1999 marked the 500th anniversary of Bonaire’s discovery by European explorers. Special cultural events including the Maskarada Festival, Cultural Manifestation and Dia di Bonaire (Bonaire Day – September 6th) are all reflected in the significance of this special year.
Bonaire on the World Map
From the expeditions to the Americas in 1499 Amerigo Vespucci, Juan de la Cosa and Juan Diaz de Solis combined their information to produce new world maps. This resulted in Juan de la Cosa’s World Map in which Bonaire first appeared 500 years ago.
Significance of the 500th Anniversary
European explorers arriving on Bonaire represented an important stage in the Renaissance Movement in Europe; this re-birth of interest in science and culture prompted an age of European discovery spearheaded initially by Columbus in his quest to find a passage to Asia via the western route. The discovery of Bonaire formed part this era when known scientific, geographical and cultural boundaries were suddenly expanding, ultimately changing the course of World History forever.
Bonaire has welcomed people to its shores for a long time. The first known arrivals were the Caquetio tribe of Arawak Indians who reached Bonaire in their dugout canoes around 1375-1325 BC. The evidence of their spresence still remains in the form of the numerous rock carvings dotted around the island. They lived as a peaceful, fishing-based culture until the arrival of the Europeans in the form of Amerigo Vespucci on September 6th, 1499. Vespucci succeeded in putting Bonaire on the world map and, perhaps rather unfortunately for the Caquetios, inadvertently helping the Spanish return there shortly afterwards and take all the Indians to what is now the Dominican Republic to work in the copper mines. Bonaire’s history had taken a fundamental turn.
Enter The Spanish…
The Spanish returned to colonise the then uninhabited Bonaire in 1527 and brought some Caquetios with them along with some exiled spanish sailors. Soon afterwards they established Bonaire’s first official settlement, Rincón. Bonaire was exploited very successfully as a source of salt, meat, hides, and divi-divi pods (used for tanning at the tannery in nearby Curaçao). The Dutch increasingly made their presence felt in the region over the next 100 years and in 1636 they took over Bonaire with the minimum of fuss. They needed salt to preserve meat and fish and Bonaire’s salt pans provided plenty of it. They also exploited Bonaire for its Brasilwood (used as a source for red dye); it was the reason why Vespucci initially named the island Isla de Palo Brasil. Pulley blocks for ships were also fashioned from the extra-hard wood of the local Guaiac trees.
Then The Dutch…
Bonaire was also of strategic importance to the Dutch. The Spanish seemed keen to seize any opportunity to regain total control of this region whilst the Dutch wished to make Curaçao their centre of operations in the Caribbean; Bonaire & Aruba were there to protect their flanks. Bonaire was run by the Dutch as a resource and strategic outpost. When more labour was needed they imported african slaves and settled them in Rincón. Those that worked the salt pans had to trek along footpaths for 10 hours and, as a consequence, lived next to the pans during the week and only went up to Rincón at weekends. The slave huts alongside the salt pans can still be seen today as well as the tall coloured obelisks that guided the salt ships to their loading points on the coast.
The Dutch West India Company that had singlehandedly run Bonaire folded in 1791 and administration was transferred back to the Dutch King. Confusion over what to do with the island resulted in the English taking possession of the island several times in the early 1800′s. White tradesmen settled down at ships’ main point of unloading known as Kralendijk (coral dyke). The Dutch returned in 1816 but attempts to further tap Bonaire’s resources failed to make any profit. After the abolition of slavery in 1863 the Dutch government sold its holdings in Bonaire to two Dutchmen who in turn sold off parts of their land, creating a number of plantations.
The freemen on Bonaire slowly forgot about ideas of repatriation to Africa and began to see themselves as a separate group of people with their own identity. Life was still very hard on Bonaire, so hard in fact that many Bonaireans left for Venezuela to work the copper mines, Suriname to work on the railway and Cuba to work in the sugar cane fields. Bonaire developed its own traditions based on rituals and traditions brought from Africa. Maskarada (or masquerade) is a costume parade festival with music and dancing and is celebrated to this day; Barí is another festival (unique to Bonaire) that takes place at the end of every year and allows everybody to catch up on all the gossip and the news. Towards the end of the 19th Century work opportunities became increasingly scarce despite a well respected boat-building industry that saw Bonairean-built double masted schooners, merchant vessels and fishing boats travelling all over the Caribbean. Men left to find work captaining and crewing american merchant vessels and new jobs in the developing oil industry on Curaçao and Aruba. This whole period was known as the “money-order economy” as Bonairerean men sent their wages from overseas home to their families.
During this period Bonaire started developing its infrastructure through the erection of lighthouses, road improvement, the building of an airstrip, plus the installation of electricity and telephones.
Involvement In World War II
The arrival World War Two had quite a serious impact on Bonaire. A prisoner-of-war camp was established housing several hundred Dutch, German and British Nazi-sympathisers. Bonaire did not itself see any direct action but Bonaire lost more of its men than any of the other islands because the tankers on which they worked were the target of the German submarine campaign in the Caribbean. An American Air Force squadron remained stationed at Bonaire’s airport until well after the War.
Like many of the other Caribbean islands, Bonaire had its fair share of visiting yachtsmen over the years but did not start preparing itself for tourism until the 1950′s. It became an independent territory in th Netherland Antilles in that same decade and became increasingly reliant on foreign investment to get the tourism industry going.
Bonaireans have approached this new turn in their economy with the same gusto and intelligent worldliness that they had approached every other phase in their Spartan history: Bonaire, despite its limited resources, is an example to all small islands on how to utilise, preserve and protect the natural assets it has while at the same time catering to the demands of today’s increasingly discerning travellers. Bonaire’s diving is enviously regarded by its competitors as one of the best on Earth. Its marine and terrestrial environmental laws are the standard by which others judge themselves and would have landed Amerigo Vespucci behind bars for dropping anchor in what are now protected areas!
Legacy of Bonaire’s Unique History
Cuturally, Bonaire has evolved into a unique blend; the official language, Papamientu (also spelled Papiamento), demonstrates this with its mix of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and a sprinkling of African, English, French and Italian. The faces of Bonairean people reflect this too. Their features are familiar but in many ways beautifully different – a mix of european, amerindian and african. And despite the changing timeswith the hi-tech world of diving, state-of-the-art windsurf boards and exotic mountain bikes things on Bonaire still have a timeless quality about them – local men fishing, local boys going for an afternoon swim or a lady wandering home with vegetables balanced in a bundle on her head.
(Information based on an article by Deborah Diggons)