Cultural Observations on Antigua

A board at the museum in St. John's
interprets the national flag.

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For an outsider at least, it is hard to see "the Antiguan cultural identity". People in many places have their very own way of living, easily visible elements of which are then tacked onto a group or nation and easily remembered by everybody: The French and their Baguettes, the Scots and their Bagpipes, the Bavarians and their Lederhosen. I would be hard pressed to find a similar property of Antiguan culture. Their language is imported from Britain, most of their wares come from the US - it is extremely difficult to find anything you could bring home as a souvenir because nothing is really "typical"! (Well, except perhaps the old stone windmills left from the day when sugar cane was planted and processed on the island.)

But then, that would perhaps be expecting too much. London is a good deal larger than the whole of Antigua and has about 50 times the number of inhabitants, and Londoners don't have a "cultural identity" either :-) (And what you bring home as a souvenir is usually made in China as well.)

Nevertheless, I'm going to tell you about some aspects of Antiguan public life that I found interesting.

An anglican church, dedicated 1689
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The Antiguans seem to subscribe mostly to branches of Christian religion; I saw a lot of different churches, some of them quite old actually. I was surprised to see that most spent the "millenium" (the first minutes of the year 2000) in church! Where I come from, the new year is usually greeted with fireworks rather than prayers. But then again, Christmas in St. John's was one big street market (and party), whereas I am used to closed shops and people in church on Christmas. From the first days of November on, most radio stations wasted over 50% of their air time on horrendous Christmas songs (you know, with lots of synthesizer bells and stories of mistletoe and snow - as if they ever saw snow on Antigua!).

It also seemed to me that the traditional idea of marriage and children, with the wife looking after the home and the husband working to earn the bread, is still widely accepted on Antigua. Most women I met couldn't believe that a guy of my age (28, at that time) wasn't at least married or even a father. I don't have official statistics on that but I guess the average age for marriage on Antigua must be something like 22.

In spite of the many different brands of Christianity, I had the impression that few people had a "holier than thou" attitude (towards other Christians, that is) - the ecumenical spirit surely had a better reception there than, say, in Northern Ireland. (A travel guide I bought on Antigua said that there is now a trend "away from the ecumenical leanings of the churches which originated in Europe and are deeply rooted in the life and history of Antigua, towards the intolerance and occasional bigotry of churches origination in the southern USA and quite unfamiliar with the West Indian life", but it sounds a bit as if its author, Brian Dyde, has an axe to grind.)

Rasta Man
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What is it with those Rasta Men? Some say it's a religion, some say it's just an excuse for doing nothing & smoking joints the whole day. I couldn't really find out the truth. I don't even know if being "Rasta" is inheritable or if it's a decision people take at some point in their lives. Anyway - there are a lot of people around who have a lot of hair on their heads, usually in heavy curls, and often hidden under large hats or caps. There's more of them in the south than in St. John's. Despite rumours to the contrary, they do take part in public life, and they do work like everybody else. (But I've never seen one in a suit.)

The few Rasta folks I spoke to were rather laid back and quite friendly. They often expressed regret at the turn their world was taking, with the kids watching MTV and wanting to go the the USA where brand clothing was cheap and everybody was "kewl". They would often adhere to a lifestyle that valued the land, the plants, the simple things - and who could blame them in a climate like that!

Roadside billboards say: Tourism is everybody's business! Download full size (1280x960) left, right.

Tourism is everybody's business

A number of roadside signs seem to make an effort to convince the locals that everybody benefits from tourism. This is undoubtedly true because it provides a lot of jobs and income for the government. But why the billboards? I didn't get the impression that the Antiguan is "by nature" hostile towards tourism. The signs are probably put there to keep the status quo and prevent a situation like on Jamaica, where increasing criminal activity drastically reduced the influx of tourists.

Speaking of which - someone broke into my car once and stole a few US dollars and a camera while I was on the beach, but they left the ID and credit cards, so it wasn't too bad. I guess the usual precautions apply! People tried to sell me grass a number of times but left me alone when I said I wasn't interested. I never felt threatened. Even walking the streets in St. John's at night, or when I got lost and ended up in a very run-down neighbourhood.


I never saw this first-hand but my report would be most incomplete without it. Carnival usually happens during the last week in July, culminating in national holidays on the first Monday and Tuesday in August. In the first half of the 20th century, the carnival was held around Christmas, but later they took to organizing Carnival during the summer, and the Christmas celebrations became what they are now (see above). What happens, basically, is that everybody dresses funny, and they roam the streets with huge (and I mean huge) "Sound System" trucks, playing Caribbean music at full (and I mean full) volume. Many businesses barricade their windows during carnival, using the hurricane protection equipment - it is entirely possible that a passing "Sound System" will smash your windwos by sound waves alone.

Of course, everybody also gets drunk, and apart from Carnival, nothing much happens on Antigua during these 10 days.

Boats at English Harbour
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If you have done the least bit of research then you'll know that Antigua is renowned for the Antigua Sailing Week, a regatta that attracts thousands of skippers and hundreds of boats each year - amateurs mostly, it is said. I am not into sailing, so you won't hear more about that from my - there's a huge number of web sites out there who can inform you more competently about this aspect of the Antiguan industry. There's also a yearly boat show and other sailing-related events.

The reason I'm mentioning this on the "culture" page is that the "sailing community" does its part to shape society - or at least, ex-pat society - on Antigua. Virtually every inhabitant of English Harbour and Falmouth is in some way connected to the sailing business. The area is pretty dead during hurricane season, but if you venture there any other time, you are bound to meet interesting people: People who live on boats, people for whom sailing their boat across the Atlantic on their own is, well, "what you do when you want to get somewhere". You'll meet young folks from all over the world - most, though, from Britain, New Zealand, and Australia - who are taking some time out between school and "real" job, working on a boat; young crews sailing expensive yachts across from southern France while the owners take the plane, etc.

Not many of them live there all year round (and those who do form a tight-knit community), but many come back year after year - some for work, some for pleasure.


I am an absolute and total sports illiterate. I'm from Germany and I don't even know the football rules (or soccer, as the game is known in US English). Now, imagine someone like me trying to grasp a game like Cricket. I mean, it's hard for those interested in sports. It's even hard for those who play it! But I can tell you that much: Cricket is big in Antigua; to my knowledge, it is the only sport in which Antigua can boast some international significance. They are proud of their players, and there seem to be many spectators even for the low-profile games.


Mount Prospect Press, a highly recommended exhibit named "From Slavery To Independence: The Black Presence In Our Islands", which can also be seen "live" at the Government House in St. John's.

  Frederik Ramm, 2001-05-19