Having sailed steamily through the tropics from Panama along the coast of Colombia and Venezuela, with a Zodiac cruise of the mangrove swamps en route, it was the aridity of Aruba that most impressed on our morning tour. The island lies in a rain shadow, its northern shore having desert fauna and flora. Iguanas and lizards clamber over parched volcanic rocks; colorful parakeets and orioles alight atop organ pipe cacti, the latter plant utilized ingeniously for boundary fencing. Even the local beer has to be made not only with imported raw materials but also, uniquely, from desalinated sea-water.
Although “discovered” by a compatriot of Columbus at the end of the fifteenth century, the Spanish took little interest in an island rendered unsuited to plantation economics by poor soil and minimal rainfall. The Dutch seized the island in 1636, just a few years after they had established a presence in northern Brazil. Generally, Dutch successes were in trade and commerce rather than colonization and they quickly unterstood the strategic significance of the island. The Dutch allowed the local native Arawaks to tend introduced cattle and established the island as a source of meat for other Dutch possessions in the Caribbean. Gold was discovered here in the 1820s and a gold rush ensued that lasted a century until the last mine closed in 1916. Black gold followed, with what was at one time the world’s largest oil refinery established on the southeastern tip of the island. When Exxon pulled out in the 1980s, the Arubians turned to tourism for their economic salvation: the string of hotels and beach resorts that we passed after leaving the dock testified to the current success of this development. An autonomous state within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Aruba is the prosperous face of the contemporary Caribbean.
Arubian culture draws widely from its various historical roots. The features of the local people often remind us of their Arawk origins, the indigenous language and culture having survived into the nineteenth century. The local Creole language, papamiento contains elements from Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English as well as African and Amerindian vocabulary. The language, now taught in the schools and spoken here with pride, epitomizes the history of the Caribbean and provides a tentative answer to a question we shall often be asking on this voyage: what does it mean to be Caribbean?