Netherlands Antilles, islands in the West Indies that form an integral part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The largest islands—Curaçao and Bonaire—lie off the coast of Venezuela; the smallest—St. Eustatius, Saba, and the southern part of St. Martin—are in the Leeward Islands, east of Puerto Rico. The total area is 301 square miles (780 km2).
The refining and transshipment of oil, mainly from Venezuela, form the backbone of the economy. There is a large refinery and terminal facility on Curaçao and a transshipment terminal on Bonaire. Salt is mined on St. Martin and Bonaire. There is little farming or manufacturing. Tourism is important, especially on Curaçao, Bonaire, and St. Martin. Willemstad, on Curaçao, is the capital and largest city.
The total population according to the 2001 census was 175,653; almost half lived in or near the capital. Most of the people are blacks and mulattoes. About 15 per cent are Europeans, mainly Dutch. The official language is Dutch, but English, Spanish, and Papiamento (a mixture of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Arawak Indian, and several West African dialects) are more commonly spoken. A governor, appointed by the Dutch government, is responsible for external affairs; internal affairs are administered by a locally elected one-house legislature and a council of ministers.
Spanish explorers reached Curaçao in 1499 and established a small settlement there in 1527. In 1634 the island was seized by the Dutch, who quickly extended their control to the other islands. The British occupied the islands twice during the Napoleonic Wars, but returned them to the Dutch in 1816. In 1954 the islands became an integral part of the Netherlands, and were given internal autonomy.
In 1986 the island of Aruba separated from the Netherlands Antilles, but remained a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.