‘Antigua? You won’t find much culture and heritage there!’ said a friend when my wife mentioned that we were heading for the West Indies. Our friend, a wealthy nautical type, is a regular visitor to the spectacular sailing regatta held every April in Antigua’s English Harbour. His perspective is not unusual: azure seas, white-talc beaches fringed with palms, rum punch, Red Stripe and laid-back, lilting locals – the stuff of Caribbean tourist clichés.
Yet the first thing you see on landing at Antigua’s Vere Bird Airport is a stark, stone windmill, a doggedly persistent reminder of the slave-driven plantations which once covered the island. Contrary to our friend’s view, the past is all about you in Antigua. And contrary to popular opinion it is not compulsory for visitors to park their brains by the poolside. Henry Hobhouse, polymath author of Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Transformed Mankind (1985), noted a problem ‘The Caribbean contains some of the most beautiful islands in the world, but it is difficult to enjoy the present when the brooding past is remembered.’ The recent West Indian past may not be cosy, heartwarming heritage but it is the one we have got, and should be confronted. It tells us a lot about where we have all come from. No need to wallow in guilt, or self-pity, or white-wash the windmills; Antigua is a fascinating time-capsule of world history and deserves to be recognised as such.
The first European to sight Antigua was one of Christopher Columbus’s crew-members on 11 November 1493, on the second voyage to the New World. The fleet sailed on by in search of the riches of China. Columbus was the first of many, who on reaching the West Indies, wished he was elsewhere. The islands were intermittently occupied by obstreperous ‘Indians’ whom Columbus christened Caribs or ‘cannibals’. Like Neolithic Britons, these people had a habit of curating the bones of their ancestors; it was probably these, rather than a fondness for human flesh, which caused Columbus to stigmatise the native population.
A new word entered the European lexicon and with Caliban and Man Friday a new type of human being: part innocent savage, part devil, and potential servant.
The people who really discovered Antigua island hopped in canoes, from the area around the Orinoco Delta in modern Venezuala. This process of migration by bands of huntergatherers probably began about 5,000 BC. A radio-carbon date from Little Deep (Mill Reef) indicates they had reached Antigua by at least 3,100 BC. Archaeologists refer to them as the Ortoiroid peoples, from the classic site of Ortoire in Trinidad. From about 500 BC there were farming communities in the Lesser Antilles who cultivated manioc, cassava, maize, beans, sweet potatoes, pineapple, paw-paw and tobacco.
Carvings known as zemi represented their gods and the power of nature, most distinctively the cone-shaped zemis probably depicted the volcanoes which acted as landmarks for the canoists travelling along the island chain from Trinidad.
When Europeans arrived there appear to have been no permanent Amerindian settlements on Antigua. A relatively small island – of some 108 square miles – Antigua is notable for its lack of fresh water supplies, made worse by the subse- quent clearance of the natural forest cover. Local archaeologists have found over 30 Amerindian settlements around the coast, mostly near convenient landing places. Unfortunately none has been excavated on any scale and most of these prehistoric sites have been built over, many covered in recent years by hotels.
European settlement came with the arrival of an English group under Edward Warner from St Kitts about 1632. They probably constructed a small settlement on Carlisle Bay in the south, close to the only spring on the island.
Life was tough for these early colonists, made more hazardous by raiding Caribs – as the Amerindians were now known (they called themselves ‘Kalinago’) who came from the larger islands to the south such as Guadaloupe. One particularly large raid in 1640 almost eradicated the settlement and carried off Edward Warner’s family.
The colony developed slowly – at some stage establishing its main settlement at Falmouth, east of Carlisle Bay: a predominantly male community of rough tobacco farmers and poor indentured labourers. Margaret Heathcoat, one of the female minority, wrote in 1665 the first of many disparaging remarks about Antiguan planters. ‘They all be a company of sodomites that live here’. An early legal document suggests she was not entirely accurate in her observation. It banned ‘Carnall copulation between Christian and Heathen’ and declared that any child from such a union was to be enslaved. As African slaves had barely arrived in the Leewards these relations were probably with Kalinago women.
By 1693 the English community had grown in strength. The Kalinagos ‘were a barbarous and cruel set of savages beyond reason … and must therefore be eliminated’. Law No 88 in the Antigua Statute Book was ‘An Act to encourage the destroying of the Indians and Taking their periagoes (canoes)’. By 1805 this law was marked down as ‘obsolete’. The native peoples of the West Indies were eradicated by disease and warfare even more thoroughly than those of the North American mainland. And, tragically, the treatment of their archaeological remains continues to consign these lost people to one of the empty, amnesiac, filing cabinets of history.
Antigua, like most of the West Indian islands, was in the process of radical transformation. The reason was sugar. The sweet drinks revolution in Europe – coffee, chocolate and tea, (particularly in England), made palatable by sugar, generated enormous demand for what had previously been an exotic luxury commodity. Starting in Barbados the English adopted Portuguese and Dutch methods to develop the plantation system. Lacking a local labour supply indentured labourers, often Irish, were brought to farm tobacco, cotton and indigo. In the tropical conditions most died; the survivors were not notably co-operative. And sugar production was a much tougher business.
Sugar cane takes up to 18 months to ripen so planting was staggered between June and November, when most rain fell, to extend the harvest period from January through May. The sugar manufacturing process itself was hot, hard and dangerous; continuous, back-breaking work for a large labour force. This was provided by enslaved Africans. To make matters worse the planters were often arbitrary and sadistic towards their slaves, especially as the numbers and the fear of rebellion grew. The autobiography of Mary Prince, a slave in Antigua, written as late as 1831 makes quite sickening reading.
Having cleared the native population and the natural vegetation, the English colonists transported new plants, animals and human beings to create a real New World. By 1700 the British West Indies provided about 40% of Europe’s sugar; they were, in the words of Eric Williams, the distinguished historian and Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago ‘the hub of empire’. By 1745 Antigua had 160 sugar plantations worked by almost 28,000 slaves, outnumbering the whites by almost ten times. The island was said to be ‘improved to the utmost, there being hardly one acre of ground .. but what is taken in and cultivated’.
Betty’s Hope was one of the largest and most important of Antigua’s plantations. Today it is the one plantation site open to the public. Sited on elevated ground on the edge of the central plain and the eastern limestone hills, it is surrounded by what was once fertile fields, now scrubby and exhausted.
Betty’s Hope was the headquarters of the Codrington family plantations and the British seat of government for Antigua. Nevertheless it takes some effort to find the site which has a run-down feel. Yet if you want to explain to a new generation the growth of the British Empire, the transformation of European diet, the modern consumer revolution and the world’s largest diaspora of Africans to the Americas, this is not a bad place to start. And it was the wealth generated here that allowed Christopher Codrington to endow the Library at All Souls College, one of Oxford’s finest buildings.
Most of Codrington’s field hands doing the hardest work were women – the men did more skilled work. As a result of the unremitting labour and cruel treatment one third of the hands died within three years and half the black women did not have any children. So more Africans had to be imported.
The latest phase of restoration at Betty’s Hope was in 1990 thanks to funding from Canada. The potential of Betty’s Hope is enormous for education and tourism. The museum display has seen better days but has excellent, informative captions, and a well restored windmill – one of a pair – dominates the hill. The main house, most of the sugar-processing buildings and the slave quarters and cemetery remain covered by scrub.
As the West Indies became, in the 18th century, the world’s greatest generator of wealth, Antigua became the most powerfully defended island on earth. In this century of warfare between European rivals, Antigua’s drowned volcanic landscape, in the south, around Falmouth and English Harbour, provided sheltered refuges for the British fleet. From 1748 to 1815 the West Indies, the economic engine of empire, was the principal focus of the British strategic effort.
Tropical Caribbean waters with their voracious torado and gribble worms were notoriously damaging to wooden sailing ships. Three years in the West Indies for a ship of the line, hove down once a year, was the equivalent to twelve years in home service without a refit.
So Antigua’s English Harbour with its sheltered, wellguarded facilities for ship repair was a vital element in Britain’s Atlantic operations. Horatio Nelson was based here for three years, in peace time, as a young captain of the frigate Boreas. Today the Harbour bears his name. With its heat, mosquitoes, filth, disease and obstreperous plantocracy, out to squeeze as many illegal bucks as possible from the newly independent United States, the rather proper, dutiful Nelson hated the place. Arguably the animosity of the Antiguan merchants and planters played a part in Nelson being put on half-pay, and unemployed twiddling his telescope in Norfolk for five years. Fortunately for his career, and English mythology, the French started another war. Nelson was then back in business.
English Harbour is the best restored historic site on Antigua, a magnificent display of British and black African heritage in a superb setting. The elegant buildings and workshops survive but without the foetid miasma which so got up Nelson’s nose. There is enormous potential for further conservation and display of Antigua’s military heritage. The National Park at Shirley Heights where, unfortunately, goats may safely graze on the fascinating xerophytic vegetation, contains impressive installations overlooking English Harbour. From here the strategic value of the place to the British fleet is obvious. And the fine gin and tonic from the Shirley Heights bar at sunset lubricates the history lesson very nicely. Nearby, above Falmouth Harbour, are the even more impressive fortifications of St George’s Fort on Monk’s Hill, which remain neglected, overgrown and rarely visited.
The end of the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1834 was just the start of new problems for the black population of the West Indies; how to build society and families, to adapt in their exhausted, over-populated islands to the modern world. Each island has a unique history, a potential to tell an important part of the human story. West Indians deserve their place in history and could profit by it.
I think it would be another tragedy if their heritage and ours were to be lost beneath hotels and golf-courses: the new colonisation of bland tourism. The history of Antigua is powerful, gut-wrenching stuff, a hub in the creation of the modern world. It deserves to be more than a picturesque backdrop for cruise ships.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 25. Click here to subscribe