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Antigua & Barbuda - History

Antigua was first inhabited by the Siboney ("stone people"), whose settlements date at least to 2400 BC. The Arawaks -- who originated in Venezuela and gradually migrated up the chain of islands now called the Lesser Antilles -- succeeded the Siboney around the 1st century AD. The warlike Carib people drove the Arawaks from neighboring islands but apparently did not settle on either Antigua or Barbuda. The Caribs abandoned Antigua around the 16th century, due to the shortage of fresh water.

, Britain annexed Barbuda in 1628; in 1680 Charles II granted the island to the Codrington family, who held it until 1860, in which year it was annexed to Antigua. The earliest European contact with the island was made by Christopher Columbus during his second Caribbean voyage (1493), who sighted the island larger island in 1493 in passing and named it after Santa Maria la Antigua, the miracle-working saint of Seville. European settlement, however, did not occur for over a century, largely because of Antigua's dearth of fresh water and abundance of determined Carib resistance. There were unsuccessful attempts at colonisation by the Spaniards and French.

Antigua was colonised by Sir Thomas Warner in 1632 - a group of Englishmen from St Kitts established a successful settlement. About thirty years after the planters had settled in Antigua the French from Martinique combined with a band of Carib Indians to ravage the island with fire and sword, taking away all the slaves and plundering the white people of everything they possessed, even to the clothing on their backs and the shoes on their feet. For several years after this event the Antiguans were unable to make head against their many calamities. Finally, in 1684 Sir Christopher Codrington arrived in Antigua from Barbados. He 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. Codrington established the first large sugar estate in Antigua in 1674, and leased Barbuda to raise provisions for his plantations. Barbuda's only town is named after him. Codrington and others brought slaves from Africa's west coast to work the plantations, and Antigua formally became a British colony in 1667.

A wealthy and honorable gentleman of distinguished family, Colonel Codrington set an example to the others by planting the waste lands with sugar-cane. He was later made captain-general and commander-in-chief of all the Leeward Islands, and thus was the first of a long line of sub-governors.

Codrington, it seems, had an eye to personal aggrandizement, and early in his rule obtained possession of the outlying island of Barbuda. It was not long before he had stocked it with cattle, sheep, fallow deer from England, and guinea-fowl, so that one may safely say that the island was made a game preserve more than 200 years ago. And, as those cattle, sheep and deer soon ran wild, while the island was the natural home of doves, pigeons, plover, curlew and many other birds, it goes without saying that Barbuda became so well stocked that royalty itself would not scorn to own it and to shoot there on occasion.

Codrington's initial efforts proved to be quite successful, and over the next 50 years sugar cultivation on Antigua exploded. By the middle of the 18th century there were more than 150 cane-processing windmills on the island, each the focal point of a sizeable plantation.

As the only Caribbean island under British rule to possess a good harbour, Antigua was the dockyard for the British West Indies, used by the Royal Navy from 1725 until 1854. By the end of the 18th century Antigua had become an important strategic port as well as a 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. 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.

Sugar succeeded tobacco as the chief crop and led to the importation of enslaved Africans to work on the highly profitable estates. After the abolition of the slave trade (1807), the Codringtons established a big ‘slave-farm’ on Barbuda, where children were bred to supply the region’s unpaid labour force, until slaves were emancipated in 1834.

THough Antiguan slaves were emancipated in 1834, they remained economically dependent on the plantation owners. It was during King William IV's reign, in 1834, that Britain abolished slavery in its empire. Antigua instituted immediate full emancipation rather than a 4-year 'apprenticeship' as in the other British Caribbean colonies. Emancipation actually improved the island's economy, but the sugar industry of the British islands was already beginning to wane. Economic opportunities for the new freedmen were limited by a lack of surplus farming land, no access to credit, and an economy built on agriculture rather than manufacturing.

Until the development of tourism in the past few decades, Antiguans struggled for prosperity. Demand for self-determination developed in parallel with a concern to create political and economic linkages with other small Caribbean countries. The labour movement became the main focus of political development, and gathered strength during the economically troubled mid-years of the 20th century.

Vere C Bird formed the country’s first trade union in 1939, and later became leader of the Antigua Labour Party (ALP). The rise of a strong labor movement in the 1940s, under the leadership of V.C. Bird, provided the impetus for independence.

The first elections under universal adult suffrage took place in 1951, and were won by the ALP. The country joined the West Indies Federation at formation in 1958; this arrangement replaced the earlier Leeward Islands federal grouping of which Antigua and Barbuda had been part. The West Indies Federation collapsed in 1962 – too late to revive the old Leeward Islands federation, since most of the eligible Eastern Caribbean countries were in the process of moving towards independence.

In 1967, with Barbuda and the tiny island of Redonda as dependencies, Antigua became an associated state of the Commonwealth. Under the West Indies Act 1967, Antigua became an associated state with internal self-government, the UK retaining control of foreign affairs and defence. Vere Bird Sr became the first Premier, but the ALP was ousted at the next elections in 1971 by the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM), led by George Walters. Both parties had their roots in the labour movement; the main difference at that time was that the PLM was campaigning for early independence, while the ALP wanted stronger economic foundations to be developed first.

In 1981 it gained independence as a unitary state, despite a strong campaign for separate independence by the inhabitants of Barbuda.

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