History of Antigua

The trade industry was an important aspect of Antigua's history

Photo credit: © Paul Zizka | Dreamstime.com

The History of Antigua

As the sugarcane industry clenched its grip around the Caribbean region and the European drive for riches grew stronger, the little island of Antigua was discovered by explorers hoping to find fortune. The first European visitors came to Antigua to see if its environment could support the large-scale sugarcane plantations that had already taken over many other islands in the Caribbean. While sugarcane farming became prosperous, slavery, colonialism, and a heritage of multiple ethnic backgrounds would also shape the culture of Antigua.

Before European Exploration

The history of Antigua's indigenous people dates back to around 2400 B.C., with the first settlements of the Siboney, which means "stone people" in the Arawak language. These Meso-Indians were excellent craftsmen, creating beautiful shell jewelry and stone tools. Such artifacts of these ancient people have been found around the island. Following the Siboney, the Arawak made their appearance on Antigua and inhabited the island from 35 A.D. to 1100 A.D. The Arawak people introduced farming to the islands of Antigua and Barbuda and planted crops such as pineapples, peppers, corn, sweet potatoes, guava, cotton, and tobacco. The Arawak mostly lived on the northern and eastern parts of Antigua, close to the reefs where fishing was good, but they were forced out of their homes by the destructive Carib people, for whom the Caribbean region was named. Although it hasn't been proven, some speculate that the Caribs may have been cannibals who ate their enemies.

European Contact

The first European to spot Antigua was the famous explorer Christopher Columbus, who first laid eyes on the island in 1493. Columbus decided to name the island after Santa Maria la Antigua, who was a miracle-working saint of a European settlement, but Europeans didn't inhabit Antigua until more than a century after Columbus spotted the island. The Caribs ferociously resisted the Europeans, attempts to settle on the island. A group of Englishmen from St. Kitts were finally able to establish a settlement on the island in 1632, which paved the way for the era of sugarcane on the island.


The settlers on the island began producing cash crops of tobacco, ginger, indigo, and sugar. Sugarcane became the dominate crop around 1674 when Sir Christopher Codrington came to the island from Barbados and brought the newest sugar-growing technology of the times. Codrington found that Antigua could support large-scale sugar plantations, and in the next 50 years, the cultivation of sugarcane erupted into a highly profitable market, so much that by the middle of the 18th century, there were more than 150 sugarcane-processing windmills on the island. With the success of sugarcane crops, farmers on the island turned from the production of tobacco to sugar, which in turn increased the number of slaves on the island to fulfill the need for more labor.

Horatio Nelson

Senior Naval Officer of the Leeward Islands Horatio Nelson came to Antigua to enforce the Navigation Act while stationed in the Dockyard, which was started in 1725 as a base for squadron ships patrolling the West Indies maintaining England's sea power. The Navigation Act prohibited trade with the newly formed United States, on which many merchants depended. Because Nelson was the enforcer of these laws, the merchants, attitudes toward him were famously hostile. Nelson's Dockyard contains many relics of this era and is an area worth exploring to learn more about Antigua's history.

Slavery in Antigua

At the end of the 18th century, Antigua became a key strategic port and a very valuable commodity for the British colonies. The "gateway to the Caribbean," as Antigua was then known as, was in a prime location that offered control over major sailing routes between the region's wealthy island colonies. As the sugar industry grew, an increasing number of slaves were brought from Africa to the island under harsh and inhumane conditions. A slave revolt was planned in 1725 by Prince Klaas, but the plot was discovered and put down before any action was taken.

In 1834, Britain abolished slavery, and Antigua fully emancipated its slaves, forgoing the four-year waiting period some colonies instituted. Today, Antigua celebrates the emancipation of slaves during the Carnival festivities, which commemorate the end of slavery in the British Caribbean.

Although freeing its slaves improved Antigua's economy, the sugar industry had already began to fizzle out, and Antigua struggled to gain economic stability until tourism would lead the island's economy, especially during the past decade.


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