Rain brings life: rain and people on Curaçao

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Water for living

The previous article described the importance of dams to the survival of plantations on Curaçao. Crops could be irrigated, even in the dry season, because the dams slowed the runoff of rainwater in order to force this water to penetrate into the ground, thus maintaining groundwater levels. To get to this water, wells were dug by hand, and the edges were reinforced with limestone. It must have been a hellish chore for the slaves to dig a well of more than ten meters deep and to strengthen it with limestone.

A hand-dug well of a plantation, reinforced with limestone.

The water from the wells was not only used for irrigation of crops, it was also used as drinking water for livestock, for the goats, sheep, cows, pigs and also the horses used for transportation.
For this purpose, even special wells were dug which are called ‘pos di pia’ on the island, walk-in wells. The ‘pos di pia’ usually looks like a large and wide excavation where groundwater reaches the surface, a kind of artificial lake. Often the construction of this type of wells took place at locations where the Indians already established contact with the underlying groundwater, in places where the groundwater levels were relatively high.
The underlying thought behind the ‘pos di pia’ was that the cattle, without any intervention of man, could easily get to the drinking water. They could just walk up to it. This was much more convenient than lugging hundreds of buckets of water to supply the often large livestock. The animals could stay in the ‘knoek’ (the fields) for days without the need to return home.

Drinking water for the slaves

Not only the animals needed water to survive. The workers, the slaves, who performed all the rough and heavy work needed water to drink, to prepare food, to wash themselves and their clothes, and so forth. They had to do this with well water. Water was collected from the wells and carried home in large buckets. This took a huge effort, especially when you consider it had to be done in addition to the ‘household’ tasks forced upon them by the plantation owner. Even after the abolition of slavery, there was a lot of traffic to and from these wells for collecting fresh water, and often it were the children who had to get up before dawn to fetch it.
Well water was obviously not the best drinking water. The wells were not covered, allowing organic matter to end up into the water continuously, such as leaves, earth, but also animal dung and even animals such as iguanas, which often drowned in the wells. You can guess that people who drank unboiled water were prone to suffer from intestinal problems.

A gutter along a historic warehouse, which leads into a covered cistern. The gutters were regularly kept clean to prevent organic material to enter the cistern and contaminate the water.

Drinking water for the plantation owner

The plantation owner and his family also needed water to survive on the plantation. They did not drink water from the wells, however. Their water, used for drinking and cooking, came from the so-called cisterns.
Cisterns are large covered water storage tanks, reinforced on the inside with limestone blocks or imported bricks and plastered with lime. This was done to prevent debris and contaminants from entering the water. The filling mechanism, installed to automatically fill the cisterns with rainwater, was quite ingenious. Most plantation houses and outbuildings had relatively large roof surfaces, which were ideally suited as rainwater collectors. Along most roof edges water collection gutters were constructed, leading to a system of transport channels which ended up in the cistern.

A cistern with roofing against organic contamination. The walls are plastered in order to waterproof the cistern (to stop it from leaking) and to keep the water quality fair.

All the rainwater that fell onto the roofs was automatically discharged into the cistern. An easy, inexpensive and automatic way to collect water. Usually one good rain-shower was enough to refill the tank properly. Because the sun had no influence on the water in the cistern because of the cover, and the fact that hardly any animal could get to the water to spoil it, the water quality remained pretty fair.





Michelle da Costa Gomez

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