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Antigua - a brief history

The beautiful island of Antigua which is known as the Gateway to the Caribbean is the largest of the English speaking Leeward Islands. Antigua is known to have been inhabited since around 2400BC by the Siboney tribe who thrived for centuries until the Arawaks came across from Venezuela in around 35AD. However, the name Antigua came from Christopher Columbus in 1493 who named the island after the church of Santa Maria de la Antigua in Seville. Evidence of the ancient history of Antigua can be found in the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St John's.

Nelson's Dockyard

Antigua's natural harbours

*Antigua's natural harbours

Antigua's more recent fortune and history is entirely tied up with its position and geographical make up. Its complex coastline is made up of several protective natural harbours; where in 1725 the British started building their dockyard to service the warships in the Caribbean. In 1784 Admiral Horatio Nelson was stationed there and it became the most important Caribbean base for the protection of the British (Leeward Islands) Fleet. Stationed under Nelson was Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence who later became King William IV. His residence was Clarence House which is now the residence of the Governor-General, however, when his Excellency is not in residence it is open for public tours.

The old naval officers house, now a museum

*The old naval officers house, now a museum

When it was built the dockyard was known as "His Majesty's Antiguan Naval Yard". However, when Admiral Nelson was stationed there it became known as "Nelsons Dockyard".

The image on the left is of the old naval officer's house which is now a museum. Build in about 1855 the old Admirals house displays a number of items which used to belong to Nelson and the upstairs of the Museum is dedicated to the history of English Harbour.

Sugar Plantations

The English had arrived from St Kitts in 1632 bringing Sir Christopher Codrington who was gifted the plantation, named Betty's Hope, by the British Government. Betty's Hope was the first of around 150 sugar plantations, making the island an affluent centre of British interests in the Caribbean. Betty's Hope sugar mill has since been restored and is now open to visitors.

The plantations were worked by slaves brought mainly from Africa, until emancipation came about on 1st August 1834 under the reign of King William IV causing celebration and dancing in the streets. Today the majority of the population are directly descended from these slaves and the celebration is marked by Carnival in late July culminating in J'ouvert on the first Monday of August.

It was the flourishing of the plantations that made Antigua the important base for the British and it was essential that was protected, the importance of the dockyard shouldn't be underestimated. To that end the Island was heavily fortified with lookouts and forts guarding the more strategic harbours and bays.

Forts & Monuments

Shirley Heights military base

*Shirley Heights military base

At the most southerly point of Antigua, the lookout was part of the Shirley Heights military base and has breathtaking views over the breadth of English Harbour. This historic location is now the venue for BBQ's and music on Sunday nights, but at the time communication with the capital of Antigua, St John's, was in relation to protection of the island and was by a series of flags during daylight and gun by night to convey messages via the Great Fort George on Monks Hill. Built in 1686 to protect Antigua's Falmouth Harbour, it was strengthened to a 33 gun site, offering much protection to the British fleets. Other fortifications can be seen at Fort James, built at the Northern entrance of St John's in 1703. This is the only fort on the island to still have a full complement of cannons, 10 of which were capable of firing one and a half miles. This fort was mainly a visual deterrent to the French fleet who were a force in the Caribbean through the 17th and 18th Centuries, even occupying Antigua for a short time in 1666. Many of the cannons in other forts have been plundered and sold for scrap in more recent times.

Antigua's natural harbours

*Gun emplacements

The photograph on the right is of the gun emplacements, which are currently being restored. Britain ruled over Antigua until 1967 when the Island was granted the status of Associated Statehood and full Independence came in 1981.

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