Aruba History (Pre-Colonial, Spanish & Dutch)
Aruba is an island in the Dutch Caribbean with over 112,000 people. Despite its small size, Aruba is a diverse country with over 100 nationalities. Aruba’s rich multicultural past has shaped it into the unique island you know and love today.
You can experience the island’s diversity from the food, artwork, architecture, traditions, and the welcoming people of Aruba. But how did Aruba become the island that it is today? Let us find out by journeying through Aruba history.
Historical sources identify the Caiquetio Indians of the Arawak tribe as the first inhabitants of Aruba. This seminomadic tribe migrated from South America in 1000AD during the pre-ceramic period after suffering attacks from the Carib Indians. The Caiquetio’s main economic activities were fishing and hunting, and gathering.
They lived in small family groups along the island’s coastal areas and created tools using shells and stones. In 1000-1515 AD, the island had five large villages and practiced corn and yucca farming. You can find evidence of the Caiquetio tribe in Aruba in the Archaeological Museum of Aruba.
The museum has several artifact fragments like ceramic urns, pottery, and jewelry dating back to the pre-ceramic period. You can also see rock drawings and carvings made by the Caiquetio at Fontein Cave and Ayo Rock Formation in Aruba.
Historians disagree on which Spaniard explorer landed in Aruba first. Some sources say it was Alonso de Ojeda, while others say it was Amerigo Vespucci. The bottom line is that these two explorers were the first Europeans to set foot in Aruba in 1499, claiming it for Spain.
Alonso de Ojeda served as the governor of Aruba from 1508 after his appointment by the Spanish Crown.
The island did not impress the Spanish because the climate did not favor their plans to grow large crop plantations. They also did not find gold or silver on the island, calling it useless. For this reason, in 1513, the Spanish began exporting the native Indians to Spain as slaves to work in plantations and copper mines.
Some sources say that Aruba remained uninhabited for some years until 1515, when some Indians came back. The Spanish also began settling on the island, using it as a rancho for their cattle, horses, donkeys, pigs, sheep, and goats. They recruited the Indians returning from the mainland as cattle herders and domestic workers on their ranchos.
Aruba was under Spanish rule for 137 years before the Netherlands seized it during the Dutch revolt against Spain.
The Dutch Occupation
The Dutch Eighty Years’ War against Spain began in 1568-1648. The Netherlands wanted independence from Spain. The Dutch were sailors who had a thriving Herring fish industry that needed a lot of salt, which they got from Spain and Portugal.
The war made it impossible for the Dutch to get their salt, so they had to look for a new solution. They managed to find new salt pans in Venezuela and the Caribbean. By this time, the Netherlands’ involvement in South America was growing, so they needed a base in the Caribbean. Aruba was the most strategic location for their operations.
The Dutch began by conquering Curacao in 1634, and in 1636 they occupied Aruba and Bonaire to protect the islands from further Spanish attacks.
Through the Dutch West India Company (WIC), the Dutch introduced agriculture to Aruba by building farms and rearing cattle for meat, which they sold to other islands.
Aruba’s native Indians were still the primary settlers on the island because the WIC imposed a ban on settlements for non-Indians except for soldiers. Black slaves began coming to the island after 1770 but in small numbers. There was a first census in 1806 where they found 141 Indian heads of families and 60 white.
During the Dutch occupation, the Indians, who were former slaves, were left to live freely. Although they worked on Dutch farms, they were allowed to cut and sell wood and own property on the island. Dutch rule came to a short end in Aruba during the Napoleonic Wars.
The British Empire conquered the island in 1806 and settled there until 1816. The British returned the island to the Netherlands per the Anglo-Dutch Treaty signed by the two countries in 1814.
Before becoming an independent island of the Netherland Antilles in 1845, Aruba was a part of the Colony of Curacao and Dependencies.
During this time, Aruba’s economy depended on gold mining, phosphate, and aloe vera farming. The exploitation of gold was halted after minimal evidence of the mineral was found in the sample.
Phosphate mining continued until 1914, the beginning of World War 1. This natural product brought significant development to the island until it became unprofitable.
Aloe planting is still ongoing in Aruba as the island produces some of the best aloin resin in the world. Its big competitor is the oil business which began in 1928, strengthening the island’s economic standing.
In 1954 the Charter of the Kingdom of the Netherlands was established, creating the Netherlands Antilles. This legal instrument created a framework that united the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean into one administrative structure under the Netherlands. Curacao was seen as the head of the colonies, and this made Arubans unhappy.
This led to the beginning of the struggle for Status Aparte in Aruba led by Betico Croes. Betico wanted Aruba to be an independent country from the Netherlands Antilles, and the Netherlands. Betico received much support from Arubans and the United Nations during a referendum in 1977.
He also pressured the Dutch government by creating the Aruban flag and the national anthem to signify their independence. Betico also organized a general strike in Aruba against the Dutch administration on the island.
Eventually, the Dutch prime minister and Croes decided to appoint the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague to create a study for the independence of Aruba. In March 1983, the Netherlands officially agreed to follow a series of steps towards granting Aruba independence.
In August 1986, Aruba achieved Status Aparte, becoming an independent country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The agreement was that Aruba would separate entirely from the Netherlands in 1996. Unfortunately, Betico Croes died in the same year without seeing the results of his labor.
In 1990, Aruba’s plan for complete independence was postponed indefinitely at a Hague convention. This was done at the request of Nelson Oduber, the Prime Minister of Aruba at the time. The island remains an independent country with autonomous administrative control in the Kingdom.
Aruba has changed hands over the past century creating a diverse culture on the island. Arubans are multicultural and multilingual people. The official languages are Dutch and Papiamentu, but the average Aruban can speak Spanish and English too.
Immigrants from other Caribbean islands, America, Venezuela, and Europe have also significantly boosted the population over the years. Aruba is also known as the island with the best education system in the Caribbean, with a literacy rate of 97%.
Oil and tourism are the main economic activities in Aruba, creating numerous employment opportunities and funding government expenditures. Tourism is the largest industry in Aruba and a significant employer among the youth. The first resort in Aruba was built in 1959 on Palm Beach, resulting in other high-end and smaller hotels being built in other areas of the island.