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Urbanization series: Clues from the past for the future (1)

Written by Caspar Tromp

In past times, Curaçao had a way of life that was strictly urban and rural. Willemstad was a thriving and bustling port which for most of its history was a wealthy globalized city of an important regional significance. Strategically located near South America, ships from all nations entered the harbor to not only trade goods and people but also ideas.

Similar to Amsterdam, Willemstad was a liberal safe-haven with relative freedom of speech in an authoritarian region where political refugees, exiles and critical newspapers thrived. Tango is said to have been popular in Curaçao before Buenos Aires. Walking through the 19th and early 20th century streets of Willemstad, one probably heard the sounds of beautiful boleros, laughter and dancing coming from the many stately mansions. Greedily embracing influences from abroad, its people developed music that was unmistakably characteristic of the Caribbean and Latin culture but truly Curaçaoan in identity. Its vibrant and multicultural city life had not only resulted in our beautiful language called Papiamentu but also in admirable people like Piar, a descendant of African, Spanish and Dutch ancestors. He was a true Antillean “krioyo” who stood up for the rights of colored people in recently independent, but still deeply racist Venezuela. The house where he grew up in still exists in the charming alleys of Otrobanda, proudly showing off its Dutch-Curaçaoan 18th-century gable in vivid Caribbean colors. Perhaps the contact with fellow krioyos like him in those dense streets that probably in that time already formed a close and familiar community, influenced him to become a heroic revolutionary during the Venezuelan Independence wars. Ironically, his courage resulted in his execution on behalf of Simon Bolivar himself, who had carefully planned his Venezuelan revolution during his exile in the octagonal tower in the other end of the city, in Pietermaai.

The irony shows that cities are also places of contrast and conflict, and it indeed was a cruel era. Slavery and racism tried to break people’s freedom and spirit. Still, what I try to briefly show here is that Curaçaoans of all colors and backgrounds have a history of empowerment and entrepreneurship.

Contrary to popular belief, free Curaçaoans of color were by far the largest population group to inhabit the houses of 19th century Punda and Otrobanda, followed by slaves and then Jews and white protestants (the latter two which could also be poor). Except for the few rich, they all hired their accommodation among one of the various divided floors in the tall houses, much like apartments nowadays. Furthermore, they also worked in or sometimes even owned small businesses, shops and crafts. For slaves, this meant that they could work and save money to later buy their freedom. The mansions of 19th century Punda accommodated a wide range of functions that you would also find in a modern city today: shops, warehouses, bars, cigar makers, shoemakers, clothes makers, barbershops, bakeries, pharmacies, printing offices, hotels and even schools. Willemstad in the old days was a city where living, working, leisure and shopping were always mixed. Imagine now that small Punda at that time also housed some 2000 people, and you can imagine why visitors like Teenstra in 1836 noticed that the streets and alleys were crowded with people and activities. It was not uncommon for a drunk man at night to leave one of the various bars of Punda to clumsily fall in the St. Anna bay and drown.

Cities in the world back then did not have the sewage and other infrastructure that we know today. Willemstad was no exception and its streets too were dirty, smelly, poor and over-crowded, which did not make it livable from a contemporary perspective. This was one of the reasons why after the developments of modern times people moved out of the city to the suburbs. Still, 20th century historic Willemstad is nostalgically remembered by its (former) inhabitants as an entrepreneurial place that once brought people together, at the colorful Handelskade, its many squares, the “plasa bieu”, the cinema, events, parties and places to eat a “pastechi”.

This article is not nostalgic for melancholic sake. Contemporary research shows that diverse, mixed-use, walkable and human-scale urban areas are more liveable, healthy, entrepreneurial, sustainable and sociable. Although future articles will further explore modern research to support this statement, Willemstad’s lively history also provides ample evidence. As such we can learn much from the past to build the cities of the future. Mistakes from the past teach us that we should prioritize liveability and inclusiveness for the local population, including vulnerable groups. Existing local communities need to be able to maintain and even thrive, while new housing should be affordable for local islanders. Not only does heritage have the potential to give a sense of pride to their inhabitants, if such urban areas are prioritized for locals, but they will also create an attractive authentic culture that will charm visitors into participating.

The next article of this series will explain the decline of urban Willemstad and the rise of the suburban way of life.

This story is part of the ‘Urbanization’ series on Willemstad written by Caspar Tromp. In this six-part series, Caspar takes us on a journey to learn about how urban life in Willemstad has developed over the past decades.


  1. Ditzhuijzen, J. van, Langenfeld, E. (2017) Willemstad: Het dagelijks leven in negentiende-eeuws Punda. Volendam: LM Publishers, 11-139.

  2. Brokken, J. (2015). Waarom elf Antillianen knielden voor het hart van Chopin. Atlas-Contact.

  3. Transforming Urban Curaçao. Community and Expert-Based visioning for localizing the New Urban Agenda. 2019. United Nations Office for Project Services, Copenhagen, Denmark.

  4. Wikipedia contributors. (2019, October 27). Manuel Piar. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:39, January 13, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Manuel_Piar&oldid=923277590

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