My favourite place: Antigua

In the latest instalment of our historical holidays series, Sam Willis explores the Caribbean island of Antigua – whose beautiful golden beaches belie its ugly history of slaves and sugar

A view of English Harbour in Antigua

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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I have only discovered one place that combines all the things I love in a holiday: nice beaches, cricket and interesting history. That place is Antigua, an island first settled by the British in 1632.

Antigua is a perfect location for the maritime-minded, boasting 365 beaches – one for each day of the year. I admire the marketing ingenuity of this claim but doubt its authenticity: I suspect there are far more.

This is no place of huge windswept beaches but of intimate coves everywhere you look. As with all Caribbean islands, there is a satisfying difference between the windswept beaches of the eastern coast and the sheltered beaches of the west; in that difference is the answer to a number of fascinating historical questions.

Antigua lies roughly in the centre of a chain of Caribbean islands that stretch like a fleet of warships vertically up the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea. The winds, most of the time, are consistent: they blow from east to west. Those winds are key to understanding the islands, which grew in importance during the age of sail, when the majority were turned over to slave-farmed sugar.

British merchants and warships sailed down those prevailing easterly winds, arriving from Europe at the south-easternmost point of the chain: Barbados. They would then sail northwards, up the chain, before heading back to Europe. Barbados was the major naval base at the bottom of the chain with Jamaica at the top, but the British needed another site, midway down the chain, from which to police the seas and shelter from storms.

Antigua provided the answer. At English Harbour on the sheltered southern shore, the British found the perfect deep-water and easily defensible anchorage where a fleet could shelter from hurricanes. In fact, they liked the location so much that they built a large dockyard there in 1725, where the navy could re-victual, water and repair their ships.

English Harbour is still a must-visit location: the quality of its historical buildings is unmatched anywhere in the British Caribbean. The Dockyard Museum tells the story of how the yard flourished from 1725 until 1889 and of how Horatio Nelson was a key figure in dockyard life in the 1780s. In the dockyard itself, you can still see the remarkable sail loft and the beautiful colonial-style naval officers’ house that dates from the 1850s. Eagle-eyed travellers will spot the early 18th-century graffiti just outside the dockyard, carved by miserable British sailors.

The presence of the navy in turn led to an increased army presence on the island and its military remains are also fascinating. The best buildings are those at Shirley Heights, high up in the hill overlooking, and defending, the dockyard. But for those who want a real sense of the power of the navy and army, a visit to Fort James, protecting St John’s harbour, is a must – it is the only fort with its full complement of cannon in place.

Antigua thus became home for thousands of British sailors who lived a miserable life sweltering on board warships, suffering from scurvy and slowly dying from typhus while policing an industry that was itself fuelled by misery. For, while sailors policed the seas, the interior of the island was entirely turned over to slave-farmed sugar. This is one of the most enduringly fascinating things about the island – the contrast between the luxuries of modern holiday making and the agonies of the past.

The sugar industry, curiously, is also the key to the beauty of Antigua’s beaches: they seem so spectacular because, in comparison, the interior is so barren. It became so because the island has suffered from generations of farming on an unprecedented scale. By the mid-18th century there were 150 sugar cane-processing windmills on the island, each linked to a sizeable plantation. The interior is now almost entirely covered by invasive plant species that moved in once the sugar crops had gone. Now there is little to see in Antigua’s interior beyond the odd archaeological site linked to the sugar industry, such as Betty’s Hope plantation, and, of course, the Antiguan’s main love: cricket.

There are many layers of history on show at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in the island’s capital, St John’s – the first evidence of human habitation dates to 2400 BC, but close to the museum’s front door is displayed the island’s most prized possession: Viv Richards’s cricket bat.

It was used to score the fastest century in history, against England in 1986, a record that still stands. That achievement, as well as those of the peerless West Indies team of the 1980s, exported the name of Antigua, and the West Indies, around the world. A cricket stadium has recently been built in Richards’s honour. Time your visit right and you could have a day or two away from the beach to watch cricket in the Caribbean sunshine, while you ponder the island’s extraordinary beauty and tortuous history.


Advice for travellers

Best time to go
Antigua is coolest and driest between mid-December and mid-April, with September seeing the peak of hurricane activity. The anniversary of the island’s complete independence from Britain, gained in 1981, is celebrated on 1 November. antigua-barbuda.org

Getting there
Antigua’s VC Bird International is the main airport for flights from Britain to the north-eastern Caribbean and is about five miles from St John’s. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic both fly from London Gatwick. A regular bus service runs between St John’s and English Harbour, and the island has a number of car hire companies. Taxis are available across the island.

What to pack
A cricket bat and swimmers.

What to bring back
A new way of thinking about the past. Cherish it.

Readers’ views
Visit Nelson’s dockyard, his home 1784–87, eat at Roti King in St John’s, pick tamarind and swim with Hawksbill turtles
@chris_maudsley

Go to Shirley Heights on a Sunday evening for entertainment and a splendid view of English Harbour
@BevMSmith

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Dr Sam Willis is a maritime historian, archaeologist and presenter: sam-willis.com Read more about Sam’s experiences of Antigua at historyextra.com/antigua