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Curasao, island in the Caribbean Sea and a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It is situated some 37 miles (60 km) north of the coast of Venezuela. Although physiographically part of the South American continental shelf, Curaeao and neighbouring islands off the northern coast of South America are usually considered to constitute the southwestern arc of the Lesser Antilles. The capital is Willemstad.
Curasao was settled by Arawak people from the South American mainland. It was first visited by Europeans in 1499 and was settled by the Spanish and, later, by the Dutch, who established it as a major centre of trade for the Dutch West India Company. The Spanish deported the entire indigenous population as slaves to Hispaniola in 1515. Curasao is the home of the oldest continuously inhabited Jewish community in the Western Hemisphere, originally formed by Sephardic Jews who immigrated from Portugal in the 1500s.
The island provided one special advantage for the Dutch—one of the finest natural harbours in the West Indies. At the southeastern end of the island, a channel, Sint Anna Bay, passes through reefs to a large, deep, virtually enclosed bay called Schottegat, the site of the capital town, Willemstad. The need for salt to preserve herring initially drove the Dutch to the Caribbean. During the period 1660 to 1700, the Dutch West India Company flourished; the slave trade boomed, and the port of Curasao was opened to all countries both to receive the incoming food supplies and to dispose of products from the plantations of South America. The island was subjected to frequent invasions from competing privateers and suffered during the wars between the English and Dutch. It has remained continuously in Dutch hands since 1816.
In spite of having scant rainfall or little fertile soil, the island developed a major sugarcane-plantation economy under Dutch colonial rule. It now produces oranges, the dried peel of which is the base for the famous Curasao liqueur that is distilled there. Aloes, which had originally been imported from Africa, do not require irrigation and are still exported for pharmaceutical uses. All fresh water used on the island is distilled from seawater.
The economy of Curasao depends heavily on petroleum refining, using crude oil imported from Venezuela. The harbour can accommodate large tankers, and the island is located at the junction of trade routes that pass through the Panama Canal. The Dutch found oil in Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela, but, because the lake was too shallow for oceangoing ships, the oil was transported in smaller vessels to Curasao for refining and transshipment. Curasao developed large modern dry-docking and bunkering facilities and became one of the largest ports in the world in terms of total tonnage handled.
In spite of the government’s attempts to diversify the economy by encouraging light industry, there are only a few manufacturing firms, and all consumer goods and food must be imported. The decline of phosphate mining and automation in the oil industry aggravated problems of unemployment. The expanding tourist sector is key to the island’s economy. In addition, Willemstad is an important Caribbean banking centre. The currency is the Netherlands Antillean guilder or florin.
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