Netherlands Antilles, former autonomous country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands consisting of several islands in the West Indies. Earlier known as the Dutch West Indies and Netherlands West Indies, the island country consisted of Bonaire and Curaçao, both lying off Venezuela, and Saba, St. Eustatius, and the southern half of Saint Martin, all in the Leeward Islands, east of Puerto Rico. The island of Aruba, also off Venezuela, was part of the Netherlands Antilles until 1986. Willemstad, on Curaçao, was the capital.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th cent., the region was inhabited by Arawaks and Caribs. The islands were captured by the Dutch in the 17th cent. and were worked by the many African slaves who were brought to their shores. Slavery was abolished in 1863 and the economy faltered until the oil industry began to flourish in the 20th cent. The Netherlands Antilles became autonomous in 1954. In 2004 a government commission recommended splitting up the Netherlands Antilles, giving St. Martin and Curaçao autonomy and establishing direct Dutch rule over the other islands. In a series of referendums islanders largely seconded this proposal, which took effect in 2010.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.