The History of Punda
In today’s article, we take a ride through the history of Punda, Curaçao’s most famous area. As we guide you through the evolution of Punda as an important trading center in the 17th and 18th centuries, we’ll also explore its modern-day landscape as part of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most photographed capitals in the world.
The Beginnings of Punda
The famous area of Punda, with its unique colorful buildings along the “Handelskade” waterfront, is a must-see for the thousands of tourists that visit Curaçao each year. But can you imagine that a few hundred years ago, that famous site was nothing more than dry land, inhabited only by cacti and thorny shrubs?
The island of Curaçao was first conquered by the Spaniards in 1499 and remained in their possession until the Dutch West-Indian Company overtook the island in 1634, under the patronage of the Dutch. Until this point, there was no major development or construction in the area now known as Punda. However, being seasoned tradesmen and mariners of the famous Dutch West-Indian Company, they saw the potential to create a port for naval defense and trade in the naturally sheltered deep-water harbor called "Schottegat". In 1635, the company’s leading Admiral, Johannes van Walbeeck, started building Fort Amsterdam at the mouth of the harbor, at the "Annabaai" (Sint Anna Bay), as the first defense point against other European colonizers surrounding the Caribbean Sea.
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The headland on the eastern side of the bay was given priority in the building process, and it took only one year to be completed. This area used to go by the name of “De Punt” (The Point), but later it became “Punta” and lastly, “Punda”. Closer to the end of the 17th century, a city wall was built around Punda as a second line of defense.
The Jewish arrival
By the year 1635, the number of inhabitants in Punda consisted of 50 Indians and 412 “koppen”, which were mostly soldiers and sailors. In 1651, the first Jewish immigrants arrived from Europe. These Jews, originally from Spain and Portugal, had initially fled to The Netherlands and settled in Amsterdam after years of persecution and forced conversion to Catholicism dating back to the Spanish Inquisition.
With the West-Indian Company’s new expeditions to the Americas, many Jews joined the long sea voyages to be part of the development of the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. Led by Joao D’ Yllan, the first Jewish settlement started in Curaçao, and in 1659 a second, larger group arrived on the island led by Isaac Da Costa. They settled in the north of the “Schottegat” area, where they started farming at the “Plantage De Hoop” (Hope Plantation), or “Het Joodse Kwartier” (Jewish Quarter).
After some years of working on the plantations, the Jewish community shifted their attention to trading. They started purchasing and building large warehouses in Punda, close to Fort Amsterdam. In 1707, they also started developing the other side of the bay, which literally received the name “Otrobanda”, (the other side).
The Jewish community grew very prosperous and left a special mark on Curaçao. They built the famous Mikvé Israel-Emanuel synagogue in 1732, which is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere. They also created several valuable local products, such as the world-famous Senior Curaçao Liqueur, affectionately known as Blue Curaçao Liqueur.
A New Punda
After the decline of the Dutch West-Indian Company, the port was declared an “open port”, and opened its doors to other countries to trade products and slaves. This was the next step in making Punda, with its famous “Handelskade”, a trading hub frequented by tradesmen from around the world. Even to this day, hundreds of ships of all sizes enter the harbor every year to bring oil, food products, goods, and visitors from all over the world.
Another important event in the history of Punda was the removal of the city walls. After protecting Punda for over 150 years, the city walls were taken down from 1861 until 1864, and the districts of Otrobanda, Scharloo, and Pietermaai integrated into the greater capital city of Willemstad. After the walls were taken down, a new era made its way into the streets of Punda. The harbor was enhanced by the introduction of steam navigation, and the port of Willemstad developed into a coal bunkering depot.
The Uprising of 1969
Not all is glitz and glamour in the history of Punda. On May 30th, 1969, an uprising took place which led to the widespread looting and destruction of buildings and vehicles in Willemstad and its surroundings. The uprising continued for two days, well into the night of May 31st. It arose predominantly due to a strike by workers in the oil industry, who complained of the inequality in wages, and the political differences between the local population and the island’s ruling white minority.
The rally left two people dead and much of central Willemstad destroyed, while hundreds of people were arrested. The protestors achieved most of their immediate demands: higher wages for workers and the resignation of the government of the Netherlands Antilles. It was a pivotal moment in the history of Curaçao, and a crucial moment for Punda and the city of Willemstad, as it was left destroyed holding on to the hope of one day returning to its former glory.
UNESCO World Heritage Site and Punda nowadays
After two decades of reconstruction and growth, the city center and historic area of Punda and its surroundings earned the prestigious opportunity to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site on December 4th, 1997. This UNESCO World Heritage List entry was made possible because of Punda’s unique architecture and the harbor’s pivotal role in the history of African slavery and slave-trading in the Caribbean and the Americas.
The historic city wall was the reason for the beautiful narrow streets and quaint alleys of Punda that distinguish the city center from the rest of the island. They were built as narrow as possible, for the purpose of making optimal use of the land inside of the boundary of the city wall. For this reason, the houses were built very close to each other, mimicking the style of the traditional Dutch buildings in old Amsterdam, as if looking up towards the sky.
Nowadays the colorful district of Punda attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. It remains one of Curaçao’s most visited shopping areas (especially amongst international visitors) and it hosts some of the government’s most important buildings. Punda is also home to interesting cultural icons of Curaçao, such as the Jewish Historical Museum, the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, and The Blue Curaçao Experience, one of Punda’s newest and most exciting tourist attractions, where you can learn all about the world-famous Blue Curaçao Liqueur.