The release and repatriation of Venezuelan General Hugo Carvajal has brought rare attention to the tiny Dutch overseas territory of Aruba. Situated some 20 miles north of the Venezuelan coast, Aruba has been populated by Europeans since the early 16th century and yet is seldom mentioned in the annals of the Age of Discovery.
Aruba’s lack of appeal to the romantic notion of glorious European colonization in the Americas perhaps accounts for its absence from many histories on the subject. Devoid of the gold and silver resources that enticed many of the early European ventures to the Americas, Aruba’s native Caquetio population was almost entirely deported by Spanish officials in 1515 so that they could serve in the copper and gold mines on Hispaniola.
Amerindian re-population of the island gradually occurred and the Spaniards used Aruba almost exclusively for pastoral farming, with some accompanying logging enterprises, unsuited as it was to the sowing of crops.
In 1634, the Dutch West India Company (WIC) took control of the island, reducing the Amerindians into a perpetual state of semi-slavery on various agricultural plots. The European presence, whilst permanent, was limited by a moratorium on non-WIC colonization.
Aruba is unusual in that it did not have a significant African slave population. Only in the 19th century were African slaves imported with any consistency and they mainly served as craftsmen or agricultural laborers for their Dutch masters. In the absence of the large plantations that dominated the European economies throughout the rest of the West Indies, concentrated populations of slaves on Aruba were rare and this prevented any violent slave revolt.
After the abolition of slavery in 1863, the Aruban economy stagnated, only to be reinvigorated by an investment in the oil refining business on the island in the early 20th century. Indeed, during WWII, Aruba supplied considerable amounts of refined petroleum to the Allies when, after the Dutch surrender, it was first a British and then an American protectorate.
Despite concerted moves towards independence in the second half of the 20th century, Arubans now seemingly remain content to reside under the Dutch flag. With 80% of its people designated as a mixture of White/Black/Amerindian, Aruba has one of the most homogeneous populations in the region.
Carvajal’s arrest by the Dutch authorities – on suspicions that he is involved in drug trafficking and in the employ of the Colombian Farc rebels – brings only the briefest attention to an oft-overlooked island with a unique colonial history.
For its population of 103,000, this lack of attention towards Aruba is probably no bad thing.