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The name, Sir Christopher Codrington, is an essential part of any history of Antigua. He arrived here in 1684 and was the enterprising leader of large scale sugar production on island. This would soon become the dominant industry. So much so, that by the mid-18th century more than 150 cane-processing mills, known as sugar mills, dotted the island, each the focal point of a sizeable plantation. Almost 100 of these mills can still be spotted around the island to this day; though often serving a different function – some as houses, bars, restaurants, and shops, others abandoned. Codrington’s Betty's Hope Estate remains the best example of the sugar plantation layout and boasts impressive fully-restored twin sugar mills.
In Antigua, we’ve a mix of peoples from throughout the Caribbean and far flung areas; but the dominant numbers are the people of African descent brought here in chains to labour in the sugar fields centuries ago.
The island’s history does not begin, however, with either the arrival of the British or Africans, not even the Spanish in the person of Christopher Columbus – who first spotted and re-named it in 1493. The presence of pre-Columbian settlers, the Siboney – Arawak for Stone People – dates as far back as 2400 B.C. The beautifully crafted shell and stone tools left behind by these peripatetic Meso-Indians testify to their presence here. Arawak occupation would follow, long after the Siboney had moved on; but this agrarian society would soon be displaced by the formidable Caribs – from which the region, the Caribbean, gets its name. Antigua’s immediate past Amerindian name was Waladli – now pronounced Wadadli – and it’s a name visitors are likely to hear quite often during their stay, especially when ordering the local brew.
Though Columbus claimed the island for Spain during his second voyage to the Caribbean region, European settlement took more than a century to begin – largely due to the absence of significant quantities of fresh water and the presence of significant Carib resistance. Finally, in 1632, a group of Englishmen from St. Kitts successfully put down roots, and, with Codrington’s 1684 arrival, the island entered the sugar era.
By the end of the eighteenth century, Antigua had become an important strategic port as well as a valuable commercial colony. Known as the "gateway to the Caribbean", it was strategically positioned to control the region’s major sailing routes. Most of the island's historical sites, from its many ruined fortifications to the impeccably-restored architecture at English Harbour, are reminders of colonial efforts to protect their investment.
Famed British Admiral, Horatio Nelson, arrived in 1784 at the head of the Squadron of the Leeward Islands to develop the British naval facilities at English Harbour and enforce stringent commercial shipping laws. The first of these tasks resulted in construction of Nelson's Dockyard, one of Antigua's finest physical assets; the second led to rather hostile attitudes toward the then young captain. As a result, Nelson spent almost all of his time in the cramped quarters of his ship. Serving under Nelson at the time was Britain’s future monarch, King William IV, for whom the altogether more pleasant accommodation of Clarence House was built.
It was during William's reign, in 1834, that Britain abolished slavery in the empire. Antigua was the only of the crown’s Caribbean colonies to immediately institute full emancipation, as opposed to the four year apprenticeship or waiting period, which delayed full freedom for the enslaved Africans in the neighbouring territories. Emancipation Day was August 1st 1834. Antigua’s rambunctious and colourful Carnival, held late July to early August, celebrates this day of liberation.
Post-emancipation, sugar limped along but was ultimately dethroned in the 20th century by tourism – which still rules the economic roost. The rise of a strong labour movement in the 1940s, under the leadership of V.C. Bird, provided the impetus for Independence. In 1967, with Barbuda and the tiny island of Redonda as dependencies, Antigua became an associated state of the British Commonwealth, and in 1981 achieved full Independence. V.C. Bird was its first Prime Minister, subsequently succeeded by his son, Lester B. Bird, and, in the most recent elections, by Winston Baldwin Spencer.