The Arawaks lived on Bonaire for thousands of years before Spain laid claim to it in 1499. A mere 20 years later there were none left, as the Spanish sent all the natives to work in mines elsewhere in the empire. The only remains of the Arawak civilization on Bonaire are a few inscriptions in remote caves – although there are some artifacts from around the region at the Terramar Museum.
The depopulated Bonaire stayed pretty quiet until 1634, when the Dutch took control, building Fort Oranje to protect the harbor. The Dutch looked to the flat land in the south and saw a future in salt production. Thousands of slaves were imported to work in horrific conditions. You can see a few surviving slave huts at the southern end of the island, and the Mangazina di Rei, where the slaves had to travel to get their provisions, in Rincon.
When slavery was abolished in the 19th century, the salt factories closed. The population – former slaves, Dutch landowners and South American transplants – lived pretty simple lives until after WWII, when the salt ponds reopened (this time with machines doing the hard work). The revived industry, coupled with the postwar booms in tourism and diving, gave a real boost to the economy.
Meanwhile relations with Curaçao, capital of the Netherlands Antilles (NA), slowly turned frosty. Locals felt ignored by their wealthier neighbor and lobbied for change. In 2008 Bonaire returned to direct Dutch rule as a rather far-flung special municipality within the Netherlands, a designation it shares with Saba and Sint Eustatius. The NA was formally dissolved in 2010.
Feature: Captain Don
In 1962, Captain Don Stewart arrived in Bonaire from California aboard the Valerie Queen with just 63 cents to his name. He fell in love with the island, and devoted the next 50-plus years to protecting the reef and making it more accessible to divers and snorkelers. Although the good captain passed in 2014, his legacy lives on at the so-called 'home of diving freedom,' Captain Don's Habitat, and at the island's 90 dive sites, many of which he marked and named himself.