The Netherlands Antilles are two small groups of islands located in the Caribbean Sea. Altogether, five islands make up the Netherlands Antilles: Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Sint Maarten. Sint Maarten is actually only half an island, the other half of which, St. Martin, is an overseas collectivity of France. The Netherlands Antilles are a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and enjoy autonomous status.
The Netherlands Antilles were originally discovered by the Spanish in the 1490s, but came under control of the Dutch West India Company in the 17th century. The islands became the center of the Caribbean slave trade, which supplied African slaves to the United States and other areas of the New World. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1863, the economy of the Netherlands Antilles suffered. However, in the early 20th century, the islands found a new niche, providing oil refineries for Venezuelan oil reserves. Tourism, offshore finance, and petroleum transshipment are other important facets of the economy.
Since the islands of the Netherlands Antilles are of volcanic and coral origin, agriculture is difficult and imports are essential. The Netherlands help the Netherlands Antilles with development aid. The climate of the Netherlands Antilles is tropical and warm year round, but hurricanes are a problem in some areas during the summer months.
Most people living in the Netherlands Antilles are descendants of European colonists and African slaves. Other nationalities represented in the islands include Carib, Latin American, and East Asian. The official languages of the Netherlands Antilles are Dutch, English, and Papiamentu, a Creole language. English and Papiamentu gained official status in March 2007. Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, while other Christian denominations and Judaism are important minority faiths.
The monarch of the Netherlands is the head of state of the Netherlands Antilles. A governor and a council of ministers serve as the local executive branch on the islands. The legislative branch of government is divided into two parts, one in which delegates from each island help make decisions for the Netherlands Antilles as a group, and one which is limited to each individual island and takes care of everyday matters.
The Netherlands Antilles will not survive much longer, as they are due to disband in December 2008. One former island belonging to the Netherlands Antilles, Aruba, already seceded from the group in 1986 to become a self-governing entity, though still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Curaçao and Sint Maarten are slated to follow the same route as Aruba, while Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius will become Dutch municipalities, similar in most respects to municipalities within the borders of the Netherlands.