The Netherlands Antilles, a Caribbean nation, is made up of five islands. These are divided geographically into two groups: the Leeward Islands (northern) of Saba, Sint Eustantius and Sint Maarten, and the Windward Islands (southern) of Bonaire and Curaçao. The latter are located just off the coast of Venezuela; the former lie east of the US Virgin Islands. Sint Maarten in turn is the southern portion of the island of Saint Martin. The northern portion is governed by France, known as Saint-Martin, a part of Guadeloupe.
The Windward Islands are all of volcanic origin and hilly, and are largely unsuitable for agriculture. The Leeward Islands derive from both volcanic and coral origins. The highest point in the nation is Mount Scenery. At 862 metres (2,828 feet) in elevation, on Saba, it is the highest point in all the Netherlands.
The islands were discovered by Spanish explorers and claimed for Spain at different times: by Christopher Columbus in 1493 (Windward group), and by Alonso de Ojeda in 1499 (Leeward group). In the 17th century the islands were conquered by members of the Dutch West India Company, who used them as a base for the slave trade.
Aruba was once part of the Netherlands Antilles, but broke away and gained independence in 1986. On February 12, 2007 an agreement was reached concerning all the islands except Curaçao, by which the Netherlands Antilles will cease to be a political entity as of December 15, 2008.
While Dutch is the official language of the country (also English on the Leeward Islands), the national language is Papiamento, a Creole mainly of Portuguese and Spanish. Netherlands Antilles Creole English is also widely spoken—a variation of English-based Creoles found throughout the Caribbean region. Language use is moving more toward Spanish, with the islands’ proximity to South America. A full Bible in Papiamento was published in 1997.
Most residents would identify themselves as Christian, with more than 70% being Roman Catholic. Curaçao is also home to a significant population of Portuguese Sephardic Jews who arrived there from Amsterdam and Brazil in 1654.