Antigua's History and Culture
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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 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.
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 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.
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.
Image on top via Flickr (cc) user David Stanley
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