Aruba’s path to the present day is marked by the mystery of ochre-colored rock drawings left behind by island shamans, the enterprising spirit of European adventurers and settlers and the diverse experiences and traditions brought by the many nationalities that have since sought out the island as either a new home or temporary resting place. The look of the people, the languages they speak and the innate hospitality that manifests itself in the Aruban psyche is the result of a multi-cultural mix that reflects a rich past.
The Caquetio Indians of the Arawak tribe from the South American mainland were Aruba’s first inhabitants. During the Pre-ceramic Period of habitation (2500 BC – 1000 AD), they were hunters-gatherers who depended on the sea for survival and used tools of roughly flaked stones and shell. They lived in small family groups and fished along Aruba’s coast at locations now named Malmok and Palm Beach.
During the beginning of the Ceramic period (1000-1515 AD), five large Indian villages were founded on the best agricultural soil, producing corn and yucca. Indians buried their dead ceremoniously in different ways, indicating a hierarchical socio-political system. They made coarse pottery as well as finer well-crafted pieces.
When explorer Alonso de Ojeda discovered Aruba in 1499 and claimed it for the Spanish throne, he named it la Isla de los Gigantes (Spanish: the Island of Giants). The tall Indians descended from Aruba’s very first settlers. After a decade, Aruba’s moniker was changed to Isla Inutíl, a useless island, as no gold or treasures were found.
In 1513, the entire Indian population was enslaved and taken to work on the Spanish estates in Hispaniola, now the Dominican Republic and Haiti. At the beginning of the Indian Historic Period in 1515, some Indians returned while others arrived from the mainland and lived in small villages in the northern part of the island.
With the return of the Spanish the Indians were recruited as laborers for cattle and horse breeding. From the 17th century on, the majority of Indians migrated from the South American mainland. Indian preachers were Aruba’s Catholic spiritual leaders well into the 18th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, Indians made up about one-third of the island’s 1700 inhabitants, but in 1862, historians believe that Aruba’s last Indian died.
Aruba’s strategic location was recognized by the Dutch who initially occupied the island in 1636 to protect their salt supply from the mainland and establish a naval base in the Caribbean during their 80-year war with Spain. Further economic development continued through the Dutch West India Company located on the neighboring island of Curaçao. Aruba remained in Dutch hands, except for a brief hiatus under English rule from 1805-1816, during the Napoleonic Wars.