The Spanish took possession of Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba, known as the Leeward group, in 1527. In 1634 the three islands passed to the Netherlands with which they have remained except for two short periods during the Napoleonic Wars when the British ruled at Willemstad. Curacao, the center of Caribbean slave trade during the colonial period, lost much of its economic importance after emancipation of the slaves in 1863. In 1986 Aruba was constitutionally separated from the Netherlands Antilles. The Winward group, Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius, and Saba, also considered a part of the Netherlands Antilles, changed hands often during the 17th and 18th centuries. All three have been under uninterrupted Dutch rule since the beginning of the 19th century. As of 1954, the Netherlands Antilles is considered to be an autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
The traditional foundations of the population and the location of the islands give the Netherlands Antilles a mixed culture. Tourism and media originating from the United States have increased their influence on the territory. On every island Carnival festivals are important As in many countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.