From the first inhabitants, the Caiquetios (descendants of the Arawak Indians) who sailed from the Venezuela coast to Bonaire about 1,000 years ago, to the many different cultures that inhabit Bonaire today: the island has always retained its own character.
The name Bonaire probably originates from the Caiquetio word “Bonay”, meaning “low land”. The first Spaniards and Dutch people changed the spelling to Bojnaj and also Bonaire. The French influence was never big enough to assume that Bonaire derives from the French “good air”.
The first Europeans came to Bonaire in 1499, when Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci discovered the island and claimed it for Spain. Because they found little commercial value and did not see a future for large-scale agriculture, the Spaniards decided not to develop the island further. Instead, they caught the local Indians and transported them to the island of Hispanolia to work on the plantation there, leaving the island of Bonaire uncultivated, which would remain so until 1526. In 1526 cattle were brought to the island, commissioned by former Governor Juan de Ampues. Some Caiquetios were returned to Bonaire to work and some years later the island became a center for the keeping of sheep, pigs, horses and donkeys. Because these were mainly kept for the skins (not for the meat), they were allowed to walk freely and did not need much attention. The result was large herds of animals; in number much larger than the number of residents. Today, one can still see herds of (wild) donkeys and goats in both the countryside and the streets of Kralendijk.
In the early years, Bonaire was not very prosperous. The inhabitants were mostly prisoners from other Spanish colonies in South America. The only permanently inhabited place was the current Rincon, deep in the pirate-safe interior of Bonaire. In 1633 the Dutch conquered Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba. The largest island, Curaçao, became the center of slave trade. Bonaire became a plantation owned by the Dutch West Indies Company. It was during this time that the first African slaves were brought to Bonaire and forced to work: chopping wood, mining salt and growing maize. Today, the slave huts and saltpans still remind us of this history.
Until 1816 ownership of Bonaire changed several times. The Paris Convention eventually assigned the island to the Netherlands. A small fortress, Fort Orange, was built to protect the largest wealth of the island, the salt. Salt was available in Bonaire in large quantities, although it was very hard and difficult to mine. In those days, salt was used mainly to preserve foods (“salting”). In 1837, Bonaire was the center of flourishing salt production. The government, who also controlled the salt industry, built 4 obelisks with the colors red, white, blue and orange (the colors of the Dutch flag and the royal house of Orange). The purpose of these obelisks was to signal the ships where they had to collect their cargo. A flag of the same color was hung at sea, at the place where the ship had to anchor. Three of the obelisks can still be seen today. The abolition of slavery meant the end of the exploitation of the first Bonairians. After that it would take more than 100 years before the salt industry was rebuilt. Today, salt mining is a part of Cargill, a major American chemical company.
The end of the 19th century was also the time when Bonaire began to attract visitors. With the construction of the first pier in Kralendijk harbor the actual tourism on the island started. The pier made it possible for ships to moor and for visitors to disembark. The loading of the supply for the ships also became so much easier. Hotels opened their doors to the first tourists who enjoyed the peace that the island offered. In 1943, Bonaire Airport opened, making Bonaire even more accessible to tourists.
History continues. The inhabitants of Bonaire are aware of the past and proud of what they have achieved in a relatively short time: it has not been so long ago that the island was considered by the Spaniards to be useless and was completely unpopulated. The Bonairians regard the future with positivity and confidence, but have deliberately chosen a more peaceful road, in which nature and the environment are very important.