Aruba’s first inhabitants were Caquetio Indians, members of the Arawak tribe that originated on the South American mainland, less than 20 miles to the south. In 1499, explorer Alonso de Ojeda claimed the island for Spain, which enslaved the Indian population and transported them to Hispaniola (now share by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) to work the estates there. Some were able to eventually return to Aruba, and they later were joined by more Indians migrating from South America. By the start of the 19th century, Indians comprised a third of the island’s population, although it’s thought that Aruba’s last true Caquetio Indian died in 1862.
The Dutch acquired Aruba in 1636 and used it to protect their valuable supply of salt from the mainland and establish a naval base. Briefly, from 1805 to 1816, the English ruled the island during the Napoleonic Wars. Today Aruba remains a country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Gold was discovered on Aruba’s north coast in 1824, which led to the construction of a large smelting plant. By the beginning of the 20th century, the island’s economy largely relied on the production of aloe vera, and it became one of the world’s largest exporters of the medicinal plant. The opening of an oil refinery in 1924 brought more prosperity and thousands of immigrants, merchants and commercial enterprises; the population jumped from 9,000 in 1924 to 60,000 in 1972. By the last decades of the 20th century, tourism had become a leading industry in Aruba.