The morning after leaving Saint Kitts, the MS Adventure of the Seas docked at St. John’s on the island of Antigua. — the third stop on my little sister’s cruise around the Caribbean in the summer of 2016. This is a place I’ve longed wanted to visit due to the presence of Nelson’s Dockyard in the southern part of the island.
So, the next stop was Antigua. I found the post office and went inside. Didn’t think to get a picture of the outside.
Antigua is also known as Waladli or Wadadli by the native population, meaning approximately “our own”. Antigua means “ancient” in Spanish after an icon in Seville Cathedral, “Santa Maria de la Antigua” — St. Mary of the Old Cathedral. It is one of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean Sea and the main island of the country of Antigua and Barbuda, which became an independent state within the Commonwealth of Nations on November 1, 1981.
Prior to European colonialism, the first residents were the Guanahatabey people. Eventually, the Arawak migrated from the mainland. The Arawak were the first well-documented group of indigenous people to settle Antigua. They paddled to the island by canoe (piragua) from present-day Venezuela, pushed out by the Carib, another indigenous people. The Arawak introduced agriculture to Antigua and Barbuda. Among other crops, they cultivated the now noted Antiguan “Black” pineapple. They also cultivated corn, sweet potatoes (white with firmer flesh than the bright orange “sweet potato” used in the United States), chili peppers, guava, tobacco, and cotton.
Some of the vegetables listed, such as corn and sweet potatoes, still are staples of Antiguan cuisine. Colonists took them to Europe, and from there, they spread around the world. For example, a popular Antiguan dish, dukuna, is a sweet, steamed dumpling made from grated sweet potatoes, flour and spices. Another staple, fungi, is a cooked paste made of cornmeal and water.
Most of the Arawak left Antigua about A.D. 1100. Those who remained were raided by the Carib coming from Venezuela. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the Caribs’ superior weapons and seafaring prowess allowed them to defeat most Arawak nations in the West Indies. They enslaved some and cannibalized others. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the European invaders had difficulty identifying and differentiating between the various native peoples they encountered. As a result, the number and types of ethnic/tribal/national groups at the time were likely more varied and numerous than the two mentioned in this article.
The indigenous people of the West Indies made excellent sea vessels, which they used to sail the Atlantic and Caribbean. As a result, the Arawak and Carib populated much of the South American and the Caribbean islands. Their descendants live throughout South America, particularly Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia. The native-identified populations in the West Indies maintain a pride in their heritage.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to visit Antigua, in 1493. He named the island “Antigua” in honor of the “Virgin of the Old Cathedral” (La Virgen de la Antigua) found in Seville Cathedral in southern Spain. On his 1493 voyage, honoring a vow, he named many islands after different aspects of St. Mary, including Montserrat and Guadaloupe.
In 1632, a group of English colonists left St. Kitts to settle on Antigua. Sir Christopher Codrington, an Englishman, established the first permanent European settlement. From that point on, Antigua history took a dramatic turn. Codrington guided development on the island as a profitable sugar colony. For a large portion of Antigua history, the island was considered Britain’s “Gateway to the Caribbean”. It was located on the major sailing routes among the region’s resource-rich colonies. Lord Horatio Nelson, a major figure in Antigua history, arrived in the late eighteenth century to preserve the island’s commercial shipping prowess.
According to A Brief History of the Caribbean, European diseases, malnutrition and slavery eventually destroyed the vast majority of the Caribbean’s native population. No researcher has conclusively proven any of these causes as the real reason for the destruction of West Indian natives. In fact, some historians believe that the psychological stress of slavery may also have played a part in the massive number of native deaths while in servitude. Others believe that the reportedly abundant, but starchy, low-protein diet may have contributed to severe malnutrition of the “Indians” who were used to a diet fortified with protein from sealife.
Sugar became Antigua’s main crop in about 1674, when Christopher Codrington settled at Betty’s Hope plantation. He came from Barbados, bringing the latest sugar technology with him. Betty’s Hope, Antigua’s first full-scale sugar plantation, was so successful that other planters turned from tobacco to sugar. This resulted in their importing slaves to work the sugar cane crops. Many West Indian colonists initially tried to use locals as slaves. These groups succumbed easily to disease and/or malnutrition, and died by the thousands. The African slaves adapted better to the new environment and thus became the number one choice of unpaid labor. In fact, the slaves thrived physically and also provided medical services, and skilled labor, such as carpentry for their masters.
Today, collectors prize the uniquely designed “colonial” furniture built by West Indian slaves. Many of these works feature what are now considered “traditional” motifs, such as pineapples, fish and stylized serpents. By the mid-1770s, the number of slaves had increased to 37,500, up from 12,500 in 1713, whereas the white population had fallen from 5,000 to below 3,000. The slaves lived in wretched and overcrowded conditions, and could be mistreated or even killed by their owners with impunity. The Slave Act of 1723 made arbitrary murder of slaves a crime, but did not do much to ease their lives.
Unrest among the slaves became increasingly common. In 1729, a slave named Hercules was hanged, drawn and quartered, and three others burnt alive, for conspiring to kill the slave owner Crump and his family. In 1736, a slave called “Prince Klaas” (whose real name was Court) planned an uprising in which whites would be massacred. Court was crowned “King of the Coromantees” in a pasture outside the capital of St. John’s, in what appeared to be just a colourful spectacle, but was for the slaves a ritual declaration of war on the whites. Due to information obtained from other slaves, colonists discovered the plot and suppressed it. Prince Klaas and four accomplices were caught and executed by the breaking wheel. Six slaves were hanged in chains and starved to death, and another 58 were burned at the stake. The site of these executions is now the Antiguan Recreation Ground.
The American War of Independence in the late eighteenth century disrupted the Caribbean sugar trade. At the same time, public opinion in Great Britain gradually turned against slavery. “Traveling … at slavery’s end, [Joseph] Sturge and [Thomas] Harvey found few married slaves residing together or even on the same estate. Slaveholders often counted as ‘married’ only those slaves with mates on the estate.” Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, and all existing slaves were emancipated in 1834.
Horatio Nelson, was Senior Naval Officer of the Leeward Islands from 1784 to 1787 on H.M.S. Boreas. During his tenure, he tried to enforce the Navigation Acts. These acts prohibited trade with the newly formed United States of America. Most of the merchants in Antigua depended upon American trade, so many of them despised Captain Nelson. As a result, he was unable to get a promotion for some time after his stint on the island. Unlike the Antiguan merchants, Nelson had a positive view of the Navigation Acts. A dockyard started in 1725, to provide a base for a squadron of British ships whose main function was to patrol the West Indies and thus maintain Britain’s sea power, was later named “Nelson’s Dockyard” in his honor. While Nelson was stationed on Antigua, he frequently visited the nearby island of Nevis, where he met and married a young widow, Fanny Nisbet, who had previously married the son of a plantation family on Nevis.
In 1968, with Barbuda and the tiny island of Redonda as dependencies, Antigua became an associated state of the Commonwealth, and in 1981 it was disassociated from Britain.