The five islands of the Netherlands Antilles are divided geographically into two groups: the Leeward Islands (Benedenwindse Eilanden) and the Windward Islands (Bovenwindse Eilanden). The Windward group, off the north coast of South America, comprises the islands of Curaçao, with an area of 444 sq km (171 sq mi), and Bonaire, 288 sq km (111 sq mi). Aruba, another Windward island, seceded from the Netherlands Antilles in 1986. The Leeward group, more than 800 km (500 mi) to the northeast, consists of the southern part of St. Martin (Sint Maarten), 34 sq km (13 sq mi); Saba, 13 sq km (5 sq mi); and Sint Eustatius, 21 sq km (8 sq mi). The islands total 800 sq km (309 sq mi).
All the Windward Islands have volcanic bases, partly covered with coral reefs; they are semiarid and flat, with little vegetation. The Leeward Islands are more mountainous and receive enough rainfall to enable crops and vegetation to flourish. Saba, the most fertile, is an extinct volcano with luxuriant vegetation in its crater, on its sides, and leading down to the sea. Temperatures average between 25° and 31° C (77° and 88° F ); annual rainfall averages 107 cm (42 in) on the Windward Islands and 51 cm (20 in) on the Leeward Islands. In 1987, the tundra peregrine falcon and the American crocodile were endangered species. The entire population of the Netherlands Antilles was estimated at 207,827 in mid-1999. The estimated population of the Windward Islands in the mid-1990s was 158,000, consisting of Curaçao, 142,000, and Bonaire, 16,000. The Leeward Islands had 35,000 residents, consisting of Sint Eustatius, 2,000; St. Martin, 32,000; and Saba, 1,000. Most of the inhabitants were born on the islands. Persons of mixed African origins account for 85% of the population, but over 40 ethnicities are represented, including Dutch, Surinamese, British, Latin Americans, French West Indians, Carib Amerindians, and US emigrants.
The official language is Dutch. Papiamento, a lingua franca evolved from Dutch and English with an admixture of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arawak, and African words, is also common, principally in the Leeward Islands. English is spoken, mainly in the Windward Islands. Spanish is also widely spoken. Roman Catholicism has the most adherents on the Leeward Islands and Saba, but Protestantism is dominant on St. Martin and Sint Eustatius.
Buses, private automobiles operating as small buses on fixed routes, and taxicabs provide the only public transportation. There are no rivers or railroads. Each island has a good all-weather road system. The most important port is on Curaçao, where there is a natural harbor at Willemstad. Airline connections to nearby islands and countries are provided by Dutch Antillean Airlines (Antilliaanse Luchtvaart Maatschappij—ALM), Royal Dutch Airlines (Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij—KLM), and other international carriers.
The European discovery of the Windward Islands was made by Columbus in 1493, and that of the Leeward Islands (including Aruba) by a young Spanish nobleman, Alonso de Ojeda, who sailed with Amerigo Vespucci in 1499; hence the claim went to Spain. The Dutch fleet captured the Windward Islands in 1632 and the Leeward Islands in 1634. Peter Stuyvesant was the first governor. In 1648, St. Martin was peacefully divided between the Netherlands and France; this division still exists. During the colonial period, Curaçao was the center of the Caribbean slave trade. For a period during the Napoleonic wars (1807–15), Great Britain had control over the islands. Slavery was abolished in 1863.
Under a 1954 statute, the Netherlands Antilles is a component of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, with autonomy in internal affairs. A governor, appointed by and representing the crown, heads the government, with a Council of Ministers as the executive body. The ministers are responsible to the Staten, a 23-member legislature (15 from Curaçao, 3 each from Bonaire and St. Martin, and 1 each from Saba and Sint Eustatius). Members are elected by general suffrage of Dutch nationals aged 18 or older. A 1951 regulation established autonomy in local affairs for each of the then-existing island communities—Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, and the Leeward Islands—with responsibilities divided between an elected island council, an executive council, and a lieutenant-governor. By agreements made in 1983, St. Martin, Saba, and Sint Eustatius have separate representation in the Staten, elect their own separate councils, and have their own lieutenant-governors and executive councils. Cases are tried in a court of first instance and on appeal in the Joint High Court of Justice, with justices appointed by the crown. Defense is the responsibility of the Netherlands; a naval contingent is permanently stationed in the islands, and military service is compulsory. The Netherlands Antilles is an associate member of the EU.
The prosperity of Curaçao is inseparably linked with its oil refineries. These were built there, beginning in 1918, chiefly because of the favorable location of the islands, their good natural ports and cheap labor, and the political stability of the territory. Tankers bring crude oil from Venezuela. The economic significance of the refineries is great, not only because of their output, but also because they provide employment and stimulate other economic activities, such as shipbuilding, metal industries, shipping, air traffic, and commerce in general. The government controls the price of basic foodstuffs and participates in the setting of rates to be charged for transportation and by privately owned utilities.
The currency unit is the Netherlands Antilles guilder, or florin (NAf) of 100 cents; NAf1 = $0.55866 (or $1 = roughly NAf1.79). The GDP for 1997 was estimated at US $2.1 billion, or US $11,500 per capita. The unemployment rate (including Aruba) was 14.9% in 1998, and 60–70% of the work force was organized in labor unions. The principal agricultural products are sorghum, orange peel, aloes, groundnuts, yams, divi-divi, and some assorted vegetables. The fish catch in 1994 was 1,100 tons. Curaçao's favorable position at the crossing of many sea-lanes has stimulated commerce since the earliest days of European settlement. Transit trade benefits from Curaçao's improved harbors; Willemstad is a free port, as are the islands of Saba and Sint Eustatius. In 1997, exports were estimated at US $268.2 million and imports at US $1.4 billion. Refined petroleum products are exported to the Netherlands and other countries from a refinery on Curaçao. Petroleum shipments dominated the country's foreign trade—refined petroleum accounted for about 98% of exports in 1993, while crude oil made up 64% of imports that year. In 1996, the US was the market for 28.6% of exports; Honduras, 6.4%; Belgium-Luxembourg, 6%; Italy, 4.9%; Guatemala, 4.5%, and Costa Rica, 4%. Venezuela provided 34% of imports in 1996, followed by the US (16.4%), Mexico (15.5%), Netherlands (5%), Italy (3.5%), and Brazil (2.8%).
The Bank of the Netherlands Antilles (Bank van de Nederlandse Antillen) issues currency, holds official reserves, regulates the banking system, and acts as the central foreign exchange bank. There are 14 authorized commercial banks and several savings and loan institutions that also handle financial matters. The Netherlands Antilles Development Bank was created in 1981 to stimulate foreign investment in service industries. Tax treaties with the US have encouraged US individuals and businesses to shelter their funds in the islands. Development aid from the Netherlands totaled about $97 million in 1996.
There are 74 nursery schools, 86 primary schools, 55 secondary schools, 1 teacher-training college, and the University Institute of the Netherlands Antilles, on Curaçao (all excluding Aruba); all schools are government-supported. The language of instruction is Dutch in the Leeward Islands, except in the International School, where classes are taught in English; English is also used in the Windward Islands. The literacy rate is more than 95%, although education is not compulsory. There are six hospitals on Curaçao and four on the other islands.
All the islands have cable, radiotelegraph, or radiotelephone connections with one another and, via the central exchange at Curaçao, with international systems. There are 9 AM, 4 FM, and 3 TV stations on the islands. Broadcasts are in Papiamento, Dutch, Spanish, and English. In 1992 there were about 205,000 radios and 64,000 televisions (including Aruba). Two daily newspapers in Dutch and four in Papiamento are published in the Netherlands Antilles, along with several weekly and monthly periodicals.
Tourism is a significant source of revenue. Annually, more than 469,000 cruise passengers visit the islands; total visitors to the islands amount to over 1,000,000.