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About Bonaire::: History

The island of Bonaire boasts many things: a thriving dive and snorkel scene, windsurfing, excellent bird watching, an eclectic mix of food offerings (think chips and mayonnaise alongside locally caught Wahoo), and of course, sandy beaches perfect for that relaxing day in the sun.

Bonaire's economy is now dependent upon these key features to draw in the large flux of tourists that walk down the ramps of their respective cruise ships or fly into Flamingo Airport. But needless to say, this was not always the case.

The island's history reveals a more complicated and violent relationship with visitors than what we know and enjoy today.

Bonaire's earliest known inhabitants were the Caquetios Indians. It is believed they arrived in 1000 CE by canoe from what we now know as Venezuela. Those with archeological leanings can see the remains of Caquetio culture at certain sites northeast of Kralendijk and near Lac Bay. If you're up for an adventure, rock paintings and petroglyphs have also survived in the caves at Spelonk, Onima, Ceru Pungi, and Ceru Crita-Cabai.

But back to the story. In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci pulled up to shores of Bonaire and stuck a Spanish flag into the sand. Bonaire was now claimed for Spain, though it was a pretty underwhelming territory. Bonaire had neither gold nor sufficient rainfall to create large-scale agricultural production. The Spanish decided “Heck with this,” and instead of building a colony, shipped the native Caiquetios on Bonaire into slavery on the large plantations on the island of Hispaniola. So by 1515, Bonaire had been largely depopulated.

In contrast to modern-day Bonaire's often utopian facade, the importation (and exportation) of people to work as slaves comprises several centuries of Bonaire's history.

In 1526, Juan de Ampies was appointed Spanish commander of the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao). The Spanish thought that Bonaire, having been conveniently depopulated, could be used as a cattle plantation. It was with this edict that Ampies shipped in people from the area we know today as Venezuela, enslaved the few remaining Caquetios, and began large-scale cattle production.

While it did not rival Curaçao as a prominent Bonaire Slave Huts slave port, Bonaire housed the several hundred slaves that were put to work for the Dutch West India Company cultivating dyewood, maize and harvesting solar salt. The cramped, stone quarters these people were forced to sleep in are still seen today in the area around Rincon and along the saltpans.

In more recent history, when the Germans occupied the Netherlands during World War II, Bonaire was a protectorate of Britain and the United States. The American army built the Flamingo Airport as an air force base and close to 500 Dutch and German Nazis were interned in camps on Bonaire for the duration of war. After the war, the airport was converted to civilian use, and the former internment camp was converted to become the first hotel on Bonaire, Hotel Zeebad. The hotel originally had large gates boasting the words “ZEE” and “BAD,” but as the story goes, English-speaking visitors didn't take a liking to the Dutch phrase. Hotel management replaced them and the old gates were reused and can be spotted at new locations on the island (Can you find them?)

The tourism we know today began at some point in the mid-1940's, upon construction of the first ship pier in the harbor. This gave cruise ships the incentive to make Bonaire a destination; they could now conveniently tie up alongside the wharf and drop off passengers. The pier also made it easier to bring in goods and supplies for the island's residents. The island's infrastructure now began to build itself to support the newest type of off island visitor - the tourist.

And so it was, Bonaire has seen the worst – and is now enjoying the best. Take from this short history what you will, though having knowledge of her rocky past, treat Bonaire with the kindness and respect she deserves.

Author S.J Rendall - Travel writer.




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