Identification. Curaçao is the largest of the six islands comprising the Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao, Bonaire, Saint Martin, Saba, Saint Eustatius) and Aruba. Several theories exist as to the origin of the name "Curaçao," none of which can be proven conclusively. It may have been derived from the Indian Caiquetío language, or it may have evolved from the Spanish corazón or the Portuguese curazon (heart). After 1525, Spanish maps refer to the island as "Curaçote," "Curasaote," and "Curasaore." By the seventeenth century the island was generally known as "Curaçao" or "Curazao."
Location. The island of Curaçao has a land area of 448 square kilometers. It is located in the Caribbean Sea within view of the Venezuelan coast, between the islands of Aruba and Bonaire. Its landscape is arid and mostly flat, except in the northwest, where hills rise to 375 meters. Deep bays are found along the southern coast, the largest of which, Schottegat, provides the capital, Willemstad, with one of the most important harbors in the Caribbean. The flora is very similar to the flora of the neighboring islands. Its best-known specimens are the divi-divi tree, the campech or brazilwood tree, the aloe, and a variety of cactuses. Coconut palms and tamarind, guyaba (guava), mango, and papaya trees are found in cultivated areas.
Besides the biná, a small deer, there are no large native animals. Goats, horses, and cattle were imported by the Spanish conquerors. There are no poisonous snakes but many varieties of lizards, of which the largest is the iguana. Among the best known of the more than one hundred types of birds are the palabrua (barn owl), the trupial (a songbird; both the orange Icterus icterus and the yellow I. migrogularis are present), and the tortolica (a small pigeon); pelicans roam the coast in great numbers.
Demography. The population in 1990 was about 148,000. Migration is the primary factor that determines population development in the Netherlands Antilles. In 1947, 20 percent of the population consisted of foreigners, in particular Europeans and Surinamese. During the 1950s, the number of emigrants surpassed the number of immigrants, yet the population continued to grow because of an excess of births over deaths. Since then, however, the population of Curaçao has barely increased. Beginning in 1965, the birthrate steadily decreased from 35 to 20 children born per 1,000 inhabitants, virtually reaching the same level as in industrialized countries. After 1965, the number of Antillean emigrants to the Netherlands gradually increased. In 1981 only 10 percent of the population was foreign born. Life expectancy is 72 years for males and 76 years for females. The death rate, in 1987, was about 5 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants, but the rate is increasing again as the population ages, a development partly owing to the emigration of a large percentage of the younger population.
Linguistic Affiliation. The official language of Curaçao, as throughout the Netherlands Antilles, is Dutch, but the mother tongue of most of the islanders is Papiamento, an Iberian-based creole. Papiamento is also the colloquial language of Aruba and Bonaire. English is the spoken language on Saint Martin, Saba, and Saint Eustatius. Papiamento is a relatively new language that formerly existed only in spoken form. Originally a slave lingo, Papiamento was eventually adopted by the Dutch rulers.