The Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles mark the separation of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Antigua and Barbuda as part of the Lesser Antilles lie 650 km southeast of Puerto Rico. The two islands of Barbuda and Antigua are 48 km apart with the third uninhabited island of Redonda 56km to the southwest of Antigua. St. John’s on Antigua, is the capital of this island state and Codrington the principal city on Barbuda. The islands are volcanic in origin with Boggy Peak on Antigua the highest point at 402km. The islands’ tropical waters are alive with a rich variety of crustaceans and tropical fish.
The warm dry weather of Antigua and Barbuda remains fairly constant throughout the year with temperatures that range from 72°F (22°C) in the cooler months to 104°F (40°C) between October and January. However, humidity is not a feature of the climate and cooling southeast trade winds ensure that the heat never becomes unbearable.
The highest rainfall is recorded between the months of June and November when daily showers occur. Because the islands lie within the hurricane zone of the Caribbean they, like all the other islands in the region, are prone to these powerful storms about every 2 to six years.
Brief History of Antigua and Barbuda
The first people to inhabit the islands were, what have been termed “Archaic People”, they were the Siboney who were both a pre-agricultural and pre-ceramic people thought to be descended from Cuban people who arrived around 2900BC. Thereafter the islands were settled by the Saladoid people from Venezuela followed by the Arawaks around 1200AD. The Arawaks were an agrarian people and the first to introduce crop growing to the islands. Crops included corn, sweet potatoes, chillies, guavas, and tobacco. As with the other islands, these people were either killed and cannibalised or enslaved by the conquering Caribs around 1500 AD. Although much of the original islands’ indigenous population died off partly as a result of diseases brought during European colonisation and partly also as a result of the deprivations of colonial slavery. However, the islands are still home to the descendants of the survivors of colonial times.
Colonial History of Antigua and Barbuda
The islands were first discovered by Christopher Columbus who first named the larger island Santa Maria de la Antigua. Many unsuccessful attempts were made by the British to settle on the islands, but each time they were repelled by the aggressively protective Caribs until finally in 1632 a small settlement succeeded. The British first cultivated cash crops of indigo, ginger and later sugar-cane. The first sugarcane plantation was developed on Antigua by Sir Christopher Codrington in 1674. As a result of the success of this plantation, many plantation owners followed suit by changing their crops from indigo and ginger to sugarcane.
As the harvesting of sugar cane was labour intensive the need for cheap labour was paramount. Britain first imported Indian and white indentured labour (another term for slavery). However, this attempt at procuring cheap labour was unsuccessful as these indentured servants were unable to adapt well to the island climate and the hard labour required of them and they succumbed in their thousands. As a result, the British then enslaved the people of the islands and added to their number through the African slave trade. The present Creole traditions of the island derive from this mix of nationalities.
Britain, now the superior power in the Caribbean, commissioned, the then, Captain Horatio Nelson to command the British Fleet out of Antigua. He immediately embarked on improving the dockyard in English Harbour at St John’s (the Nelson Dockyard), but it was his introduction of the Navigation Act in 1787 which led to his departure from the islands.
The Navigation Act permitted only British-registered ships to trade with the island colonies. This unpopular act excluded trading with the newly independent States of America and so caused much unrest among the colonials of the islands and was ultimately unsuccessful.
In 1860 Britain annexed Barbuda and 12 years later the tiny island of Redonda, thus creating ‘The territory of Antigua’ and Antigua became known as the “Gateway to the Caribbean”.
Antigua in the 20th century
The economy of Antigua suffered greatly as the sugar industry went into decline in the 20th century. The small amount of land offered few opportunities for farm labour and without manufacturing, there were few alternative economic opportunities for the population and as a consequence poor labour practices flourished.
How did Antigua and Barbuda gain Independence?
Shortly after 1939 the Antigua Trades and the Labour Union was formed with its president Vere Cornwall Bird becoming the union president in 1943. He then set about forming the Antigua Labour Party (ALP), which became the majority party in 1951, and remained in power right up to and past the Island territory’s independence in 1981.
1981 saw the islands become ‘the Nation of Antigua and Barbuda’, a sovereign state under the constitutional monarchy of Britain’s reigning monarch and a member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
The ALP continued its political power winning elections in 1984, 1989 and 1989 and again in 1994. However, the ALP under Lester Bird was soon suspected of corruption, most particularly when he announced that Antigua’s north-eastern coast was to be opened for Malaysian development. The ALP consequently lost their majority to the United Progressive Party in 2004, thus ending the decades-long rule of the ALP.