History of Antigua and Barbuda

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The history of Antigua and Barbuda covers the period from the arrival of the Archaic peoples thousands of years ago to the present day. Prior to European colonization, the lands encompassing present-day Antigua and Barbuda were inhabited by three successive Amerindian societies. The island was claimed by England, who settled the islands in 1632. Under English/British control, the islands witnessed an influx of both Britons and African slaves migrate to the island. In 1981, the islands were granted independence as the modern state of Antigua and Barbuda.

Early history (2900 BC–17th century)[edit]

Antigua was first settled by pre-agricultural Amerindians known as "Archaic People" (although they are commonly, but erroneously known in Antigua as Siboney, a pre-ceramic 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 around 1200 AD and around 1500 by Island Caribs.

Depiction of an Arawak woman in 1818

The Arawaks were the first well-documented group of Antiguans. They paddled to the island by canoe (piragua) from Venezuela, and were 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 variety), 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, Ducuna (DOO-koo-NAH), is a sweet, steamed dumpling made from grated sweet potatoes, flour and spices. In addition, one of the Antiguan staple foods, fungee (FOON-ji), is a cooked paste made of cornmeal and water.

The bulk of the Arawaks left Antigua about 1100 AD. Those who remained were subsequently raided by the Caribs. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Caribs' superior weapons and seafaring prowess allowed them to defeat most Arawak nations in the West Indies—enslaving some and cannibalising others.

The Catholic Encyclopedia does make it clear that the Spanish explorers had some difficulty identifying and differentiating between the various native peoples they encountered.[citation needed] As a result, the number and types of ethnic-tribal-national groups in existence at the time may be much more varied and numerous than the two mentioned.

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. 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 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.

European colonization (1632–1981)[edit]

Depiction of the sugar industry on Antigua in 1823

Christopher Columbus sighted islands in 1493 during his second voyage naming the larger one Santa Maria de la Antigua. However, early attempts by Europeans to settle the islands failed due to the Caribs' excellent defenses.[citation needed] 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.

Slavery was common in Barbuda in the 1700s and until 1834.[1][2] The island was a source of slaves for other locations, too.[3] No new slaves had arrived on the island since the mid 1700s but their population grew naturally.[4] An estimate in 1977 by Lowenthal and Clark indicated that during 1779 to 1834 the number of slaves exported totalled 172; most were taken to Antigua but 37 went to the Leeward and Windward islands and some to the southern US. Several slave rebellions took place on the island, with the most serious in 1834–5.[5] Britain emancipated slaves in most of its colonies in 1834, but that did not include Barbuda, so the island then freed its own slaves. For some years thereafter, the freed slaves had little opportunity of survival on their own because of limited agricultural land and the lack of available credit to buy some. Hence, they continued to work on the plantations for nominal wages or lived in shantytowns and worked as occasional labourers.[citation needed] Sugar cane production remained the primary economy for over a century.[4]

Plan for English Harbour in Antigua from 1745

During the 18th century, Antigua was used as the headquarters of the British Royal Navy Caribbean fleet. English Harbour 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 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.

As the main cash crop changed over the years, the main cash crops/products grown between 1953 and 1956 were cotton, sugar, meat, cereals, and local fruits and vegetables.[6] Overtime, the importance of crops and produce went into decline as other nations were able to sell goods at a price no longer feasible to sustain in the Antiguan economy. In more recent times, however, Antigua has developed a primarily service-based economy relying on tourism as their leading source of income.[7] Much like other islands and nations that rely on tourism, this can become problematic as their success depends on the willingness of others to travel and explore the area. Moreover, this has tendency to follow a seasonal pattern leaving the country vulnerable at certain times in the year.

Political development[edit]

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.[4]

Colonial ensign of Antigua and Barbuda from 1956 to 1962

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.

Ethnicity and social class[edit]

Behind the late 20th century reviving and re-specifying of the place of African-Antiguans and Barbudans in the cultural life of the society, is a history of race/ethnic relations that systematically excluded them. A colonial framework was established by the English soon after their initial settlement of Antigua in 1623.

Mixed-race relationships and later immigration resulted by the late 19th century in the emergence of five distinct and carefully ranked race/ethnic groups. Among themselves, there were divisions between British Antiguans and non-creolised British.

Immediately below the British,[citation needed] were the mulattoes, a mixed-race group resulting from unions between, generally, white European males and enslaved African women, many of which took place in the years before the expansion of enslaved African population. Mulattoes were lighter in shade than the masses of Africans. Some white fathers had their sons educated or trained in crafts. They sometimes benefited them in other ways, which led to the development of a separate class.[citation needed] Mulattoes gradually distinguished themselves from the masses of enslaved Africans. They developed complex ideologies of shade to legitimate their claims to higher status.[citation needed] These ideologies of shade paralleled in many ways British ideologies of white supremacy.[original research?]

Next in this hierarchy were the Portuguese[citation needed]— 2,500 of whom migrated as workers from Madeira between 1847 and 1852 because of a severe famine. Many established small businesses and joined the ranks of what was by then the mulatto middle class. The British never really considered Portuguese as their equals,[original research?] so they were not allowed into their ranks.[citation needed] Among Portuguese Antiguans and Barbudans, status differences move along a continuum of varying degrees of assimilation into the Anglicised practices of the dominant group.[original research?]

Below the Portuguese were the Middle Easterners,[citation needed] who began migrating to Antigua and Barbuda around the turn of the 20th century. Starting as itinerant traders, they soon worked their way into the middle strata of the society.[citation needed] Although Middle Easterners came from a variety of areas in the Middle East, as a group they are usually referred to as Syrians.

The Irish were first sent to the island as indentured and unpaid servants by Oliver Cromwell during the mid 17th century. They were treated harshly and had to live in depraved conditions. Many of the Irish, most of whom were Catholic, died from severe sunstroke and sickness and those who survived lived in extreme poverty. Irish indentured servants were replaced by African slaves in the mid to late 17th century as they were more suited to working in the sun and heat. The Irish were used by the British as a buffer group between them and the African slaves and became overseers on sugar plantations on the island. Many of the Irish had children with the Africans, which is why many Antiguans and Barbudans have Irish surnames to this day.[citation needed]

Sixth and finally were the African-Antiguans and Barbudans who were located at the bottom of this hierarchy.[citation needed] Enslaved and forcefully transported, Africans started arriving in Antigua and Barbuda in large numbers during the 1670s. Very quickly they came to constitute the majority of the population. As they entered this hierarchy, Africans were profoundly racialised. They ceased being Ashanti, Ewe, Yoruba and became Negroes or blacks.[citation needed] In the 20th century, the colonial hierarchy gradually began to come apart as a result of universal education and better economic opportunity.[original research?] This process gave rise to Africans reaching the highest strata of society and government.

Independent Antigua and Barbuda (1981–present)[edit]

Lester Bird in 2016. He served as the second prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda from 1994 to 2004.

The islands achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1981, becoming the nation of Antigua and Barbuda. However, it remains part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and remains a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Antigua and Barbuda.

In 1997, Prime Minister Lester Bird announced that a group of ecologically sensitive islands just off Antigua's northeastern coast, previously proposed for national park status, were being turned over to Malaysian developers. The Guiana Island Development Project deal, calling for a 1000-room hotel, an 18-hole golf course and a world-class casino, sparked widespread criticism by environmentalists, minority members in parliament and the press. The issue came to a head when a local resident shot the PM's brother. Today, the proposed development is mired in lawsuits and politics.

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. In 2014 the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party regained power from a massive win with the leader being the "World Boss", Gaston A. Browne. A snap election was called 3 years later, and the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party led by the incumbent leader Hon. Gaston Browne dominated the elections with a landslide victory of 15-1-1.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Crocker, John. "Barbuda Eyes Statehood and Tourists". The Washington Post. 28 January 1968. p. E11.
  2. ^ Fleck, Bryan. "Discover Unspoiled: Barbuda". Everybody's Brooklyn. 31 October 2004. p. 60.
  3. ^ Sheridan, Richard B. (1974). Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775. Canoe Press. p. 185. ISBN 978-976-8125-13-2.
  4. ^ a b c Leonard, Thomas M. (27 October 2005). Encyclopedia of the Developing World. Psychology Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-57958-388-0.
  5. ^ "History". Barbudaful. Retrieved 5 January 2019.
  6. ^ O’Loughlin, Carleen (1959). "The Economy of Antigua". Social and Economic Studies. University of a West Indies & Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies. 8 (3): 229–264. JSTOR 27851220.
  7. ^ Coleman, Denise. "Antigua: Economic Overview". Country Watch. Retrieved 23 October 2019.

Further reading[edit]

  • Dyde, Brian, A History of Antigua: The Unsuspected Isle, London: Macmillan Caribbean, 2000
  • Nicholson, Desmond V., Antigua, Barbuda, and Redonda: A Historical Sketch, St. Johns, Antigua: Antigua and Barbuda Museum, 1991