Antigua – Ideal Destination – Yesterday and Today
All the signs pointed towards Antigua! “The island had warm, steady winds, a complex coastline of safe harbors, and a protective, nearly unbroken wall of coral reef. It would make a perfect place to hide a fleet.” And so in 1784 the legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson sailed to Antigua and established Great Britain’s most important Caribbean base. Little did he know that over 200 years later the same unique characteristics that attracted the Royal Navy would transform Antigua, and Barbuda, in one of the Caribbean’s premier tourist destinations.
The signs are still there, they just point to different things. The trade winds that once blew British men-of-war safely into English Harbour now fuel one of the world’s foremost maritime events “Sailing Week”. The expansive, winding coastline that made Antigua difficult for outsiders to navigate is where today’s trekkers encounter a tremendous wealth of secluded, powdery soft beaches. The coral reefs, once the bane of marauding enemy ships, now attract snorkelers and scuba divers from all over the world. And the fascinating little island of Barbuda — once a scavenger’s paradise because so many ships wrecked on its reefs — is now home to one of the region’s most significant bird sanctuaries.
Antigua (pronounced An-tee’ga) and Barbuda are located in the middle of the Leeward Islands in the Eastern Caribbean, roughly 17 degrees north of the equator. To the south are the islands of Montserrat and Guadaloupe, and to the north and west are Nevis, St. Kitts, St. Barts, and St. Martin.
Antigua, the largest of the English-speaking Leeward Islands, is about 14 miles long and 11 miles wide, encompassing 108 square miles. Its highest point is Boggy Peak (1319 ft.), located in the southwestern corner of the island. Barbuda, a flat coral island with an area of only 68 square miles, lies approximately 30 miles due north. The nation also includes the tiny uninhabited island of Redonda(0.6 square mile), now a nature preserve. The current population for the nation is approximately 68,000 and its capital is St. John’s on Antigua.
Temperatures generally range from the mid-seventies in the winter to the mid-eighties in the summer. Annual rainfall averages only 45 inches, making it the sunniest of the Eastern Caribbean Islands, and the northeast trade winds are nearly constant, flagging only in September. Low humidity year-round.
It would be difficult to overestimate how the arrival of Sir Christopher Codrington,one fateful day in 1684, has impacted Antigua’s history. 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 labor 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 sugar era.
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.
Horatio 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 toward 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,, 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.
Emancipation actually 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.