History and Background

The oldest known inhabitants of Antigua were the Ciboney ("Stone People"), who left behind almost no traces. About 2000 years ago came the Arawaks, a bunch of rather peaceful people originating from South America. They left some traces of settlements, but were driven off the island in ca. 1200 AD by another bunch of rather less peaceful South Americans - the Caribs. They preferred raiding over settling and supposedly gave the island the name of "Wadadli", still in use today. (And also retained for the local beer brand.)

But only about 300 years after the Caribs claimed the island for themselves, they in turn were visited by an even more barbaric tribe we call the Europeans. Their boss, a guy named Columbus, christened the island "Santa Maria la Antigua" after some statue in a cathedral in Seville. - It took the Spanish, the Portuguese and the English about 150 years to finally put down a settlement that was not destroyed by the Caribs. The English settlement was founded in 1632 in the south of the island, in an area now called "Old Road". Except for a few months in 1666 and 1667, the island stayed in English hands from that time until its independence in 1981.

Y2K Preparedness After an initial and not really successful attempt at producing tobacco, the island was geared towards the growing of sugar cane. Huge numbers of slaves were imported from Africa to make this work. The slaves were formally freed on 1 August 1834, but many returned, as "free workers", to the same estates they were working before. A few did found their own communities, and place names such as "Liberta", "Freetown", or "Freemans Village" remind us of that time. During the 19th century, the value of West Indian sugar declined sharply, as other, cheaper sources were available to the main buyers. Business concentration was such that by the mid-1940 most of the arable land belonged to one single company.

During the second world war, Antigua was heavily influenced by the large number of American troops stationed on the island. Many locals had the opportunity of working for the Americans, for much higher wages than they ever could receive for agricultural work, and many also learned skills that changed their lifes even after the Americans had gone. Sugar production declined further, and by 1972 was entirely replaced by other agricultural activities like growing fruit and cotton or rearing livestock. Today, the percentage of the total workforce engaged in agriculture is probably less than 5%. (The largest employer on the island is now the state-owned public utility company, APUA.)

From 1943 on (when he was elected president of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union) one man dominated the political scene: Vere Cornwall Bird. He led Antigua and its people through the various stages of independence, until full independent nationhood was gained on 1st November 1981. Bird retired as prime minister in 1994, to be succeeded by his son Lester. (Rumour has it that "Papa Bird" would have preferred his other son to succeed him, but that would have been politically infeasible as he was engulfed in a major corruption scandal at the time.) - V.C. Bird died in 1998, probably the only national hero that Antigua ever had. (Apart maybe from Sir Vivian Richards, the former West Indies Cricket Captain.) You will encounter the Bird name in many places - if you arrive by plane, your airport of entry will of course be "VC Bird International".

As is the case with any prominent political figure, "Papa Bird" and his son are the object of criticism, too. Some say that about a quarter of the foreign debt amassed by Antigua since its independence has somehow found its way into the family's pockets. The prime minister's daughter, Rika, has a law firm whose services are often employed by foreign companies with dealings on Antigua.

Recent history has brought about a tighter integration of the Eastern Carribean island nations (still too little, some say), and the odd diplomatic trouble over money laundering. Desperate for cash, the government tried to position Antigua as a sort of "Silicon Island" and attract Internet-based businesses (as the revenues from tourism are obviously not matching the expectations - revenues generated in one of the many resorts are channeled off the island faster than you can say 'Papa Bird'). At one time they even tried to levy an income tax, but to my understanding this idea has been tucked under the carpet after meeting strong public resistance.


Antigua History at Antigua Nice
Open Directory Project on Antigua's history
St. Kitts and Nevis History with interesting historical background for the whole region
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.

The photograph on this page shows one of a handful of Y2K awareness boards posted in the capital, St. John's. I spent the first months of the year 2000 on Antigua, and there were no signs of any Y2K related trouble.

  Frederik Ramm, 2001-12-17