would be difficult to overestimate the impact on Antigua's history
of the arrival, one fateful day in 1684, of Sir Christopher Codrington.
An enterprising man, Codrington had come to Antigua to find out
if the island would support the sort of large-scale sugar cultivation
that already flourished elsewhere in the Caribbean. His initial
efforts proved to be quite successful, and over the next fifty
years sugar cultivation on Antigua exploded. By the middle of the
18th century the island was dotted with more than 150 cane-processing
windmills--each the focal point of a sizeable plantation. Today
almost 100 of these picturesque stone towers remain, although they
now serve as houses, bars, restaurants and shops. At Betty's
Hope, Codrington's original sugar estate, visitors can see
a fully-restored sugar mill.
Most Antiguans are of African lineage, descendants
of slaves brought to the island centuries ago to labour in the
sugarcane fields. However, Antigua's history of habitation extends
as far back as two and a half millenia before Christ. The first
settlements, dating from about 2400 B.C., were those of the Siboney
(an Arawak word meaning "stone-people"), peripatetic
Meso-Indians whose beautifully crafted shell and stone tools have
been found at dozens of sites around the island. Long after the
Siboney had moved on, Antigua was settled by the pastoral, agricultural
Arawaks (35-1100 A.D.), who were then displaced by the Caribs--an
aggressive people who ranged all over the Caribbean. The earliest
European contact with the island was made by Christopher Columbus
during his second Caribbean voyage (1493), who sighted the island
in passing and named it after Santa Maria la Antigua, the miracle-working
saint of Seville. European settlement, however, didn't occur for
over a century, largely because of Antigua's dearth of fresh water
and abundance of determined Carib resistance. Finally, in 1632,
a group of Englishmen from St. Kitts established a successful settlement,
and in 1684, with Codrington's arrival, the island entered the
By the end of the eighteenth century Antigua had become an important
strategic port as well as a valuable commercial colony. Known as
the "gateway to the Caribbean," it was situated in a
position that offered control over the major sailing routes to
and from the region's rich island colonies. Most of the island's
historical sites, from its many ruined fortifications to the impeccably-restored
architecture of English Harbourtown, are reminders of colonial
efforts to ensure its safety from invasion.
Nelson arrived in 1784 at the head of the Squadron of the Leeward
Islands to develop the British naval facilities at English Harbour
and to enforce stringent commercial shipping laws. The first of
these two tasks resulted in construction of Nelson's
Dockyard, one of Antigua's finest physical assets; the second
resulted in a rather hostile attitude towards the young captain.
Nelson spent almost all of his time in the cramped quarters of
his ship, declaring the island to be a "vile place" and
a "dreadful hole." Serving under Nelson at the time was
the future King William IV, for whom the altogether more pleasant
accommodation of Clarence House was built.
It was during William's reign, in 1834,
that Britain abolished slavery in the empire. Alone among the British
Caribbean colonies, Antigua instituted immediate full emancipation
rather than a four-year 'apprenticeship,' or waiting period; today,
Antigua's Carnival festivities commemorate the earliest abolition
of slavery in the British Caribbean.
improved the island's economy, but the sugar industry of the British
islands was already beginning to wane. Until the development of
tourism in the past few decades, Antiguans struggled for prosperity.
The rise of a strong labour movement in the 1940s, under the leadership
of V.C. Bird, provided the impetus for independence. In 1967, with
Barbuda and the tiny island of Redonda as dependencies, Antigua
became an associated state of the Commonwealth, and in 1981 it
achieved full independent status. V.C. Bird is now deceased; his
son, Lester B. Bird, was elected to succeed him as prime minister.
Slavery left a bitter legacy on Antigua. "Freedom" came
on August 1, 1834, but the lack of an "apprenticeship" or
transition period left former slaves instantly impoverished.
They had no choice but to continue working on the sugar plantations,
where conditions and wages kept them dependent on their former