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  • Jacqueline Grant

The ABC Islands


From left to right: Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire in modern times


In 1634, almost 150 years after Christopher Columbus sailed into the waters of the Caribbean, Dutch ships also arrived there. The first Dutch ships docked at the natural harbor of a tiny island just north of the Venezuelan coastline. At the time there were just a few Spanish families living quietly on the island, but they soon found themselves transported to the South American mainland as the Dutch took over the island for their own purposes.


Curaçao, is one of three small islands called the Curaçao Group clustered together near the South American coastline—but many people call them the ABC islands. Along with the other islands in this group: Aruba and Bonaire, Curaçao had extremely dry soil. The Dutch settlers could not grow very many crops easily. But that didn’t really matter as the new arrivals were more interested in obtaining salt to preserve their fish—a huge industry for the Dutch—than they were in growing cash crops so they did not care too much about the quality of the soil.


In fact, Aruba and Bonaire provided exactly what the Dutch needed to make salt. The workers pumped seawater into shallow ponds on the dry shore and waited for the liquid to evaporate. This left behind rough salt crystals that could be scooped up and used to keep their fish from rotting.


The islands were used for other purposes as well. Aruba was used as a large cattle ranch, while Bonaire's settlers planted corn that was used to feed the enslaved workers who did backbreaking labor throughout the Caribbean. Both Aruba and Bonaire were also used for growing the aloe plant, from which various medicines were made. Curaçao eventually became important to the Dutch as a trading post for enslaved African being transported to the Americas from Africa aboard Dutch ships.


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