Bonaire Day is a national holiday. The events take place in the main square, starting in the morning with a typical succession of political speeches. Those wrap up around midday and then the festivities begin. Food and handicraft vendors are out in full force. The scouts have a marching band that plays during the raising and lowering of the Bonairian flag. A stage is set up to showcase various groups of local singers. Dancers in local costume perform in front of the stage (see videos below). For dinner, we purchased a Dutch favourite called “Kibbeling” from one of the vendors. Originally it was made with battered cod cheeks, deep fried in oil. Nowadays, less expensive white fish is often substituted for cod cheeks. It is typically served with a garlic mayonnaise. It’s could easily be called “Fish McNuggets”. These little moist, mouth-watering morsels are delicious and have become my go-to favourite when we eat out at the small local stalls.
The main center, Kralendijk, has a long frontage road that runs along the town’s sea wall. It’s great for stroll in the evening when the direct heat from the sun starts to diminish. A relatively new addition is a Dutch supermarket, “Van Den Tweel”, and is one of the best we have seen since Martinique. It’s a fun place to shop, as everything is labeled in Dutch, so in many cases you are not quite sure what you are buying.
We hired a taxi for a 5-hour tour of the island. Our driver was Therese, who moved to Bonaire in the 60’s when she was a young teenager. The island itself is very arid, with lots of cactus and gnarly scrub growth. Locals love to eat iguana soup which contains all parts of the lizard – we gave that one a miss. Therese took us to a local distillery, where we sampled local liquors and, of course, rum. Our favourite liquor was made from cactus. There are also lots of wild donkeys scattered here and there.
One of the main and long-established industries on the island is salt production. It uses traditional Dutch dyke design to bring salt water in Bonaire's southern half into an elaborate sequence of ponds and pools. The hot sun evaporates the seawater to produce salt. Operated by Cargill, Bonaire's salt works produce 400,000 tons of industrial grade salt per year. It requires about 10 tonnes of saltwater to make 1 tonne of salt. The whole process takes about 18 months. After collection, the salt is then washed and stored in large piles. The salt facility operates its own pier where ships are loaded with salt destined for North American, European and Western Pacific markets.
The large salt ponds are a natural habitat for numerous species of brine shrimp. These are the main food supply for flocks of pink flamingos and other migratory birds. The pink shrimp turn the water in salt pools the same colour (see photos below) and are also responsible for the “pink” in flamingos (who would be white if they didn’t ear pink shrimp).
In the early days, slaves used to work in the salt flats. The light was so intense that workers started to go blind in their early twenties. At that point, working hours were shifted to nighttime and workers slept during the day. Prior to the change of work hours, they had slept out in the open at night. Once the shift change was introduced, small brick huts were constructed so that they could recover out of the direct sunlight. The huts are tiny and must be entered and exited on your hands and knees (see photos below).
Next week – Curacao.
Bonaire, together with Aruba and Curaçao, make up the ABC islands, about a hundred miles off the north coast of South America near the western part of Venezuela. Bonaire is the eastern-most of the three islands.
Bonaire's capital is Kralendijk. The island has a permanent population of only about 20,000. Dutch is the official language of Bonaire, as it is part of the Netherlands. 10% of the population speak Dutch as their primary language, 75% speak the creole language Papiamentu, 12% Spanish and the remainder primarily speak English or other languages. Bonairians all learn Dutch in school. Papiamentu is like a simplified form of Portuguese. It is widely spoken in all the ABC islands and in Cape Verde as well.
In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda arrived in Curaçao and Bonaire. The Spanish conquerors decided that the three ABC Islands were “useless” and in 1515 forcibly deported the natives to work as slaves in the copper mines of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic & Haiti).
The Dutch and the Spanish fought from 1568 to 1648 in what is known as the Eighty Years War. In 1633, the Dutch, having lost the island of St. Maarten to the Spanish, retaliated by attacking Curaçao, Bonaire, and Aruba. Bonaire was captured by the Dutch in 1636.
While Curaçao emerged as a center of the slave trade, Bonaire became a plantation of the Dutch West India Company. A small number of African slaves were put to work alongside Indians and convicts, cultivating dyewood and maize and harvesting salt from the salt ponds.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the Netherlands lost control of Bonaire to the British. The ABC islands were returned to the Netherlands under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814. During the period of British rule, a large number of white traders settled on Bonaire, and built the settlement of Playa, now called Kralendijk, in 1810.
During the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II, Bonaire became a protectorate of Britain and the United States. Many German and Austrian citizens were interned in a camp on Bonaire for the duration of the war.
The “Netherlands Antilles” was formed in 1954 and included the islands of Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten and Saba. They were a parliamentary democracy based on the Dutch system of government with free elections held every four years. Aruba became an independent country in 1986. Dissension about the political future of the remaining island nation started to arise. In 2005, a conference was held by the governments of the Netherlands, Aruba, and the Netherlands Antilles to discuss future constitutional reform and dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles. In 2006, Saint Maarten and Curaçao chose autonomy, while Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba opted for a closer relationship with the Netherlands. Constitutional referendums and dismantlement of the Netherlands Antilles occurred in 2010. As a result, the government of the Netherlands assumed the task of public administration of the “Caribbean Netherlands”, comprising Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba. The three islands acquired new status as "special municipalities", making them part of the Netherlands itself. This is similar to the relationship that exists between France and St. Martin, Guadeloupe and Martinique.
Bonaire has retained its own unique culture while residents enjoy the same rights as Dutch citizens, including the right to vote in Dutch parliamentary elections in the Netherlands. Residents also have access to new or improved facilities and government benefits such as universal health care, better education and social services. While the three islands are considered to be land of the Netherlands, they are not a part of the European Union and not subject to European Union Law.