Foulke & Sons company owners of Bonaire 1810-1816


Image: an American Schooner (Source: Wikipedia) 

The islands of Bonaire and Arubawere never Dutch colonies in the traditional sense as actual colonization as known of for example by the Spanish in Mexico or by the British in Virginia never took place in the 17th and 18th centuries. The center of Dutch activity and commercial hub in the southern Caribbean was the island of Curaçao which is located right in the middle between Aruba to the west and Bonaire in the east. Curacao’s adjoining islands were merely controlled and occupied by the Dutch West India company in order to serve mainly as a buffer against hostile navies and privateers and as supply stations of Curaçao. Bonaire was in fact a big plantation used for salt making.


Image: The House Flag of Foulke & Sons of New York

(Source: ”Private Signals of the Merchants of New York’ by ……as retrieved on “FOTW Flags Of The World website at

 In 1807 – during the Napoleonic Wars- the British Royal Navy took control of the Dutch Caribbean, actually for a second time. Between 1810 and 1816 the island of Bonaire the British did not really care for the island of Bonaire. From 1810 the island was in its entirety leased by Joseph Foulke & Sons, a trading company established in New York. The principal of the company was Joseph Foulke (1768-1852) who has founded the Company at the end of the 18th century. Foulke conducted a commission shipping business in the Caribbean. Foulke’s enterprise centered strategically on Bonaire and Curaçao. During the time of the lease Foulke lived in Curaçao.  As a business lord he rules the island from a distance. Curaçao remained the center of this acticites as he had established strong business ties with the ruling business elite such as the Brion family, having married Charlotte Brion, sister of the Admiral of Venezuela Pedro Luis Brion. Brion himself was a Dutchman from Curaçao who, besides being a soldier and Admiral, had also accumulated wealth as a merchant across the Caribbean. While engaging in war, and notwithstanding being a true war hero, Brion never left out an opportunity to conduct his business as usual. Undoubtedly family ties with Brion benefitted either Foulke and vice versa.

Even more so than the Dutch West India Company had done before, Foulke exploited the island for profit. Bonaire served as a source of brazil wood and Foulke mad this into his core business on the island. Unfortunately Foulke’s practices had a negative impact on the island as he deforested the island almost completely and sold the lumber. In 1823 Foulke was wealthy enough to acquire the Gracie Mansion – now the official residence of the Mayor of New York – from Rufus King. The estate was built in 1799 by Archibald Gracie. After Foulke’s retirement he spent the rest of his life there. Between 1816 and 1818 Foulke returned to New York, serving as a Director of Hope Insurance Company and on the board of the City Bank.


Image: Gracie Mansion by Abraham Honer, c.a 1830-1833

After Joseph Foulke Sr. had retired the business on the islands was continued by his sons Joseph Foulke Jr. and William Foulke. Yet the company never became as successful again as before and ran into financial troubles. Bonaire in the meantime suffered a somewhat similar fate as the Dutch did not change the economic and land tenure system in 1816. The brazil wood that was remaining in 1816 was sold to another merchants from Curaçao, C.L. Parker and later to I.N.C. Jutting. Event after the abolishment of slavery in 1863 the former slaves’ lives did not change significantly. The people of Bonaire remained tied to the colonial Dutch government as employees of the government. In 1868 the government finally divided the public land in parcels and sold most of the public lands by public auction and in 1870 sold the salt pans. Thus the entire population became dependent on two large private landowners. The northwestern part of Bonaire was called Slagbaai and was bought by Moises Jesurun and John, August, and Casper Neuman. That part of the island was eventually to become a national park: ‘Washington Slagbaai”.

In many ways Foulke’s venture on Bonaire foreshadowed later events that were to occur all across Latin America in the course of the 19th century whereby American, British and other European government and private owned companies acquire(d) territories overseas in order to exploit them for business without acquiring sovereignty, acting as mere investors aiming at fast revenues. The 19th century would become an age of unlimited growth of merchant empires all over the world, holding land titles across Latin America and Africa. When imperial and colonial governments finally started to act against this kind of rogue capitalism the genie was already out of the bottle. Sound familiar?



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