2011 International Year of Forests – Trees in the history of Curacao

This post is also available in: Dutch.

The trunk of a Brasia tree, irregularly shaped to withstand winds and to effectively deal with the sparse soil.

No islanders without trees

Our history revolves around trees. Without trees everything in the world would have turned out totally different. Without the timber the ship-builders needed to built their ocean-going creations, the Indians would have never reached our islands, and the great sailing ships of the Armada of the Spaniards would have never crossed the Atlantic in search of another route to the rich Indies. Those ‘upgraded’ trees brought people to the ‘other side’ of the world, where they ‘discovered’ – for them unknown – lands that were instantly turned into Spanish territory. They encountered small groups of natives who, until then, had attempted to survive on a supply of fish and shellfish, animals they brought with them from the mainland such as rabbits, and the low quantities of fresh water that could be found. When the Spaniards first put foot on Curaçao it was probably still fairly wooded. But the moment the westerners established a firm foothold, whether it be the Spanish, British or Dutch, the forests were rapidly gone. Because no familiar tree species were found to start building infrastructure with, trial and error techniques were applied to gain knowledge about the properties of the local tree species, and what they could be used for. It was a tough job as the relatively hostile climate of lots of sunshine, lots of wind wind and little rain only produced trees that stayed small and grew often in irregular shapes.

Use of native trees

If we look back at the utilization of the native trees of the island in elements like housing and shipbuilding, lime kilns, for cooking food, as food sources and sources for essential accessories and tools, for agriculture and livestock breeding, it is apparent that the Island, having a surface area of only 444 km2, has been combed out thoroughly in search of useful tree species.

The Wayaca

An example of such a tree is the Wayaca (Guaiacum officinale). The name of the tree seems to be an Indian name that has stuck in our current language. Also known by kids as the puzzle tree, because the bark appears to consist of a large number of puzzle pieces. The wood of this slow growing tree is hard and heavy. Tales are told that this tree would be the one under which Jesus fell asleep. According to the tale, this is the reason it always stays green, even in very dry times. Because of the strength of the wood it was used extensively for ship building, and specifically for the keel. It was also deployed in the rafters of the landhouses and as spokes in cart wheels. Mangrove trees were used as rafters as well.

Historical photograph of a lime kiln at Plantation Savonet. From the collection of H. Maduro-Molhuysen.

The Manzaliña (Manchineel) tree

The Manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella), with its poisonous apples and milk, was a favorite tree for burning lime. Large quantities of limestone and manchineel wood would be gathered and stacked in a circular pile of alternating limestone and wood. The wood was then ignited, and would keep on smoldering at high temperatures, because of its properties. The limestone would then pulverize into quicklime. Together with water and a little aloe the mixture was then used to plaster the bottom of roof tiles for waterproofing, or to plaster walls.

The Indju tree (Mesquite)

The Mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) was and still is a beloved tree for charcoal burning. The tree is closely related to the North American Mesquite. The properties of the wood ensure long smoldering times of the coals, which is very useful if you need your stew to simmer for a few hours. The aroma of the wood is what makes it really popular, particularly in the United States. The smoky taste that is infused in barbecued steaks and other meats is very popular and is widely praised. Even nowadays the Indju is often used for charcoal burning on the island. If you follow the road to Banda’bou during weekends you will often see controlled smoke rising up from backyards. Chances are good that coals are being created for future ‘a la parilla’.

Pods of Dividivi tree. These were used for tanning leather.

Food

Trees were also popular for food supply. The Shimaruku (Malpighia emarginata), or West Indian cherry, produces beautiful red fruits full of vitamins. But also the fruits of the Dushi Kabei tree (Maclura tinctoria) and Kayuda (Annona glabra) were gratefully used to supplement the diet . The edible pods of the Indju were mostly used to feed to the imported cattle. The fruits of Calabash tree (Crescentia cujete) were found useful as drinking cups, eating bowls and spoons.

Paint

The Brasia (Haematoxylon brasiletto), which is often confused with the Kibrahacha (Tabebuia billbergii), was harvested in large quantities by the Dutch, and shipped to the women’s prison in Amsterdam, where the wood was grated in an attempt to extract red dye from the pulp. Indju beans were also used for the extraction of dyes, in this case the color yellow. Another tree of which parts were used commercially was the Dividivi (Caesalpinia coriaria), whose pods were used for tanning leather.

Flowers of the Tamarind Tree. The fruits are rich in vitamins and were a welcome addition to the diet of the inhabitants of the island in the past, which was relatively poor in fresh fruits and vegetables.

Import

Many trees were imported and planted on the island in an attempt to diversify the products. Examples are the Tamarind Tree (Tamarindus indica), the Mango Tree (Mangifera indica) and many other fruit trees. Some of them could survive in the wild and were able to cope with the difficult circumstances. This is the reason why you might encounter the Tamarind Tree in the mondi, though often in the vicinity of former plantations. The same is true of the Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra). The oldest and largest specimen on the island is found in Hofi Pastor. After ripening the fruits of this tree will burst open and produce large amounts of kapok, a kind of cotton that was used for filling pillows and as packaging material.

Mahok

Perhaps the most famous and certainly most appreciated tree is the Mahok tree (Swietenia Mahogany). The beautiful color of the wood and its durability makes it perfect for furniture, and surviving antique furniture is often of this wood. Even now the tree is loved and old courtyards with large Mahok trees are sometimes ransacked. With this stolen wood modern furniture, ornaments and so forth are created.

Trees have shaped us!

It is clear that trees have played an irreplaceable role in history, and they are still an integral part of our culture, customs and daily life. Without trees we would not have become who we are today.

About Michelle da Costa Gomez