Kura Hulanda Museum
article and images by Carole Terwilliger Meyers
Located just off the northern coast of Venezuela, Curaçao (pronounced “kur-ah-sow”) is part of the ABC Islands chain—Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao–which in turn is part of the Netherlands. Curaçao is probably best known for its namesake Valencia orange liquour that comes in a rainbow of colors, for its tropical-colored Amsterdam-style architecture, and for its excellent dive sites. But this remote, arid island offers much more, including a colorful floating market, plenty of beaches, and a unique “tumba” music.
Curaçao also has a reputation for racial and religious tolerance. Its population is an eclectic mix of forty different nationalities, many of whom can be seen chatting on their cell phones while walking across the swinging Queen Emma pontoon bridge in to Willemstad–the island’s capital and a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site.
Across the harbor from Willemstad is the magnificent Kura Hulanda complex, consisting of a five-star hotel and a unique museum dedicated to telling the story of the island’s slave trade. Amazingly, this spectacularly lovely spot was previously a slum. It was also once one of the largest slave depots in the Caribbean, as Curaçao was where many captured Africans were processed enroute to the New World.
The aesthetically magnificent Museum Kura Hulanda opened in 1999. Built from sixteen 18th- and 19th-century Dutch colonial homes–on the very site where slaves once arrived on the island–it is the vision of Jacob Gelt Dekker. His wish is to document and attempt to tell the story of the African slave trade as it applies to the area, and to demonstrate that it was based on economics, not racism. The facts leave visitors stunned.
Museum visitors can climb down into the cramped hold of a replica wooden ship and see the shackles and tight spaces these captured people were subjected to. More of Dekker’s staggeringly impressive private collection is artistically presented in a replica slave prison from Senegal and in replica slave huts.
Several rooms are dedicated to other facets of Curaçao’s past–including the Dutch settlers–and to other non-Western cultures of the world. And since Kura Hulanda means “Dutch courtyard” in the native Papiamentu language, it is appropriate that the museum surrounds a lovely courtyard.
Adjacent, the 67-room Hotel Kura Hulanda is a village of cobblestone walkways leading to sculpture gardens, two sumptuously landscaped pools, and an assortment of boutiques, restaurants, and bars. Guest rooms are situated inside meticulously restored 18th- and 19th-century Dutch Caribbean buildings, and each is uniquely furnished with handcrafted era reproductions made by artisans from around the world. Rooms are spacious, with soft fabrics, high four-poster beds, carved furniture, Indian marble bathrooms, hand-painted wall decoration, high open-beam ceilings, and both ceiling fans and air conditioning. Guests can relax over a snack at tables sprinkled around the grand courtyard, stroll out the gates into town, or arrange to visit a nearby beach club or golf course.
Enthusiastic proprietor Jacob Dekker says his gorgeous 65-building, 8-block “environmental and historic preservation project is a chaos of stuff from all over the place,” but the noteworthy artifacts are actually laid out in orderly fashion and offer continual surprise to guests exploring the grounds. Among the sights to see are an Indian Bridal Suite and artifacts from the Cotton Club. The complex is part of the Curacao UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Among the resort’s packages is one saluting the island’s rich Jewish heritage. The Curaçao Jewish Heritage Experience includes a private tour of Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue and Museum—the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the western hemisphere. Its floor is covered with salt-less sand brought in from a Sinai desert riverbed. The sand-covered floor acts as a reminder of the times when Jewish ancestors had to put sand on the floors to muffle the sounds of religious services and also as a reminder of the Exodus. A magnificent organ installed in 1866 has been recently reconstructed. (Note that Mr. Dekker is the son of a Holocaust survivor.)
And believe it or not! there’s yet more to do on this fascinating island. Allow time to gamble in one of the casinos, to swim with the dolphins, and to visit an ostrich farm. And don’t leave without purchasing a souvenir zip-up coconut purse.
Book: The Cay, by Theodore Taylor. Aimed at young adults; set during World War II.
Book: Bajanala: a stranger in Africa, by Jacob Gelt Dekker. Stories about the lives of contemporary African children.