The history of Antigua and Barbuda can be separated into three distinct eras. In the first, the islands were inhabited by three successive Amerindian societies. The islands were neglected by the first wave of European colonisation, but were settled by England in 1632. Under British control, the islands witnessed an influx of both Britons and African slaves. In 1981, the islands were granted independence as the modern state of Antigua and Barbuda.
Antigua was first settled by pre-agricultural Amerindians known as “Archaic People”, (although they are commonly, but erroneously known in Antigua as Siboney, a preceramic Cuban people). The earliest settlements on the island date to 2900 BC. They were succeeded by ceramic-using agriculturalist Saladoid people who migrated up the island chain from Venezuela. They were later replaced by Arawakan speakers, and around 1500 by Island Caribs.
The Arawaks were the first well-documented group of Antiguans. They paddled to the island by canoe (piragua) from Venezuela, ejected by the Caribs—another people indigenous to the area. Arawaks introduced agriculture to Antigua and Barbuda, raising, among other crops, the famous Antiguan “Black” pineapple. They also cultivated various other foods including corn, sweet potatoes (White with firmer flesh than the bright orange “sweet potato” used in the United States.), chilies, guava, tobacco and cotton.
Some of the vegetables listed, such as corn and sweet potatoes, still play an important role in Antiguan cuisine. For example, a popular Antiguan dish, Dukuna (DOO-koo-NAH) is a sweet, steamed dumpling made from grated sweet potatoes, flour and spices. In addition, one of the Antiguan staple foods, fungi (FOON-ji), is a cooked paste made of cornmeal and water.
The bulk of the Arawaks left Antigua about 1100 A.D. Those who remained were subsequently raided by the Caribs. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Carib’s superior weapons and seafaring prowess allowed them to defeat most Arawak nations in the West Indies—enslaving some, and cannibalizing others.
The Catholic Encyclopedia does make it clear that the European invaders had some difficulty identifying and differentiating between the various native peoples they encountered.
According to A Brief History of the Caribbean (Jan Rogozinski, Penguin Putnam, Inc September 2000), European and African 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 sea-life.
The Indigenous West Indians made excellent sea vessels that they used to sail the Atlantic and Caribbean. As a result, Caribs and Arawaks populated much of South American and the Caribbean Islands. Relatives of the Antiguan Arawaks and Caribs still live in various countries in South America, notably Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia. The smaller remaining native populations in the West Indies maintain a pride in their heritage.
Christopher Columbus landed on the islands in 1493, naming the larger one Santa Maria de la Antigua. However, early attempts by Europeans to settle on the islands failed, due to the Caribs’ excellent defenses. England succeeded in colonising the islands in 1632, with Thomas Warner as the first governor. Settlers raised tobacco, indigo, ginger, and sugarcane as cash crops. Sir Christopher 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. In the fifty years after Codrington established his initial plantation, the sugar industry became so profitable that many farmers replaced other crops with sugar, making it the economic backbone of the islands. Codrington and others brought slaves from Africa’s west coast to work the plantations under brutal conditions.
By 1736, so many slaves had been brought in from Africa that their conditions were crowded and open to unrest. A slave called “Prince Klaas” (whose real name was Count) planned an uprising in which the whites would be massacred, but the plot was discovered and put down.
The whites caught Prince Klaas and four other accomplices and “broke” them “on the wheel”. According to www.torture-museum.com, “breaking on the wheel” was actually a common and popular form of punishment in Europe at the time. According to the site: The victim, naked, was stretched out supine on the ground or on the execution dock, with his or her limbs spread, and tied to stakes or iron rings. Stout wooden crosspieces were placed under the wrists, elbows, ankles, knees and hips. The executioner then smashed limb after limb and joint after joint, including the shoulders and hips, with the iron-tyred edge of the wheel, but avoiding fatal blows.
The victim was transformed, according to the observations of a seventeenth-century German chronicler, “into a sort of huge screaming puppet writhing in rivulets of blood, a puppet with four tentacles, like a sea monster, of raw, slimy and shapeless flesh . . . mixed up with splinters of smashed bones.”
Thereafter the shattered limbs were “braided” into the spokes of the large wheel, and the victim hoisted up horizontally to the top of a pole, where the crows ripped away bits of flesh and pecked out [the] eyes.
Ironically, the location of this torture and execution is now the Antiguan Recreation Ground. As an aside, this type of European practice probably strongly influenced the clause in the American legal code protecting citizens from “cruel and unusual punishment”.
The slave-holders caught six other slaves and put them “out to dry”, another form of torture, which involves hanging the victims in chains and starving them to death. The slave-holders also burned fifty-eight other slaves at the stake.
During the 18th century, Antigua was used as the headquarters of the British Royal Navy Caribbean fleet. English Dockyard, as it came to be called, a sheltered and well-protected deepwater port, was the main base and facilities there were greatly expanded during the later 18th century. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson commanded the British fleet for much of this time, and made himself unpopular with local merchants by enforcing the Navigation Act, a British ruling that only British-registered ships could trade with British colonies. As the United States were no longer British colonies, the act posed a problem for merchants, who depended on trade with the fledgling country.
With all others in the British Empire, Antiguan slaves were emancipated in 1834, but remained economically dependent upon the plantation owners. 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. Poor labour conditions persisted until 1939 when a member of a royal commission urged the formation of a trade union movement.
The Antigua Trades and Labour Union, formed shortly afterward, became the political vehicle for Vere Cornwall Bird who became the union’s president in 1943. The Antigua Labour Party (ALP), formed by Bird and other trade unionists, first ran candidates in the 1946 elections and became the majority party in 1951 beginning a long history of electoral victories.
Voted out of office in the 1971 general elections that swept the progressive labour movement into power, Bird and the ALP returned to office in 1976.
Independent Antigua and Barbuda
The islands achieved independence from the United Kingdom in November 1981, becoming the nation of Antigua and Barbuda. It remains part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and remains a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Antigua and Barbuda.
The ALP won renewed mandates in the general elections in 1984 and 1989. In the 1989 elections, the ruling ALP won all but two of the 17 seats. During elections in March 1994, power passed from Vere Bird to his son, Lester Bird, but remained within the ALP which won 11 of the 17 parliamentary seats. The United Progressive Party won the 2004 elections and Baldwin Spencer became Prime Minister, removing from power the longest-serving elected government in the Caribbean.
Prior to colonization, several Amerindian groups inhabited Antigua and Barbuda, all of which relied on a subsistence lifestyle. British colonists established settlements in the islands in 1632. After fighting off the Caribs, Dutch, and French to stabilize their colonies, settlers grew tobacco, indigo, cotton, and ginger as cash crops. As on many other Caribbean islands, sugar cultivation became the most profitable enterprise, quickly surpassing other crops in economic importance. Due to the vast tracts of land needed for large-scale sugar production, rainforests on the islands were decimated. Timber from the rainforests was used in shipbuilding and repair.
With the shift to a plantation economy, slaves were imported from Africa. Even after the abolition of slavery in 1834, former slaves continued working in servitude due to laws designed to keep providing plantations with cheap labor. As the sugar industry began to wane, the plantation economy came to an end.