Bonaire's history From the first inhabitants, the Caiquetios (a branch of the Arawak Indians) who sailed from the coast of Venezuela almost 1000 years ago, to the many cultures now living and working in Bonaire today, the island has a distinct character that is all its own.
The first Europeans came to Bonaire in 1499, when Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci arrived and claimed it for Spain. Finding little of commercial value and seeing no future for large-scale agriculture, the Spanish decided not to develop the island. Instead, they unceremoniously enslaved the Indians and moved them off to work in the plantations on the Island of Hispanolia, effectively leaving the island unpopulated.
The name Bonaire is thought to have originally come from the Caiquetio word 'Bonay', a name that meant low country. The early Spanish and Dutch modified its spelling to Bojnaj and also Bonaire. The French influence while present at various times never was strong enough to make the assumption that the name means 'good air'. Regardless of how the name came about, the island remained as a lonely outpost until 1526.
It was in that year, 1526, that cattle were brought to the island by then governor Juan de Ampues. Some of the Caiquetios were returned to act as
laborers and in a few years, the island became a center for raising other animals such as sheep, goats, pigs, horses and donkeys. Since they were being raised more for their skins and not their meat, they required little tending and were allowed to roam and fend for themselves. The result was large herds of animals that far outnumbered the population. Today, there are a number of wild donkeys that still inhabit the Kunuku (outback) and many goats can also be seen foraging in less populated areas of the island.
Bonaire's early years were not ones of prosperity. Her inhabitants were mostly convicts from other Spanish Colonies in South America. The only permanent settlement was the village of Rincon, located far inland where it was thought to be safe from marauding pirates. In those years, development was discouraged in favor of the richer, more productive colonies.
In 1633, the Dutch took possession of Curacao, Bonaire and Aruba. The largest island, Curacao, emerged as a center of the notorious slave trade. Bonaire then became a plantation island belonging to the Dutch West Indies Company. It was during those early years that the first African slaves were forced to work, cutting dyewood and cultivating maize and harvesting solar salt. Grim reminders of those days still remain in the form of slave huts and salt pans which were laboriously constructed by hand. They are an important part of the island'sheritage and have been left to stand mute testimony to Bonaire's repressive beginning.
Until 1816, ownership of Bonaire changed hands a number of times, finallybeing returned that year to the Dutch as a result of the Treaty of Paris. A small fort, Fort Oranje, was built to protect the island's main resource, salt. Salt was one commodity that Bonaire had in endless supply, although it took back breaking slave labor to produce it. In the early days of the industry, the most important use for salt was in the preservation of food, since refrigeration was still centuries away.
By 1837, Bonaire was a thriving center of salt production. The government, who by then controlled the industry, built four obelisks, each painted a different color, red, white, blue and orange (the colors of the Dutch Flag and the Royal House of Orange). They were erected strategically near areas of the salt lake. The idea was to signal ships where to pick up their cargoes of salt. A flag of the corresponding color was raised atop a flagpole, thus signalling the ship's captain where to drop anchor. Three of the obelisks can still be seen today. The abolition of slavery in 1863 signaled an end to the era of exploitation of those first Bonaireans. It was almost a hundred years later that the salt industry was revitalized. Today it is a division of Cargill, Incorporated, one of the largest businesses in the world. It also was during this time that the island began to attract visitors.
Tourism was born when the island government constructed the first ship's pier in the harbor. It allowed cruise ships to tie up alongside the wharf and discharge passengers. It also made it easier to bring in goods and supplies for the island's residents. Hotels began to spring up and cater to the early visitors who enjoyed the tranquility of Bonaire. In 1943, the construction of a modernairport south of Kralendijk made it even easier for tourists to reach the island.
The history continues to be written. The people of Bonaire are part of the past and are proud of what they have accomplished on an island that was abandoned hundreds of years ago and deemed useless by the Spanish. As for the future, Bonaireans welcome progress but have made a conscious decision to take time out and step back and to look at how it will impact their island and their lives. They have learned to balance their growth with the environment.