Category Archives: history

Historic Willemstad, Curacao


One of the odd things about the Dutch is like many small nations they have slight inferiority complexes about some topics, and my experience is colonialism is one of them.  They didn’t manage to grab as big a chunk of the world as England or Spain, so the Dutch spend a surprising amount of time lamenting things like how their ancestors traded Manhattan for Suriname.  I suspect this is all a combination of slight national hubris and wishing their bitterballen were more readily available elsewhere, which they nurse by ensuring you can drink Heineken in ever-more-remote corners of the planet.

Anyway, the reason I mention all this is the Dutch have still convinced a few places around the globe to fly the Dutch flag, and one of the ones they have clung to the longest is Curacao.  Curacao has been a “constituent country” for a few years now- they run their own affairs but are still a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands when it comes to foreign policy and all those things- but more importantly the island is crammed to this very day with Dutch tourists and expats to the point where I practiced my Dutch more here than I normally do in a week in Amsterdam.  Curiously, they only got this island in the first place because no one else wanted it- the Spanish found it in the 1500s but were not impressed due to its lack of gold and much fresh water, so when the Dutch decided to claim it in the 1600s as a base for trade in the area no one really complained or made much fuss over things.  From there they proceeded to build fortifications to defend the port of Willemstad, along with a town with canal houses as only the Dutch can-


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Like many towns in Europe, there is an elaborate set of chimes to ring out the hour and half hour, complete with local wooden figures who march around the clock on the hour.  Except of course we are not in Europe, so the figures are Caribbean!

Willemstad has been a bustling outpost of the Dutch kingdom ever since (excepting a few inevitable fights with the British here and there), first as a center of the slave trade which made them rather wealthy and then when oil was discovered in Venezuela in the early 1900s and a refinery was built over the old slave pens, making the Dutch in Curacao very wealthy again.  The local government now owns the refinery which is in turn leased to the Venezuelans, but what makes Willemstad interesting compared to many other Caribbean towns overrun by tourism is how they still have big ships devoted to industry passing through-


Whenever the big ships come through, half the town is divided from the other half because it necessitates opening the Swinging Lady bridge, a pontoon bridge that pedestrians use to cross the channel.  It really is something else lit up at night!

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photo (17)Anyway, after mulling it over I decided the Dutch really ought to forgive their ancestors for trading Manhattan for Suriname already- it’s clear they were tired of the weather and decided if they were going to cross the ocean to a colony there’d best be beaches and cocktails waiting there.  And my experience with Dutch is they also love to complain how they just traveled to a new exotic location only to run into fellow Dutchmen there, so this surely would be a greater issue if they’d done colonialism a little more successfully.

That said, to be clear Willemstad is a lovely little town, and a nice break to explore from the beaches of Curacao.  It really is no exaggeration that if you’d told me to imagine a Dutch town in the Caribbean this is pretty much exactly what I would picture it like!


Maps from Parts Unknown

I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that a geek who loves to travel also has a fondness for maps. I’ve had them on my walls for years and years, first to mark all the shortwave radio stations I’d heard and contacted and then to mark where I’ve been once I started visiting them.  I think being a map person is one of those things you either are or you aren’t- upon renting a car you either study the random free map they give you in great interest at some point during the journey, or only bother to grab it when vainly trying to figure out where you got lost.

Anyway, last June I happened to be in London the same weekend as the London Map Fair held for a weekend at the Royal Geographical Society.  It is the largest antique map fair in Europe (I knew- who thought there’d be competition for a thing like that?) and while I usually hate shopping the idea of pawing over various maps throughout history sounded like a really fun thing to do.  Throw in the fact that it was held in the building of the same society where Charles Darwin and David Livingstone and Ernest Shackleton would discuss their explorations over cigars and brandy and I was sold!

It turns out the Royal Geographical Society building itself wasn’t that interesting- it was rebuilt as one of those boring modern places, so Shackleton certainly never visited it- but the map festival itself was wonderful with prints and sketches and globes of all corners of the world stretching back hundreds of years.  You certainly wouldn’t be allowed to handle centuries-old art and take a few home for a reasonable price to boot, but apparently this does not apply for maps.

Now if I am anything I am a geek first and a romantic second, so after looking around I knew what sort I wanted- a map where eventually the borders end, and a cartographer filled in the blank space with an intriguing “parts unknown.”  I know we lucky to live in an era where seeing the entire world is possible in a way unimaginable to previous generations, but I still feel a slight twinge at being a few centuries too late to be a proper explorer.

Anyway, the reason you’re hearing all this now is while I visited the fair many moons ago is I finally got around to framing what I bought there!  To start with the pièce de résistance, this is a map of North America from 1759-


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Photo: Dwingeloo Radio Observatory

Snapped on my first trip outside Amsterdam in the Netherlands, this is Dwingeloo Radio Observatory.  Constructed in the 1950s, it has a diameter of 25 meters which at the time made it the largest radio telescope in the world.  These days it’s no longer used for research and instead just by amateur radio enthusiasts, but it’s still located right by ASTRON, the headquarters for astronomy research in the Netherlands near the village of Dwingeloo.

Honestly I will be out at ASTRON so many times over the next few years I don’t feel obliged to give a full tour yet (already scheduled to go out twice next month, once for a full week!), but I thought it was a rather nice bit of scientific history to find hiding in a remote corner of Holland.

Settling Into Amsterdam Life

Things are coming along- a few days ago I moved into an incredibly lovely apartment in Amsterdam!  And while there are a few hundred too many folks stopping by this blog daily to allow for a full tour of the premises, this is literally the view of the canal when I step out onto my tiny balcony-
When not stopping to check after each rain squall whether that low-lying boat with the blue tarp has sunk yet (there are a surprising number of sunk and presumed abandoned boats in the Amsterdam canals) I am enchanted and can’t stop admiring the view.  Isn’t it exactly what you imagine a view from an Amsterdam apartment to look like?  Not to mention there’s always something going on on the water, from tourist boats to pleasure boats to ducks and gulls and even swans.

I should also mention that said little balcony with an amazing view also has a now-barren flag pole, so I was getting all excited to fly a Dutch flag until I was told it’s actually illegal to fly one if you’re a private citizen on all but 5 days of the year for reasons I cannot begin to fathom!  I really can’t say I’ve ever heard of such a rule before in any country…

Anyway, this is another shot taken just a little bit down the road from me which I include here because it contains the elaborate spire of Westerkerk (literally, “the Western church”) which is the largest Protestant church in the Netherlands and even where the current Queen Beatrix was married- Rembrandt was buried here too, though no one’s entirely certain where.  You can’t quite see it from my apartment as there is a tree in the way (though that will likely change come winter) but that doesn’t mean you can’t hear it- the clock tower chimes every 15 minutes without fail, and you can hear it from anywhere in this part of the city.

The thing is you probably knew about the Westerkerk chimes but realize it- the exact same chimes today are the ones Anne Frank mentioned it in her diary as she hid a stone’s throw from the church.  The Anne Frank House is just a few blocks from mine actually and Westerkerk still plays the exact same chimes today, so it’s quite something to ponder how we’re neighbors in three dimensions albeit not in the fourth.And if an address isn’t enough I now have what most will tell you really qualifies you for living in the Netherlands- a proper Dutch bicycle!  I got mine at the market and it’s known as an oma fiets, literally “grandma’s bicycle,” which is just the name of the style and not an insult before you guys get ideas about my taste. *wink* The thing that has struck everyone about the bicycle is its color- virtually all bicycles in Holland are black so I opted to pay a few extra Euro for one I could find in a crowd.  Still need a name but I’m trying to not get terribly attached- despite heavy-duty locks the Dutch joke that “all bikes are really rentals” has more than an element of truth to it.

I should also mention it’s rather interesting riding a Dutch bike as they’re pedal breaks like a child’s bike in the USA instead of hand ones, and while a single speed isn’t an issue most of the time it does leave some huffing and puffing in some places.  Not to mention the absolute insanity of some of the normal cycling that goes on around here, but that’s probably a story for another day.  The Westerkerk clock is telling me it’s time for bed!