AN OVERSEAS TERRITORY of the NETHERLANDS, the Netherlands Antilles consists of four and a half islands, separated by about 545 mi (880 km) of the CARIBBEAN SEA. The southern group, Curacao and Bonaire, known as the Windward Islands, lie 40 to 50 mi (60 to 80 km) off the northern coast of VENEZUELA. Formerly known as the ABC Islands, the A (Aruba) left the group in 1986 and is administered separately. The northern, or Leeward Islands group are the islands of Sint Eustatius and Saba, plus the southern half of the island of St. Martin (Sint Maarten in Dutch), sandwiched between the British dependency of ANGUILLA to the north and the independent nations of SAINT KITTS AND NEVIS, and ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA to the south and east. The northern part of St. Martin is part of France, as is the nearby island of St.-Barthelemy.
The islands are a constituent part of the Netherlands and have had full autonomy of internal affairs since 1954. The departure of Aruba was mostly due to resentment over dominance in the group by its larger neighbor, Curacao, but initial plans for independence were scrapped in 1996. Other separatist movements have met with defeat in referenda, most recently for Curacao in 1993 and for Sint Maarten in 1994. The latter was by a lower percentage than previously (59.8 percent), so there may yet be change to the administrative structure of the five constituent parts of what is known as the Dutch Antilles Federation.
Physically, the two groups are very different. Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten are all considerably more elevated volcanic formations and have about twice the amount of rainfall as Bonaire and Curacao. The latter islands are low, barren, and arid (less than 25 in or 63 cm of rain per year) and have more of a desert climate than one would think for the Caribbean—aloe and cacti thrive, plus numerous small herds of goats. But this lack of moisture is also a problem for the southern islands' tourist industry. Large seawater processing stations have been built, a side product of which is salt. Salt was one of the chief attractions for Europeans in the 17th century, and Bonaire is still a major exporter. The tourist industries of both islands benefit from constant sunshine and scant rainfall. Bonaire is also known for its rich underwater life, and its large flocks of flamingos (now protected). Curacao is known for its characteristic liqueur made from locally grown orange rinds. The southern islands lie outside the hurricane belt, but hurricanes occasionally cause severe damage to the northern group. The most recent case was in 1995, when Hurricane Luis devastated resorts and the island infrastructure on Sint Maarten.
The northern group (sometimes called the 3 S's) are each distinct from each other: Sint Eustatius (locally called Statia) is the poorest, Saba the smallest (only 5 square mi or 13 square km), and Sint Maarten, the most developed. All depend on tourism because they lack any major resources. All were settled by the Dutch in the first half of the 17th century and have been officially administered by the Netherlands since 1816. Yet while Dutch is the official language and the language of schooling, most people on all three islands speak English. Each island has its specialty: Saba's rich underwater life, Statia's historic charm, and Sint Maarten's endless beaches. Saba and Statia are both of fairly recent volcanic origin, while Sint Maarten is part of the older, outer arc of the Antilles (like Antigua) and considerably flatter and drier. Saba has recently created a marine park, circling the entire island, to protect its sofar unspoiled underwater environment from increasing traffic of divers. Efforts to increase tourism on Statia have been less successful.
Because none of these five islands was suitable for the establishment of large-scale plantation economies, they became instead centers for trade in sugar, tobacco, cotton, and especially African slaves. In the 18th century, Sint Eustatius and Curacao were two of the biggest marketplaces for slaves in the entire Caribbean. Merchants, pirates, and administrators from all over Europe settled in the major Dutch port of Willemstad, on Curacao, which led to the development of that island's unique trading language, Papiamento, a mixture of Portuguese, English, Dutch, and Spanish, still used by most residents. The abolition of slavery in 1863 in all Dutch colonies hit the islands hard, especially Sint Eustatius, which still today has one-fourth the population it had in the 18th century. Curacao and Aruba were given a boost with the discovery of oil in nearby Venezuela in the early 20th century and the building of an oil refinery by Royal Dutch Shell on Curacao in 1917 (one of the largest in the world). Oil formed the backbone of the local economy until the 1980s, when Venezuela opened its own refineries. The Dutch government bought the refinery on Curacao to prevent it from closing and now leases it to the Venezuelan state oil company. Tourism is most important on Curacao and Sint Maarten, both of which are lined with resorts for visitors, mostly from America and Venezuela. Duty-free shopping plazas are an additional lure in Willemstad, along with offshore banking, which first developed on the islands in World War II, during the occupation of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany.
Sint Maarten, the driest and flattest of the northern group, held little interest to European colonial powers, save as a source of salt because of the extensive salt ponds on the southern and western ends of the island. Peaceably divided between the Netherlands and France since 1648, the island was mostly ignored by outsiders until the tourism boom of the latter years of the 20th century. The population of the island has mushroomed, from about 1,500 on both sides of the island in 1950, to over 33,000 today in just the southern half. But duty-free zones and limited customs controls have caused the Dutch government concern over trafficking in drugs, weapons, and even people, as illegal immigrants attempt to take advantage of the numerous cruise ships that stop here (and in Curacao) daily.
Willemstad is the largest town in the Netherlands Antilles (population 140,000). Other towns are Kralendijk on Bonaire and Philipsburg on Sint Maarten. The main towns of Saba and Sint Eustatius (The Bottom and Oranjestad, respectively) are much smaller. The Bottom has only 350 residents. About half the population is black (except on Saba); the population of Curacao retains a significant degree of Amerindian (Arawak) blood, more than most other islands in the Caribbean.