One of the level two classes I assisted this year was on the island of Curacao, 40 miles north of the Venezuelan coast. As soon as I returned I wrote the following:
This past week I was on the Island of Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles for six days. I was there to assist in the teaching of a Cranial Manipulation class for physical therapists and other health professionals. Before I went I had looked up the Island in an encyclopedia, and on the Internet. I knew that it had been a Dutch colony for centuries. Distributed throughout it's landscape are about 70 Landhuis or estate houses, the homes of colonial masters who farmed the land with slave labor. Most of the population is descended from these Africans, though many Dutch and people of other nations remain.
As the airplane approached the Island I could see many of the estate houses. I looked for agricultural surrounding them. What I saw was rocks and brush. I arrived late in the day and rented a car. By the time I got to my hotel in the central part of the city it was quite dark. The next day I drove about 250 kilometers exploring the Island from one end to the other. I looked for farmland and found little - a few small groves of palms or papayas, struggling in poor soil, a few small patches of corn withered in the heat.
Near the Northwest corner of the Island I visited one of the estate houses, Landhuis Savonet, which had been made into a natural history museum. I was glad to learn more about the geology and biology of the Island. Curaçao was formed by two underwater volcanoes. Later these were thrust above the sea, then sank again. Three times the land sank beneath the sea and was pushed up again, each time more encrusted with coral, and then limestone than the time before.
In the central part of the Island the soil is just crushed coral. Near the ends where the old volcanoes are there is sand and gravel made of crushed lava mixed with the shattered coral. There is little humus and no clay to hold the rains. Rainfall comes in brief deluges with long dry times between.
Puzzled, I asked what crops had been grown for export. People shook their heads and assured me no agricultural product had ever been exported from Curacao. The attempts at agriculture had been almost a complete failure. Goats introduced by the Spanish were the most successful, and even they had become a problem overrunning the island and destroying vegetation. I asked what then had sustained the colonists? Gazes were averted and there was silence before the answer came.
Curacao has a large, deep and well protected harbor. Hurricanes visit this Island less than any other Caribbean Island. Curacao served as a distribution center. Manufactured goods were brought here from Europe and then reshipped to other ports in the new world. raw materials and agricultural products were collected here from many lands for shipment to Europe. But the most lucrative product was brought from Africa - slaves. Most slaves brought to the new world came first to Curacao.
Near my hotel was the site of the old slave market where middlemen bought these African slaves, for resale in other lands of North America, Central America, the Caribbean Islands, and South America. It was this trade that supported the colonists in their big land houses for more than 200 years.
In the beginning many tried to farm, purchasing slaves to work the land. Discovering that the land was hopeless for this purpose they looked for other ways to make a profit. Salve trading was the primary answer. Selling slaves from Africa was part of the solution. These landholders also had their own slaves for whom they needed to find some employment. They could have simply sold them to colonists in other lands, but they found a more profitable way. On their estates they bred slaves for sale.
Slaves bred in captivity had big advantages over slaves brought directly from Africa. Slaves who had known freedom knew what they hungered for. Slaves born in captivity could be trained to be docile from infancy, a better investment for potential slave purchasers. After about 1800 the United states outlawed the importation of new slaves who had been born free. Only slaves born in captivity could be imported or sold. This increased the demand for slaves bred in captivity. I began to think through the details of how animal breading practices could be applied to human slaves. I soon had to stop my mind from going in this direction.
In 1795 the slaves of Curaçao rebelled. Their Dutch masters harshly and cruelly crushed the rebellion. In 1864 slavery in the US ended. We are still trying to mend the social fabric of our nation from both slavery and the civil war which ended slavery. In 1896 slavery ended on Curacao. The last of those who lived as slaves have just died. The memory of slavery is very much alive in the people of Curacao. Some have been able to move beyond those memories. For others it is an open and salted wound. It is etched in faces, it twists around hearts, it ties guts in perpetual knots.
Since the 1930s another source of income for Curacao has been oil refining. Venezuela 60 KM away has large petroleum deposits. Some oil is refined in Venezuela. More oil is shipped to Curaçao, neighboring Aruba and other ports for refining and distribution. Adjacent to it's ports Curaçao has vast tank farms and refineries. These oil facilities were constructed and until quite recently operated by Shell oil. During World War II Curaçao was of major importance in fueling Allied ships.
Higham has pointed out in his book Trading With the Enemy, that Shell Oil as a multinational corporation exists to serve itself and shows no allegiance to any nation. During world war II Shell ought crude oil form Hitler's Silesian oil fields and sold refined petroleum back to Hitler. Shell's interest in the war was profit. Modern warfare consumes lots of petroleum. The US government was aware of Shell's trading with Axis powers throughout the war, but they could do nothing because they needed Shell for their own war effort.
Our class was held by the seashore. One day we watched a submarine surface not far from shore, where it met a tender ship which fueled the submarine. We asked whose sub it was, and received more shrugs and averted glances - "probably US, but who knows it could be anyone".
The students in the class treated us very well, inviting us to their homes, and out to restaurants, giving us tours of the island and answering our questions. Their warm welcome continues strongly alongside my other impressions of Curaçao.