U.S. – Dutch Caribbean Friendship – 1776 to 1900
In 1776, Sint Eustatius, “The Golden Rock,” was the first foreign entity to formally recognize U.S. sovereignty when a foreign official saluted a U.S. flagged ship with a 13-gun salute, a salute bestowed only upon sovereign flags. Less than two decades later, the first U.S. Consulate in Curaçao opened in 1793, laying the foundation of what would become a centuries-old friendship.
On July 28, 1798, B.H. Phillips, the first U.S. consul (a ceremonial position), wrote to the then-U.S. Department of War (the predecessor of the Department of Defense) about a French assault on shipping vessels in Curaçao, including American-owned ships. Trans-Atlantic commerce was flourishing, and Caribbean trade was very important to the newly independent United States.
American vice consuls were officially recognized by the Netherlands after the Consular Convention of 1855 went into effect. The following year, Alexander Waterman became the first vice consul recognized by the Netherlands and approved by royal decree as an official representative of the United States of America to the islands.
In the 19th century, the relationship between the United States and the islands are inextricably linked to the name of Leonard Burlington (L.B.) Smith. Mr. Smith (1839 – 1898) was a businessman from Bangor, Maine, who invested in various commercial projects on Curaçao. Smith and his family settled in Curaçao, inspired by its stable political climate, the friendly nature of its inhabitants, and the breezy and sunny climate. He recognized the benefits of the island’s strategic geographical location and its natural harbor. Despite setbacks in his business dealings, the farmer’s son persevered with his vision and became a successful businessman on the island before he was appointed U.S. consul in 1881. Mr. Smith served in this position until his death in 1898.
Most famously, the L.B. Smith designed Curaçao’s “Wonder of the World,” also known as the “Swinging Old Lady” or Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge, which connects Punda and Otrobanda and officially opened on May 8, 1888. Less famously, but equally important, Smith was also the founder of the first water and electricity company on Curaçao, bringing these utilities to the island.
United by One Purpose – 1900 to 1948
The world had changed by the early 20th century. World War I found Europe slowly recovering from the trials of war, but an industrial revolution was in full gear in the Dutch Caribbean and throughout the world. From 1918 onwards, the oil refineries on Curaçao and Aruba played a key role in relations between the islands and the United States. Since the islands and Suriname were the only non-occupied territories of the Kingdom of the Netherlands during World War II, Curaçao was center stage and strategically important to the Allied powers. The oil refineries on Curaçao and Aruba provided 70% of the fuel used by the Allies Forces. U.S. forces assumed from British forces the defense of these strategic islands on February 13 and 14, 1942. Just two days later, on the night of February 16, German U-boats attacked the refineries and oil tankers in the waters surrounding Curaçao and Aruba.
U.S. forces not only defended the islands, but strengthened their presence to deter further attacks. U.S. forces were stationed on all three ABC islands, with a base at “Tanki Maraka” in Bonaire, one of the first radar installations in the Caribbean, and military installations in Aruba and Curaçao. First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt visited Curaçao and Aruba on March 25, 1944 to tour the military bases and refineries, and was welcomed warmly by both islands and their governors.
To express their appreciation, the people of Curaçao planned a unique gift to symbolize their gratitude to the people of the United States: a residence for the U.S. Consul on a prime spot overlooking the harbor entrance. This gift would ensure that U.S.- Dutch Caribbean relations would flourish for many years into the future.
World War II was a war against global tyranny and fascism, and the Atlantic Charter of 1941 embodied this new world view. The Atlantic Charter rested on the principle that, in this new era, all people and countries were entitled to a representative government and had a right to self-determination. The post-war world would be a world with sovereign countries and self-governing territories. As a consequence of the vision of President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Queen Wilhelmina announced new relations with the colonies in December 1942. Dr. M.F. Da Costa Gomez was the leader of Curaçao’s the movement towards greater autonomy.
At the end of World War II, the “Staten” (Parliament) was in transition. Curaçao saw its first general election in 1948, and the “Staten” was the first genuinely representative body in its history.
On October 31, 1945, the Netherlands and Curaçao officially bestowed the gift to the United States, and President Truman accepted the offer on April 13, 1946. Named after the leader of the Allied Forces and a U.S. President with Dutch roots, the property would be called “Roosevelt House.” The gift of Roosevelt House was an initiative from and funded by the people of Curaçao through the “Staten.”
Planning and preparations for the transfer of the plot began in 1947 and the lot measured a generous 992 square meters. The last of the three lots was purchased on July 4, 1947 and the ground-breaking for construction took place on November 1, 1948.
A Lasting Token of Perpetual Friendship – 1948 and Beyond
The construction and design of the Roosevelt House was borne by the people of Curaçao. Its architect was A.A. van Ammers and A. van der Kwast was the contractor responsible for its construction. The Roosevelt House was intended to be a memorial for the late President Roosevelt and included a library for visitors. The building was painted in a soft sienna color, which contrasted beautifully with the black roof, while the interior was painted in soft pastel colors.
The finishing touches were completed by the “Dienst Openbare Werken” (Public Works Department) and equipped with what was then considered modern equipment, such as a washing machine and electric water heaters.
A concrete circular floor terrace was built between the wings of the building. Landscape gardeners were contracted to enhance the grounds with lush plants and trees that were native to the island.
The construction included a gate house and a garage, as well as surrounding walls and a gate. The U.S. Department of State funded and built the Chancery, the office building for the Consulate’s employees.
Then U.S. Consul Lynn W. Franklin was thrilled and relieved with the progress of plans to construct the Roosevelt House. He reported to Island Governor Kasteel that since “the purchase on July 4, 1947 … I have slept more restfully.”
Construction of the Roosevelt House entered its final phase in late 1949 and the furniture arrived in early 1950. In preparation for the official opening and transfer ceremony on March, 15, 1950, U.S. Consul Charles F. Knox invited his sister, Jessie Knox, to add the finishing touches. She did the “combined services of dragman, decorator, and housekeeper,” he wrote. And, as Knox reported to Washington: “the result was that on the day of the dedication ceremony the house, completely furnished, looked magnificent.” U.S. Consul Knox was the first resident of the Roosevelt House.
He continued to report to the Department of State’s Division of Foreign Buildings Operations, writing that the Roosevelt House “will afford very comfortable living and its location is, of course, superb.”
Although the residence and its location were indeed “magnificent and superb,” maintaining the garden was a struggle. The Department of Agriculture had planted several hundred beautiful shrubs and tree seedlings two days prior to the opening ceremony. But on the evening of March 14, a herd of goats ate the shrubs, much to the chagrin of the U.S. Consul. The seedlings were replaced and a barbed wire fence was installed to block the grazing goats. Consul Knox explained that it took nearly 100 pails of water to nourish the new plants. “We must, of course, have a full-time gardener immediately, or even the shrubs that are now in won’t survive,” he wrote to the Department of State.
On March, 15, 1950, Governor of the Netherlands West Indies Leonard A.H. Peters addressed the guests at a ceremony opening the Roosevelt House, and officially transferred the building to United States as a “token of perpetual friendship between the people of the United States and the people of the Netherlands West Indies.” President Truman’s representative, the Honorable Stanley Woodward, accepted the gift and noted that the building is a “tribute to the generosity of the people of these islands. The Netherlands West Indies and the United States are truly friends. They have a mutual esteem and respect for one another and there are deep bonds of affection between the two peoples.”
The Roosevelt House Today
Seventy years later, very little has changed. The Consul General to the Dutch Caribbean continues to reside in the historic Roosevelt House. The Consulate General’s office building is located on the same property, though additional office buildings have been constructed. Curaçao and the entire Dutch Caribbean continue to enjoy close relationships with the United States through people-to-people engagement, commerce, and government relations.
The United States Consulate General focuses on four areas of mutual interest: countering the flow of narcotics, protecting and assisting American citizens, promoting trade and investment, and deepening people-to-people ties. The U.S. Mission to the Dutch Caribbean includes several U.S. government agencies, including the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Justice, and Defense, and employs many talented local staff members to assist in the performance of its operations.
The United States and the islands of the Dutch Caribbean have partnered on numerous operations to stop the flow of illegal drugs and contraband through the Caribbean region. Hundreds of students, representing all six islands, study in U.S. colleges and universities every year and the number continues to grow. Recognizing the caliber and abilities of students from the Dutch Caribbean, several U.S. universities are now offering in-state tuition to students from the islands to encourage them to seek their higher education in the United States.
More than three million American tourists visit the Dutch Caribbean every year, and thousands of American permanent residents reside in the region. These Americans rely on the U.S. Consulate General for American citizen services. Several hundred U.S. citizens study medicine at institutions across the Dutch Caribbean. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) pre-clearance facility at Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba simplifies the entry process for travelers to the U.S. And economic investment and trade continues to flourish, just as it did during the life of L.B. Smith, with American companies investing in the Dutch Caribbean and Dutch Caribbean businesses looking to the U.S. as one of their biggest trading markets.
The U.S. Consulate General works to strengthen people-to-people ties by organizing cultural and professional exchanges, promoting scientific collaboration and reef exploration with the Smithsonian Institution, promoting entrepreneurship and the Young Leaders in the Americas initiative, sponsoring film makers, and other artists to visit the islands to meet with their local counterparts. And lastly, the U.S. Consulate General issues travel visas to residents of the Dutch Caribbean who wish to work, study, or visit the United States.
Seventy years later the world and the work of diplomacy have changed dramatically, but the friendship between the U.S. and the Dutch Caribbean remains steadfast. The Roosevelt House continues to be a symbol of the United States and Curaçao’s history and heritage. It represents a significant moment in the history of the United States and Curaçao. And most importantly, it will remain a symbol of cooperation, friendship, and gratitude for many years to come.