When the Spanish conqueror Alonso de Ojeda discovered Curaçao in 1499, he found it to be inhabited by the Caiquetío, a coastal tribe of Arawak Indians occupying the nearby mainland. The insular Caiquetío were primarily fishers, but they also did some cultivating, and they collected salt from the Charoma salt pan for barter trade with the coast dwellers. In 1513 many Indians were evacuated by the Spaniards and were forced to work in the copper mines of Hispaniola. During the Spanish period, cattle raising was the principal means of subsistence, along with trading Indian slaves.
In 1634 the Dutch conquered Curaçao after defeating the Spaniards. The Dutch West India Company (WIC) mounted an expedition under Johan van Walbeeck, establishing a maritime base in the heart of the Spanish colonies. With the occupation of the Dutch, most of the remaining Indians scattered to the mainland. Those who stayed were gradually absorbed into the new population of Dutch traders, Spanish and Portuguese refugees, Sephardic Jews, and African slaves.
After 1648, Curaçao became an important base for smuggling, privateering, and the slave trade. The Dutch, venturing with their ships to the coast of Spanish America with slaves, cloth, and spices, soon established regular contact between Curaçao and the South American mainland. From 1662 until the end of the century, most of the African slaves entering the Spanish colonies were shipped by the WIC via Curaçao.
Alongside the slave trade there bloomed a contraband trade among the Spanish colonists in every sort of desired merchandise. Dutch Sephardic Jews played a central role in this lucrative traffic, holding probably more than a 20percent share of the Dutch trade with Spain. By 1702 the Dutch Sephardic community accounted for 34.5 percent of Curaçao's wealth. Most of these Jews were agents, factors, and brokers.
When the slave trade had begun to prosper, the WIC established several small plantations to produce food for the many slaves in the island's warehouse awaiting shipment to the Spanish colonies. Curaçao, however, remained mainly a trade island. It was never a real plantation colony in the typical Caribbean sense. Climatological factors and soil conditions did not permit the development of large-scale agriculture. Consequently, the Euro-Antillean upper class, composed of merchants and high-ranking Dutch authorities, did not merge into a class of plantation owners (as in Suriname, for example).
The absence of a genuine plantation economy might account for the fact that relations between the White European rulers and the Black African slaves on Curaçao were less strained than elsewhere in the Caribbean. Although social distance was maintained, contact was usually on a much more personal basis than on the plantation. Nevertheless, the division between the Afro-Antilleans and the Euro-Antilleans is still of significance today.
The Black people belonged to the weakest economic sector of the population both before and after the abolition of slavery in 1863. The same can be said of the Mulattoes. Although sexual relations between White, Mulatto, and Black people were not uncommon, marriage was commonly reserved for members of the same group. There did exist, however, a notable cultural exchange between Europeans and Africans.
In 1918, when the Shell company established a large oil refinery on the island, dramatic changes occurred. The immigration of thousands of laborers and an increasing number of births caused rapid population growth. Moreover, the great variety of national and ethnic groups resulted in a complex system of social stratification.