History of Antigua & Barbuda – The Sweet Success of Sugar & Independence

by Ray Roman | Last updated on January 12, 2024

Antigua’s history is steeped in the cultivation of sugar cane and the struggle toward sovereignty, a narrative of progress shaped significantly by influential figures and economic shifts.

In this article we’ll explore its rich history.

The Sugar Revolution

Sir Christopher Codrington’s Transformational Arrival

History of Antigua-Barbuda
History of Antigua-Barbuda

In 1684, Sir Christopher Codrington’s arrival in Antigua marked a pivotal point in the island’s history. Determined to replicate the large-scale sugar production he had witnessed in nearby Caribbean territories, Codrington’s initial successes catalyzed a sugar boom on the island.

Over the following five decades, Antigua experienced an explosion of sugar cultivation, eventually hosting over 150 cane-processing windmills. These mills and their plantations became the island’s lifeblood.

Today, nearly 100 of these stone structures remain, repurposed as homes, businesses, and tourist attractions. At Codrington’s original estate, Betty’s Hope, visitors can explore a fully restored sugar mill.

Ancestral Narrative

From the Siboney to African Heritage

Modern Antiguans predominantly bear African ancestry, tracing their lineage back to slaves who once toiled in sugarcane fields.

However, Antigua’s habitation history spans centuries back to the Siboney peoples around 2400 B.C. and then to the Arawaks and Caribs. European influence commenced in 1493 when Christopher Columbus sighted the island, naming it after a Spanish saint.

The first successful European settlement emerged in 1632, and with Codrington’s vision, by the 18th century, Antigua had become a sugar powerhouse.

Colonial Milestones and Military Significance

Strategic Positioning and Defense

Known as the “gateway to the Caribbean,” Antigua played a crucial role as a strategic naval port and a protective stronghold for the valuable British island colonies.

The island’s many historical sites, including fortifications and Nelson’s Dockyard, stand as testaments to colonial defensive strategies against potential invasions.

Horatio Nelson and Naval Development

Horatio Nelson’s mission to bolster British naval capabilities and enforce trading laws left a mixed legacy, highlighted by the construction of the notable Nelson’s Dockyard and the officer’s contempt for island conditions.

During his tenure, future King William IV, who enjoyed more favorable lodging at Clarence House, served under Nelson.

Emancipation and Its Aftermath

A Celebrated Liberation from Slavery

When slavery was abolished across the British Empire in 1834, Antigua was exceptional in implementing full emancipation immediately.

This historic moment is celebrated annually with Carnival, marking the island’s early emancipation milestone within the British Caribbean.

Post-Emancipation and Evolving Industries

Post-emancipation brought economic relief, albeit amidst a decline in sugar’s dominance. Antiguans faced financial challenges until tourism’s recent rise.

The emergence of a labor movement led by V.C. Bird ultimately propelled the island toward independence.

Independent Antigua

A New Era of Self-Government

The journey to independence progressed with Antigua becoming an associated state in 1967 and achieving full independence in 1981.

The legacy of leadership continued with V.C. Bird’s son, Lester B. Bird, who succeeded him as prime minister, steering Antigua through its developing years as a nation.

Throughout its history, Antigua has transformationally shifted from sugar dependency to diversifying its economy and embracing political autonomy, charting a course of resilience that is echoed across the turquoise waters that surround this storied island.

About Barbuda

Barbuda is part of the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda in the Eastern Caribbean. It is the smaller of the two islands and is known for its tranquil atmosphere, unspoiled natural beauty, and pristine beaches.

Geography and Environment

Barbuda is relatively flat with the highest elevation being only 44.5 meters (146 feet). Its land area is approximately 160 square kilometers (62 square miles). The island is renowned for its long stretches of pink and white sandy beaches and clear waters, which are popular among visitors for sunbathing, swimming, and water sports.

One of the island’s most notable features is the Codrington Lagoon, which is home to the largest colony of frigate birds in the Western Hemisphere. The lagoon is protected by a long coral reef and is recognized as an important wetland site under the Ramsar Convention.

History and Culture

The island’s history is heavily influenced by its colonization by Europeans, similar to Antigua’s history. Before that, it was inhabited by indigenous people including the Ciboney, Arawak, and Carib Indians. The island was named after King James I of England’s brother, Barbuda.

Barbuda was less intensively developed than Antigua due to its less hospitable environment for sugar cultivation, so large-scale plantations were less common. Instead, it served as a provisioning ground for the Codrington family’s plantations on Antigua, with much of its history tied to the Codrington estate, which leased Barbuda for nearly 200 years.

Today, Barbuda’s culture reflects a blend of its African heritage and British colonial influences. Local customs, traditions, and cuisine are distinct yet reflect a fusion that characterizes much of the Caribbean.

Economy and Infrastructure

Traditionally, Barbuda’s economy has depended on fishing and agriculture, as well as modest tourism activities. The island’s tourism industry focuses on eco-tourism, with emphasis on the conservation of its natural resources and environment.

However, Barbuda faced significant infrastructure challenges after being hit by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, which resulted in widespread devastation. Recovery efforts have been ongoing, with a focus on sustainable rebuilding and development.

Governance

Barbuda has a degree of local government which operates under the umbrella of the national government of Antigua and Barbuda. There is sometimes debate between the Barbudan and national governments over land use and development, with many Barbudans advocating for communal land rights and conservation-focused policies.

Tourism

Although less developed for tourism than Antigua, Barbuda’s seclusion is part of its charm. The island draws travelers seeking a private and quiet paradise, away from the crowds. Popular attractions besides the Frigate Bird Sanctuary include the Darby Cave, Martello Tower, and pristine, secluded beaches like Princess Diana Beach (formerly known as Pink Sand Beach).

In summary, Barbuda is an idyllic destination known for its seclusion, natural beauty, and rich birdlife. While it continues to recover from the impacts of a major hurricane, the island remains committed to preserving its environment and laid-back lifestyle, offering a unique alternative to the more bustling tourist experiences elsewhere in the Caribbean.