The slave houses on the dike that separates the Pekelmeer from the Caribbean Sea, in the south of Bonaire, are world famous and unique. In fact, in most places in the world all memories from the time of slavery have been carefully erased.
On Bonaire many black slaves from Africa are employed in the salt pans (on the coral island are eighteen salt pans) and on the plantations. In 1863 slavery came to an end, in that year slavery was abolished in the Antilles.
The West India Company (WIC) also used Bonaire as a penal colony for soldiers who had misbehaved. These punished were forced, like the slaves, to work in the salt pans of the coral island. But the first people who had to work from the WIC in the salt pans of Bonaire were the Indians. The Indians were the original inhabitants of the Caribbean island. Many of the Indians eventually managed to escape the WIC by fleeing to Venezuela.
The coral stone slave houses were built in 1850. This was 13 years before slavery was abolished on Bonaire. Before that time the slaves slept in the open air or in small wooden huts. Different colored slave houses can be seen at two locations along the Pekelmeer. Near the white salt pan are the white slave houses and ocher yellow slave houses can be found at the red salt pan. There is also a larger house next to the white slave houses. This house was for the bomba (the overseer). The small two-person houses (barely 1.5 meters high) have no windows and have small doors where you can hardly imagine that two adult men could sleep in there. Sometimes six slaves slept in one house!
The slave laborers had to work in the salt pans of the south of Bonaire but lived in the middle of Bonaire in the town of Rincon. It was a 7-hour walk for the slaves to walk from the salt pans to the family in Rincon. That is why the WIC built the slave huts in 1850, so that not all slaves had to walk to Rincon every day. After 1850, some of the government slaves also lived in Tera Cora (Tera Kora). During the slave time this place was called Mundo Nobo (new world). Tera Cora is a lot closer to the salt pans of Bonaire. This meant that the slaves had to walk less far. Tera Cora is now one of the suburbs of Kralendijk (just behind the airport).
About 500 slaves had to work during the harvest of the white gold. The work in the salt pans was only done during the dry period on Bonaire. The work in the salt pans was very heavy. The slaves had to chop salt from the salt pans with pickaxes, shovels and wheelbarrows. The hot tropical sun also caused heavy working conditions.
Many of the slaves were blinded by the reflection of the sun above on the salt crystals. The slaves were also working their whole day with their bare feet and hands in the biting salt basins. After the slaves had chopped the salt out of the salt pans, the salt was put into baskets and placed on the head of the slaves. In this way the salt was transported to small boats that were waiting for the coast. These small boats transported the salt to the large salt ships of the WIC which were a bit further from the coast. These salt ships came from Curaçao and, after being loaded with salt, sailed to the Netherlands.
The slave huts have recently been thoroughly restored by the Netherlands National Antilles Foundation (Stinapa) and restored to their original state. Information boards have been placed at the location where the history of salt extraction on Bonaire is explained in a clear way. In this way, the Bonairean authorities are trying to preserve these important monuments for future generations.
The slave trade from the 17th century, set up by the Dutch, English, French and Portuguese, forms a black page from world history. Black Africans were shipped from Africa to the Caribbean and traded there to be employed in North America, South America and the Caribbean islands. Here the slaves had to do heavy work on the various types of plantations, in the harbors and in the salt pans.
During that period, Dutch ships transported half a million slaves from the west coast of Africa to the colonies in the 'West'. In 1863, slavery in the Dutch colonies was completely abolished (the Emancipation Regulation). From that moment on, 758 slaves were released on Bonaire. Because slaves could no longer be used on Bonaire, it was no longer profitable for the WIC to keep the salt pans and plantations on the coral island operational.
On Curaçao, the slaves were privately owned. On Bonaire most slaves were owned by the state. This was a big difference. The slaves on Bonaire were therefore much freer than the slaves on Curaçao. The slaves on the Dutch diving island were called 'katibu di rey' (slaves of the king). The state slaves on Bonaire had their own gardens where they grew vegetables and fruit. They also kept goats and pigs for their own consumption. On Bonaire were also slaves who were privately owned. However, this was a minority. At the end of slavery, 59 private individuals were released.
In 2013 a film was shot on Bonaire in which the slave houses play an important role. The film 'Kasita' tells the story of two nieces running away from home because they are not allowed to have a dog from their grandmother. At a certain moment they think that a slavehouse could be a great place to keep a dog. The film is directed by Gabri Christa.
The salt of Bonaire is unique. The salt crystals that are harvested on the diving island nowadays have an excellent quality. The salt crystals can grow to enormous proportions on Bonaire, as big as apples! Most salt from Bonaire has an industrial destination and a small part reaches the consumer. The way the salt is harvested on Bonaire is called 'sea salt sun dried'. In total there are ten different ways to harvest salt from nature.
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