The ABC islands are the three western-most islands of the Leeward Antilles in the Caribbean Sea that lie north of Falcón State, Venezuela. From west to east they are, in order Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire. All three islands are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, although they remain outside the European Union. Aruba and Curaçao are autonomous, self-governing constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while Bonaire is a special municipality of the Netherlands proper.
Some think that the ABC islands were first explored by one of Christopher Columbus' captains, Alonso de Ojeda, who landed on Curaçao in May 1499. He is said to have called the islands Las islas de los Gigantes or Islands of the Giants due to the native inhabitants, the Caiquetio Indians. The first known European exploration was by Amerigo Vespucci, whose cartographer Juan de la Cosa first described the islands. The first Spanish colonists, unable to find any gold or silver, kidnapped most of the natives to work on plantations on the island of Hispaniola. By 1527 the Spanish had formed a government and established Catholicism on the islands.
In 1634, the Netherlands fought Spain over control of the islands. The Dutch won, and the islands were then administered by the Netherlands. The Dutch West India Company developed the areas, establishing a major port on Curaçao. The abolition of the slave trade in 1863 had a devastating impact on their economies, although the economy revived when oil was discovered in Venezuela during the early 20th century, and the islands became major oil refineries.
The islands became part of the Netherlands Antilles in 1954, which gave them political autonomy within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. In 1986 Aruba withdrew from the Netherlands Antilles, becoming a separate country within the kingdom. Upon the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles on 10 October 2010, Curaçao gained a similar status to Aruba. Bonaire became a special municipality of the Netherlands proper, although it maintains its status of an overseas territory of the European Union.
The ABC islands are part of the Leeward Antilles, which is the westernmost area of the Lesser Antilles. They lie immediately to the north of Falcón State, Venezuela. Due to their political history, they are sometimes considered to be part of North America along with the other Caribbean islands, although they lie on South America's geographical plate; the same case happens with Trinidad and Tobago.
ABC does not indicate the geographical order to each other; from west to east the islands are Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire.
Aruba is a flat island, exposed to the ocean currents. Bonaire and Curaçao are surrounded by reefs, and so are much more sheltered from the weather. Bonaire and Curaçao's reefs are popular tourist destinations.
Bonaire is known for being a "diving paradise", with ecotourism playing a large part in its economy. The islands have a huge variety of wildlife, including flamingoes and four species of sea turtle.
Afro-Caribbean people make up a large proportion of Curaçao and Bonaire's population and Mestizo people make up for the majority of Aruba's population. There has been substantial immigration from Latin America to the islands.
Dutch has been the official language of the islands for most of their history. A unique creole language has developed there known as Papiamentu. Unlike other creole languages, Papiamentu is not decreasing in usage, and was made an official language on 7 March 2007. Papiamentu's origins are debated, a dispute arising on whether it originates from Portuguese or Spanish. It is heavily influenced by Spanish and English.
Aruba and Curaçao are autonomous countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which have their own parliament and prime minister. Bonaire is a "special municipality" of the Netherlands proper, and subject to Netherlands law.