forced the native Caiquetios into slavery on the large plantations of the island of Hispaniola. By 1515, Bonaire had been mostly depopulated.
In 1526, Juan de Ampues, governor of Bonaire, Curacao, and Aruba, began to raise cattle on the island. He brought in a number of Caiquetios and some Indians from Venezuela as laborers, and within a few years cows, sheep, goats, pigs, donkeys, and horses were being raised on the island. Valued less for their meat than for their hides, the animals needed little tending and were generally let loose to wander freely around the island. Before long they greatly outnumbered the human inhabitants, and today the island counts substantial populations of donkeys and goats among its wildlife.
Over the next few centuries, few of the island's inhabitants were to arrive willingly. There was a small inland settlement at Rincon, safe from the predations of pirates, but development was not encouraged as it was in other, richer colonies. Bonaire's immigrants were mostly convicts from the Spanish colonies in South America. Dutch admiral Boudewijn Hendricksz dropped off a group of Spanish and Portuguese prisoners, who founded the town of Antriol. For much of the next 300 years, even after the island was ceded to the Dutch, Bonaire remained a notorious penal colony.
In 1633, the Dutch, having lost the island of St. Maarten to the Spanish, retaliated by capturing Curacao, Bonaire, and Aruba. While Curacao emerged as a center of the slave trade, Bonaire became a plantation of the Dutch West India Company. A small number of African slaves were put to work cultivating dyewood and maize and harvesting solar salt around Blue Pan. They were joined by the few remaining Indians and convicts. Slave quarters, rising no higher than a man's waist and built entirely of stone, still stand in the area around Rincon and along the saltpans as a grim reminder of Bonaire's repressive past.
From the beginning of the seventeenth century until the middle of the nineteenth, only the military personnel who supervised the plantations and the prison houses were allowed on the island. When the Dutch West India Company dissolved in 1791, its properties were confiscated by the Dutch government, which continued operations on Bonaire. The slaves, now owned by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, came to be known as 'government slaves,' or, in Papiamentu , 'Katibu di Rei,' meaning 'slaves of the king.' Although the slaves were allowed to grow and sell their own produce, and sometimes even to buy their own freedom, living conditions on Bonaire worsened. By 1835, rumors of an uprising began to circulate around an escaped slave named Bentura. Fearing a rebellion, the Dutch transferred the remaining slaves from Rincon to a stronghold near the saltpans called 'Tera Cora,' which means red soil. Bentura was eventually captured, although he later escaped to safety. Slavery was finally abolished in 1862.
During this period the Dutch had struggled to maintain possession of the colony. Twice at the beginning of the nineteenth century (1800-1803 and 1807-1815), the British captured Curacao, the capital of the Dutch West Indies, and thus gained control of Bonaire as well. They leased the island to Joseph Foulke, a North American ship-owner who exploited Bonaire as a source of lumber. When the islands were returned to the Netherlands by the Treaty of Paris of 1816, the small Fort Oranje was erected to guard against future attacks. It housed the island's commander until 1837, when it became a government depot and then a prison. Later, in 1868, a small lighthouse was built near Fort Oranje.
Although it lacked many of the resources that made other Caribbean colonies prosperous, Bonaire did have one precious commodity in great abundance--salt, which was a necessary ingredient for preserving meat and fish before refrigeration. In the late 1620's, when tensions heightened between Spain and its former principalities in the Netherlands, the Spanish had cut off the supply of this essential mineral to the Dutch. A few years later, when the Dutch captured Curacao, Bonaire, and Aruba, they gained valuable control of Bonaire's salt pans. Over the next two centuries the salt industry on Bonaire expanded, first under the Dutch West India Company and then under direct governmental control. By 1837 Bonaire's salt production had grown so large that four obelisks were built near the Salt Lake to guide ships coming in to load. The obelisks were painted red, white, blue, and orange (the colors of the Dutch flag and the Royal House of Orange), and a flag of one of the four colors would be raised high atop a flagpole to direct ships to the appropriate pan. In the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the salt industry on Bonaire fell into sharp decline, as the abolition of slavery and increased international competition sharply reduced its profitability. In 1870, the island's nine salt pans were purchased from the government by E.B.F. Hellmund. Today, they are operated by the Antilles International Salt Company.
With the end of slavery, Bonaire ceased to be a government plantation, and the land was put to public auction. Five plots, rich in lumber and in cattle, were sold in 1867 to J.F. Neuman & Co. and E.B.F. Hellmund (who later purchased the island's salt pans). The partitioning of property left the island's population disenfranchised and facing increasing poverty. Working for low wages, they lost even the sense of communal infrastructure they had possessed during slavery. Many left to take jobs in the copper mines in Venezuela. Shortly after the turn of the century, the discovery of oil in Venezuela led to the development of refineries on Curacao and Aruba bringing new prosperity to the islands. Bonaire benefited as well, and a public works project was begun. The island blacktopped its roads, renewed the harbor, installed electricity and telephone connections, and improved medical conditions. The old lighthouse at Fort Oranje was replaced by a stone beacon in 1932, and an airport was built in 1936. During World War II, the island was an internment camp for captured Germans and Dutch Nazis. Wooden shacks confined 461 inmates between 1940 and 1947.
In 1936, Bonaire males were given the right to vote, and local political parties emerged over the next decade. It wasn't until after the war, however, that the islanders began to press for greater autonomy. Self-rule was granted by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in 1954, although the Antilles remain a Dutch protectorate. Independence brought a greater emphasis on tourism. Bonaire, already a favorite of soldiers and officers, gained in popularity when Queen Juliana visited the island in 1944 with Eleanor Roosevelt. The Nazi internment camps were converted into the Hotel Zeebad, and the wooden shacks were replaced by charming stone bungalows. A second hotel, the Bonaire Beach Hotel, was opened up in 1962 on the Playa de Lechi. The Flamingo Airport, originally constructed in 1955, was expanded in 1972 to support the increase in traffic. Seven years later Bonaire's Marine Park and Washington-Slagbaai Park were established, ensuring the survival of the island's extraordinary natural attractions well into the future.
Since 2010, Bonaire is considered a special municipality of the Netherlands together with Saba and Sint Eustatius and a part of the Dutch Caribbean.
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