Hurricanes and Heritage – British Colonialism in Antigua:
One of the best ways to escape the monotony of a long haul flight is to find a good film to watch. Flicking restlessly through the available movies on the Virgin Atlantic flight to Antigua I found ’Twelve Years a Slave’. On my bucket list since release, it should have been the perfect choice. But, I hesitated and in the end passed it by. Knowing I was heading to somewhere where society was at one time dominated by slavery, it seemed a disturbing option, even though the film is not, of course, set in Antigua but in the deep south of the USA. There are parts of our own cultural heritage that make me squirm. That includes the pink map – the version of the World Map that my Grandma still had in her Atlas which showed the British Empire in its full glory. And, legal slavery.
Nevertheless I wanted to learn more about colonial Antigua. My Disneyland perception was probably not helped by my friends who had spent the preceding weeks teasing me mercilessly about the Pirates of the Caribbean. Stopping at Nelson’s Dockyard I might not have blinked if Johnny Depp had walked past in full Pirate regalia. Though I might just have swooned like any wig and corset wearing lady;) . But, Antigua wasn’t the setting for the Pirates of the Caribbean, though it could so easily have been, as Nelson’s Dockyard is the only remaining Georgian dockyard in the world with many of the original buildings still standing.
When Columbus first visited Antigua in 1493, the island was populated by Ciboney, Arawak and Carib Indians, great seafarers in their own right who had made their way to the island in search of new territories. But, like much of the Caribbean, Columbus renamed it, picking a religious name for the Island – “Antigua” in 1493 in honour of the “Virgin of the Old Cathedral”, an Icon from the Cathedral in Seville. It was over a hundred years later in 1632 that British colonists settled on the island. The island quickly became Britain’s ‘Gateway to the Caribbean’ – located on the major sailing routes, with the English Harbour providing a haven from Caribbean storms.
Nelson’s Dockyard (originally ‘His Majesty’s Antigua Naval Yard’) was started in 1725 to provide a base of a squadron of British ships to patrol the Caribbean and protect the colonies from Pirates as well as from the warships of other Empire nations of the time.
Hurricanes and earthquakes are relatively rare in this part of the Caribbean, but nevertheless, seventeen cement topped pillars are all that remain of the 1797 sail loft, where the sailing boats would have docked for repairs and maintenance. The curious cement domes were added after an earthquake in 1871 destroyed much of the building. Originally the pillars would have been topped by a workshop into which the sails of the boats could be hauled up for repair once they’d docked underneath.
Other buildings have survived rather better, the Naval Officers’ house is now the site of the dockyard museum and there are restaurants and bars and even a hotel housed in the Copper and Lumber Store called by the same name.
While the perfect marine setting of Antigua led to its importance as a Naval base, inland was home to sugar plantations. There was, of course a link, in that the rum made from sugar cane formed part of the sailor’s wages – a pint a day, along with a substantial quantity of ale.
Sugar plantations in the Caribbean date back to before the Codrington family were given the estate in 1674, but it was Codrington who developed the first large-scale plantation on Antigua. After a short period of French occupation in 1666 the British reclaimed the island and the lands that form Betty’s Hope were granted to Sir Christopher Codrington who was residing in Barbados at the time.
The family introduced African slaves and new technology innovations which made Betty’s Hope the ‘flagship’ estate of Antigua. Eventually they owned a total of 150 sugar mills in Antigua and even after the emancipation of the slaves in 1834, continued to operate the plantations and mills. Only in 1944, long after the family had left Antigua was the plantation was sold by the Codringtons to the Antigua Sugar Estates Ltd. Betty’s Hope is partially restored so that visitors can see the twin windmills, the cistern complex, the Great House, the boiling house, for the production of crystalline sugar from cane juice and the still house for the manufacture of rum.
It was backbreaking work – the estate used the labour of some 400 workers and it has been suggested that slavery and poor diet contributed to the demise of the indigenous population and resulted in the importation of slaves from Africa, better able to tolerate the extreme working conditions. The walls of the museum are lined with slave lists. Women were assigned to distilling rum – and there was little compassion for ill health. The lists record one woman who has cancer of the breast but is still working in the first gang. Young and old were used for weeding and picking feed. And, the inventory concludes by listing the animals of the estate.
Perhaps it was not surprising that, leaving the plantation on a lightening tour of the Island, our next stop would be Devil’s Bridge – a rocky outcrop on the coast. Here escaping slaves might leap into the sea, hoping to swim to India. But the current is treacherous and the needle-sharp rocks make return impossible. To leap was certainly to death.
Asking if there were any sugar plantations left I was told that sugar cane is only grown for personal consumption now. Instead the Island relies on tourism, including of course the heritage site of Betty’s Hope. Perhaps a fitting full circle to the colonialism and slave labour which has shaped Antigua’s history.
I watched ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ on the flight home with a fresh perspective.
Many thanks to Elite Island Resorts for hosting this trip
To Francine and Charmaine from the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority
I travelled with Virgin Atlantic and stayed in the Royal Suites at the St James’s Club Antigua