History of Antigua

Mother Earth Travel > Antigua > Antigua Travel Guide > History

When the English first landed in Antigua there were certainly no jewelry stores boasting their exotic wares in Heritage Quay and Redcliffe Quay or the Bank of Antigua flaunting it's shiny marble floors. In fact, there were no streets at all!

Colonization came about in 1632 by a party of Englishmen who set out from nearby St. Kitts under the leadership of Edward Warner. They established a tenuous settlement on the southern side of the island and were under attack by the Caribbean's (from neighboring islands) and the French. By 1667, the little town really began to swing.

As on most Caribbean islands, sugar cane once was a primary source of revenue and a booming industry; its heyday was from the mid 1600s to the mid 1700s when slavery was the norm. Sugar cane ceased production altogether on Antigua in 1972.

In September 1672 a decision was made by the governing Assembly that one slave for every eight owned by planters should be supplied for work on the erection of forts at Falmouth and St. John's. In case of attack from the Caribbean's or French, a fort was to be built on Rat Island in St. John's Harbour. In 1680, Colonel Vaughn gave St. John's Point to the King for a defense to be called Fort James. This fort was completed in 1704.

St. John's town had grown as large as Falmouth by 1689. Together, Falmouth and Parham were Antigua's foremost towns. But by the following year nearly the whole of St. John's was destroyed by a hurricane. Eighteen vessels ran aground, others just disappeared. The arduous task of rebuilding had to be started all over again. Destruction from disasters of one type or the other presented many setbacks for Antigua.

In 1702 cross streets were laid by the military, a market was built and the town of St. John's was born. A clerk for the market was appointed who was also to be the public crier. Town wardens whose duty was to assess houses and land were elected and a cage, pillory, stocks, whipping post and ducking stool were placed at the public's expense on the corner of what is now Market and Church Street. Night watches were also appointed to have the same power as watchmen in London and a watch house built in this convenient spot.

The following four years were particularly noteworthy in the history of colonial administration when Antiguan's reigned as one of the most controversial governors in the island, Daniel Parke. Parke's behavior and private life turned out to be arbitrary and extreme. Before he had held his government post for twelve months, articles of impeachment were prepared and forwarded to England. Parke never returned to England in spite of being recalled by Queen Anne. His end came at a standoff between soldiers he had quartered at the Government House and the planters. He was shot in the leg and subsequently died.

St. John's second church was built on the site where Parke was murdered.

In 1747 Peter Harrison, a Yorkshire architect, designed and started work on the St. John's Courthouse. He was also responsible for designing and building many important buildings in Jamaica and the East Coast of America. The courthouse eventually housed the Legislative Council and when not in official use, dances and other social functions were staged there. Notable celebrities such as Prince William IV and Horatio Nelson were entertained in that building. Today, it is used as the Museum for Antigua's Historical and Archaeological Society.

A most dreadful town fire occurred in 1769 when an unattended coal pot set a building ablaze. Two hundred and sixty houses were leveled to the ground and two thirds of St. John's was destroyed.

In 1801 a proposal for the construction of a Government House slated to be the Governor's residence was adopted. Previously he'd resided in rented homes. Unfortunately, this stately home fell into disrepair some years back but today, a private society (along the government) raised funds to have the building restored.

The barracks east of the town was converted to a prison. The year 1735 remains inscribed above its portals. Progress continued in 1830 as the first library in the British West Indies was established in St. John's as a private venture. It was later taken over by the Government and run by a Board of Trustees. Part of this prison is still in use today but suffered massive damage in 1999.

In August 1834, a proclamation was read in the city emancipating all the slaves of Antigua. Eight years later St. John's was raised to the dignity of a 'city' when the diocese was established. In fact, every year, a week long carnival is held in celebration of the Emancipation. It's a time of revelry and abandon. Always ready to celebrate, Antiguan's make no bones about it. The spirit of the Antiguan today reflects that of happiness and contentment.

As the city progressively grew, the first batch of indentured laborers from Madeira arrived at St. John's. The General Post Office, London opened a branch in St. John's in 1850. The island enjoyed even more progress when, in 1867, a reservoir was built at Gray's Hill just outside St. John's to supply the city with pipe-borne water. The reservoir itself was fed from a dam at Wallings.

Finally, in 1981 Antigua was granted full independence from Great Britain while retaining its Commonwealth status.

Despite fires, riots and chronic hurricanes, the town of St. John's managed to keep its history in check. Although most of the original buildings are long gone, there are still a few homes and establishments in St. John's which represent its historic era. The St. John's Cathedral and the Courthouse are pinnacles of that time.

Perhaps the most condensed Antiguan architecture and history has been best maintained in the preservation of what is now Redcliffe Quay. A former baracoon where slaves were kept prior to sale, Redcliffe Quay reflects the genesis of the country as a people.

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