The first inhabitants of Aruba—the Caquetio—were probably related to the Arawaks. Various 16th century sources indicate that the Caquetio spoke Maipuran, an Arawak language. Basic information about the earliest Indian settlements has been gleaned from ancient painted symbols still visible on limestone caves found at Fontein, Ayo, and a few other places. These sites date back to about 1000 C.E. as do the pottery remnants, which have been preserved at the Archaeological Museum of Aruba in Oranjestad.
In 1499 the Spanish navigator Alonso de Ojeda (c.1466–c.1515), made his way to this remote corner of the Caribbean Basin and laid claim to the territory for Queen Isabella. According to one tradition he christened the place Oro Hubo (“golden hub”), implying that gold was to be found there. The name Aruba, however, was possibly derived from the Arawak word oibubai, which means “guide.” The Spanish made little use of the island, finding the climate too arid for cultivation and discovering little evidence of gold.
Spain’s belief that Aruba had nothing it could exploit and its consequent abandonment opened the way for the notorious slave hunters (indieros), and in 1515 Diego Salazar took about 2,000 Indians from the three islands and put them to work in the gold and silver mines in Hispaniola. For the most part, however, the Spanish abandoned Aruba to the Caquetios for the next 150 years and devoted themselves to more lucrative conquests. Their lack of interest in Aruba probably spared the Caquetios some of the more hideous and cruel practices for which the Spaniards became known. Gradually the island became a clandestine hideout for buccaneers, who raided ships transporting Indian treasures back to Europe. At Bushiribana on the northeast coast, the ruins of an old pirate castle still stand.
In 1636 about the time of the conclusion of the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and Holland, the Dutch, who had been expelled by the Spanish from their base in St. Maarten, set out looking for another place to establish their colonial presence. They captured the islands of Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire from the Spanish without much resistance. Curaçao became the administrative capital for the Dutch West India Company in the Netherlands Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, and Suriname), with Aruba operating as one of its chief satellites. The Dutch controlled Aruba for nearly two centuries.
Poor soil and aridity saved the island from plantation economics and the African slave trade. Instead the Dutch left the Arawaks to graze livestock on the parched landscape, using the island as a source of meat for other Dutch possessions in the Caribbean. During the Napoleonic Wars the English briefly took control of the island in 1805 but returned it to the Dutch in 1816.
In 1826 Aruba’s first economic boom occurred when gold was discovered near Balashi. Hordes of goldhungry immigrants arrived from Europe and Venezuela, and mining continued until 1916. When the mines became unproductive Aruba turned to oil refining on a large scale. In 1929 the world’s largest refinery was built on the southeastern tip of the island. Things went smoothly until the 1940s, when Aruba became resentful about playing a secondary role to Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles. Aruban calls for autonomy increased over the next few decades, and in 1986 Aruba finally became an autonomous state within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The queen of the Netherlands is the head of state, and a governor general, appointed for a six-year term, represents her locally. The Netherlands is responsible for all matters relating to defense, judicial appointments, applications for citizenship, and foreign affairs.
Aruba has its own constitution, however, based on Western democratic principles. Legislative, executive, and judicial powers are vested in the parliament, which has its seat in Aruba’s capital, Oranjestad. The Aruban Parliament consists of 21 members elected by universal suffrage. Matters such as aviation, customs, immigration, communications, and other internal matters are handled autonomously by the Aruban government. All laws are written in Dutch, and the highest court is the Dutch Supreme Court in The Hague.

Aruba lies at the center of the southern Caribbean, 15 miles north of Venezuela. The island is 19 miles long and 6 miles wide, with a total area of nearly 75 square miles. Aruba enjoys a dry, sunny climate, which is kept pleasant and temperate all year due to the cooling effects of the trade winds. The average annual temperature is 81°F, and the meager rainfall amounts to just 17 inches a year. Most of this occurs during the months of October and November. Aruba is located well below the hurricane belt. The island is characterized by a flat landscape dominated by Mount Jamanota (617 feet). Hemmed in by calm blue seas, with visibility up to a depth of a hundred feet in some places, the island’s south and west coasts consist of miles of white beaches. The eastern coast of the island is a desert. Inland Aruba presents a unique but unlikely landscape of cactus, aloe plants, and dramatic rock formations that resembles a desert.

Tourism is the mainstay of Aruba’s economy, although offshore banking, and oil refining and storage also enjoy considerable importance. The rapid growth of the tourism sector over the last few decades has resulted in the expansion of other related activities. Construction has boomed, with hotel capacity reaching five times the 1985 level. The reopening of the country’s oil refinery in 1993—a major source of employment and a foreign exchange earner—further helped economic development. Aruba’s small labor force and low unemployment rate have led to a large number of unfilled job vacancies, despite sharp rises in wages in recent years. Early in the 21st century the government faced a budget deficit and a negative trade balance.

Aruba’s population is made up of people from South America and Europe, as well as from Asia and other Caribbean islands. The lingua franca, spoken by 200,000 people in Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao, is a Creole dialect called Papiamento (also spelled Papiamientu) that came from the neighboring island of Curaçao. It developed during the 1500s so that African slaves could understand and be understood by their owners. Most of the countries that have used the island in the past have contributed to Papiamento. In addition to the contributions of various African languages, Portuguese and Spanish missionaries, Dutch merchants, South American traders, and Indians added additional words, creating a mix ture of Dutch, Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, and African languages as well as the Arawak language Maipuran.
Although a majority of Aruba’s citizens would identify themselves as Roman Catholic if asked, it is likely that a large number of them also practice the Afro-Caribbean religion called Santería. The term Santería was originally a very negative word used by the Spanish to speak of the religious practices of their slaves. Over the years, however, as the word has come into widespread use, its sense of disapproval has been neutralized, and many practitioners have begun to use it themselves.
Its origins date back to the slave trade when African peoples were caught and forcibly transported to the Caribbean. Typically, the new slaves were baptized by Roman Catholic priests as soon as they arrived, and their native beliefs and practices were suppressed. Santería incorporates the worship of the orisha (Yoruba deities; literally “head guardian”) and beliefs of the Yoruba and Bantu people in Southern Nigeria, Senegal, and the Guinea Coast. These are combined with elements of worship from Roman Catholicism.
In order to keep their old beliefs alive, the former slaves equated each Yoruba deity (santo) with a corresponding Christian saint. For example Babalz Ayi became St. Lazarus, patron of the sick; Eleggua (or Elegba), the guardian of crossroads, became identified with St. Anthony, who protects travelers; Shango, who controls storms, thunder, lightning, and fire, was identified with St. Barbara; Ogun, the orisha of war, was identified with St. Peter; and Oshun, thought to be very wealthy, became Our Lady of Charity. Tambu, muzik di zumbi, seú or simadan, and tumba are the Afro-Caribbean forms of music typically performed during celebrations in Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. The lyrics to these forms of music are sung in Papiamento.
Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital since 1797, takes its name from the Dutch Royal House of Orange-Nassau. Its architectural designs are mainly Dutch with an occasional touch of Spanish styles. The second largest city, San Nicholas, is a fairly modern township, which gained prominence with the island’s oil boom. It is the venue of Aruba’s Carnival, third only to those held in Brazil and Trinidad.

The confluence of divergent cultures has lent a distinct flavor to the island’s cuisine. The typical local menu contains an array of freshly harvested seafood. International menus, including Indonesian, Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, Italian, French, and Cantonese cuisine, are easily available in Aruba. Some famous local dishes include arepas, cornmeal griddlecakes (of Venezuelan origin) stuffed with ham, eggs, chicken, okra, cheese, and other ingredients; pastechis, small pastries stuffed with spicy meat, okra, or fish, an ideal dish for parties; ayaca, a spicy dish prepared with pork, chicken, and dried fruits, all tightly packed in banana leaves and steamed in a pan of boiling water; and bolo pretu, a dark fruitcake, which is a popular dessert that keeps for six months or more if refrigerated. Elaborately decorated, bolo pretu is the wedding cake of preference.

In Aruba it is believed that a young, unmarried woman who wishes to attract a man should devote herself to San Antonio. She should purchase an icon of this saint and worship him by lighting scented candles. If this fails to work the saint is punished; the icon is turned to face the wall, with a lit candle at the icon’s back.
Practitioners of Santería (an Afro-Caribbean mystical religion) recommend taking baths with sweet scented salts, oils, and potions to attract a husband. Rose petals, honey, cinnamon, sandalwood, and musk will increase a woman’s chances of getting married. Once a woman has married she must domesticate her new husband to ensure that he doesn’t wander. This is accomplished by stealing his right sock and burying it before midnight on the third Monday of the month, on the right side of the main entrance to the house. Thereafter, during the last week of every month, she puts five drops of a special potion in his morning coffee.
Bolo pretu, a dark fruitcake, thickly iced and aglitter with tiny silver balls, is the Aruban wedding cake. Keepsake slices, placed in small white boxes inscribed in silver with the initials of the newlyweds, are distributed to guests at the wedding reception. Without the trimmings, bolo pretu is a popular everyday dessert that keeps for six months or more if refrigerated.

Because death is a significant event in both Caribbean and Roman Catholic cultures, numerous beliefs and superstitions have grown up around it. In Aruba it is believed that people’s spirits begin to roam when they are terminally ill, visiting friends and relatives before their actual death. According to legend many omens foretell death, such as black butterflies entering the house. When the deceased is laid out in the coffin in the church prior to the funeral, the nose is touched or pulled. Should bad luck result from this practice it is promptly washed off by consuming one or several alcoholic drinks, a custom referred to as laba man (“washing the hands”).