When Curaçao came under Dutch control in 1634, the small
island off South America's northern coast was isolated and sleepy.
The introduction of increased trade (both legal and illegal) led to
a dramatic transformation, and Curaçao emerged as a major hub
within Caribbean and wider Atlantic networks. It would also become
the commercial and administrative seat of the Dutch West India
Company in the Americas.
The island's main city, Willemstad, had a non-Dutch majority
composed largely of free blacks, urban slaves, and Sephardic Jews,
who communicated across ethnic divisions in a new creole language
called Papiamentu. For Linda M. Rupert, the emergence of this
creole language was one of the two defining phenomena that gave
shape to early modern Curaçao. The other was smuggling. Both
developments, she argues, were informal adaptations to life in a
place that was at once polyglot and regimented. They were the sort
of improvisations that occurred wherever expanding European empires
thrust different peoples together.
Creolization and Contraband uses the history of Curaçao to
develop the first book-length analysis of the relationship between
illicit interimperial trade and processes of social, cultural, and
linguistic exchange in the early modern world. Rupert argues that
by breaking through multiple barriers, smuggling opened
particularly rich opportunities for cross-cultural and interethnic
interaction. Far from marginal, these extra-official exchanges were
the very building blocks of colonial society.
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