Published On: Mon, Sep 15th, 2014

Historic Area of Willemstad, Inner City and Harbour

WillemstadWILLEMSTAD – This time we would like to spend some time describing Curaçao’s historic city, Willemstad.

The people of the Netherlands established a trading settlement at a fine natural harbour on the Caribbean island of Curaçao in 1634. The town developed continuously over the following centuries. The modern town consists of several distinct historic districts whose architecture reflects not only European urban-planning concepts but also styles from the Netherlands and from the Spanish and Portuguese colonial towns with which Willemstad engaged in trade.

The Historic Area of Willemstad is a European colonial ensemble in the Caribbean of outstanding value and integrity, which illustrates the organic growth of a multicultural community over three centuries and preserves to a high degree significant elements of the many strands that came together to create it. The urban structure and architecture of this area are both authentic examples of colonial town planning and architecture of the period of Dutch expansion. Its cultural and historical significance stems not only from its town planning and architectural qualities as a historic port town, but is also manifest beyond the local level.

Willemstad stands out for the diversity in the historical morphology of its four historic districts (Punda, Otrobanda, Pietermaai and Scharloo), separated by the open waters of a natural harbour. Each district has its own distinct urban morphology resulting from successive planning concepts, but they share a unique 'tropicalized' historical architecture of Dutch origin. This area consists of a core area of Sint Anna Bay and part of the Caribbean Sea, Punda and most of Otrobanda, and two transmission areas, consisting of the urban districts of Pietermaai, Scharloo and Kortijn.

In the core area the entrance to Sint Anna Bay is protected by fortifications on both sides - the Water Fort on the Punda side and the Rif Fort on the Otrobanda side. These defensive works are important and relatively well-preserved examples of contemporary fortifications, especially when taken with other surviving defensive works that lie outside the area.

The city's historical architecture is of a strikingly genuine and colourful European origin set in a tropical environment. Nothing like it can be found elsewhere in the Dutch West or East Indies. Punda represents a dense and compact historical urban structure, reflecting its origin as a fortified town surrounded by ramparts. Pietermaai and Scharloo enjoy the relative freedom of space resulting in an open layout of streets lined by detached and often quite luxurious dwellings, whereas Otrobanda features both an open compound layout and a dense alley structure.

The island society on Curaçao owes its origin to the expansion of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. After Spain had encroached upon the island in 1499 at the expense of its indigenous inhabitants, the Arawak Indians, the Dutch took possession of it in 1634, in the period of Dutch domination of trade and the seas, and the settlement was created by the Dutch West India Company. The development of Punda began with the construction of Fort Amsterdam, designed according to the old Dutch fortification system. The fort with its five bastions was a self-contained settlement, with its own church and water supply as well as the residence of the governor and barracks for the garrison. Within each of the settlements flanking the bay there is a waterfront square, and they are linked by the famous pontoon bridge erected in 1888, officially known as the Queen Emma Bridge but better known to the inhabitants as the 'Swinging Old Lady'. Apart from two brief British occupations, the island remained Dutch colonial territory until 1955, when the Netherlands Antilles acquired self-government within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Willemstad is a typical port town, but one without a hinterland, which focused on the neighbouring Spanish, English and French colonies on the mainland of South America and in the Caribbean. Frequent trade with South America led to an exchange of goods and the reciprocal adoption of cultural elements. Curaçao therefore has an Iberian tinge as a result of the settlement of Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal in the 17th century. By 1730 the Jewish community represented 50% of the white population of Curaçao. African influences also entered the island, as Curaçao was a centre of the slave trade at one time.


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