Regional Office for Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean

Portal of Culture of Latin America and the Caribbean

Aruba and the African Slave Trade Route

Slaves without Plantations, 1800-1863

Slavery played a minor role in the exploitation of the island by the West India Company (1636-1791). Between 1715 and 1719, an effort to develop a maize plantation proved unsuccessful. Twenty African slaves were brought in from Curaçao and returned when the plantation project failed.

After the dissolution of the WIC (1792) and two English interregnums (1801-1803 & 1806-1816), serious colonization started on Aruba. Finally the island was opened up for colonization. Between 1816 and 1924 there was a population increase from 1,723 in the year 1816 to 9,023 inhabitants in 1923. This growth was the result of migration of European colonists and their African slaves, and more importantly an excess of births over deaths. The extremely arid climate did not permit the development of a plantation economy. The elite families were mainly active in small scale commercial agriculture and (illegal) trade with South America. Poor white colonists and (descendants of) Amerindians were making a living as free peasants. In the absence of a rigid plantation economy, slavery remained small and – as compared to elsewhere in the Caribbean region – relatively lenient. Enslaved never exceeded 21 percent of the total population.

In 1849, 596 slaves were living on Aruba. Male slaves were mostly active as field slaves on the provision grounds of their owners or as craftsmen. Female slaves were either house slaves or working in their owners’ shops.

Since plantation slave labor was relatively unimportant and most slaves worked as house slave, shop assistant or craftsman, most slaves lived in Oranjestad. In 1862, 297 out of 509 Aruba slaves lived in Oranjestad. In 1862, most slave owners possessed less then six slaves, including children (Alofs 2003b).

Aruba does not have a history of violent slave revolts. Due to late date of abolition of slavery, in the 1850s, the number of runaway slaves grew. In 1856, a record number of ten slaves flew to Venezuela. Aruba’s slavery was relatively mild in character. This can be explained by the small scale of the island population, the lack of large scale agricultural plantations and the fact that most owners had few slaves. Often, ties between masters and enslaved were personal instead of commercial. Also, the strict compliance with the slave laws contributed to the lenient race relations in colonial Aruba. In the decade before the abolition of slavery, owners frequently complained that they had little control over their slaves.

Slavery and Emancipation

Slavery was abolished in 1863, when 496 enslaved obtained freedom. Emancipated slaves obtained provision grounds and became free peasants. Others continued their work as craftsmen or household personnel. A number of emancipated slaves joined the police force. Some former enslaved and their descendants slaves became successful merchants. Older and disabled former slaves received government aid from the special poor relief fund initiated in 1863. In 1769-1871, efforts by commander Ferguson to organize a working house for the poor were as much directed to the poor white as the recently liberated enslaved.

Former slaves integrated rapidly in the free population. Due to mixed marriages – frequently with former owners – and upward social mobility, the former slave population ceased to exist as a separate population group. Colonists, Indians, and blacks intermixed forming Aruba’s traditional Mestizo-Creole population.