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Curaçao's dark past shapes a bright future

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The tiny Dutch island of Curaçao (pronounced cure-a-SOW) is a curious blend of architectural styles and cultures. The people range from European sophisticates to traditional medicine women. The market stalls in the streets of Willemstad, the island's picturesque capital, are filled with the catch of fishermen who cross the 35-mile stretch of open water from Venezuela.

While the Spanish were the first to lay claim to Curaçao in 1499, by the mid-1600s, it had become a strategic Dutch colony. Apart from a couple of brief British occupations in 1803 and 1807-1816, it has remained an autonomous part of the Netherlands ever since, with a busy harbor that was once one of the largest slave-trading depots in the Caribbean.

Hundreds of thousands of slaves, bound for Europe and North America, were processed here. Of those who survived the harrowing journey from Africa, many died within days of arrival. It is a heritage most in Curaçao have chosen to ignore.

Yet the "black holocaust" is an essential part of Curaçao's history, insists Jacob Gelt Dekker, who has determined to do something about it.

On the island, Mr. Dekker and his long-time business partner, John Padget, are legends. First for their lucrative business enterprises (one was a large chain of one-hour photo shops that was sold to Kodak); then for their wanderlust (Dekker has circumnavigated the world 50 times); and finally for their philanthropic endeavors, the largest of which is Kura Hulanda, in the back streets of Willemstad.

Here, Dekker has invested $50 million and turned a crumbling neighborhood into a heritage complex. Dutch colonial houses and slave cottages have been restored and transformed into guest accommodations, restaurants, and a museum with the largest collection of African artifacts in the Caribbean.

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