February 11, 2016
When sugar cane was king in Antigua, the Betty’s Hope Estate was the island’s most important, and largest, plantation, with a handsome twin-mill that crushed and extracted at a phenomenal rate, powered by slave labour and trade winds.
Some one hundred years ago, the Betty’s Hope Sugar Plantation dominated a vast swathe of Antigua’s rural landscape. Rising out of limestone, and commanding three hundred and sixty-degree views across fields of tufted sugar cane, the Betty’s Hope Estate was one of Antigua’s most important agricultural operations. Thousands of slaves worked long, hard hours here, enduring extreme hardship in utterly exhausting conditions.
Whilst these uneducated workers slowly developed great skills as craftsmen, boilers and distillers, the masters enjoyed the sumptuous comforts of the well-appointed Great House. With its unusual twin mill towers, Betty’s Hope could crush a formidable volume of sugar cane and by the early 1800s it had been enhanced by a new super-efficient roller system that extracted even more juice from the cane. From daybreak to well into the night, the exploited the island’s steady winds to could crush a total of 120 -140 cartloads of cane (about four acres per day). This tallied up to an average of 200 tons of cane (around 5,500 gallons of syrup) in a week and about 12 tons of sugar crystals, a staggering output from a sail-powered operation propelled by a stiff breeze.
Constructed by Englishman Christopher Keynell, a planter and one-time Governor of Antigua, the property passed to Sir Christopher Codrington, who named it after his daughter. Throughout a 300-year history, Betty’s Hope played a prominent role in Antigua as its largest sugar production plant, helping to bring prosperity to the island and influencing the lives of many generations of Antiguans. The Codrington family became among the most influential and prosperous plantation owners: two successive Christopher Codringtons served as Governors General and later heirs were all highly successful planters. The mill became the island’s flagship estate and served as the seat for the Leeward Islands. When Condrington returned to England, attorneys managed the estate until the early 1900’s; the microfilm department at the National Archives in St John’s provides unique insight into the building’s fortunes during this time.
Today, Betty’s Hope and its restored windmill is a popular site for visitors, both local and international. Due to the fragility of the aged stone walls, the mill is no longer operational, but the museum provides a fascinating narrative to the role of the mill on the island. Archaeological research continues at the Betty’s Hope Estate as historians believe that recent excavations have only scratched the surface of this sophisticated industrial enterprise.
The restored ruins of Betty’s Hope is all that remains of the many, now non-existent, sugar plantations of Antigua, a building painstakingly conserved as part of the island’s colonial-era heritage for future study and interpretation. While the only surviving structures are two stone sugar mills and the remains of the stillhouse, the Antiguan government has developed it as an open-air museum to commemorate sugar production as the dynamo behind Antigua’s prosperity. The visitor’s centre – the Estate’s former cotton house storeroom – contains various historic mementoes, from early estate plans, pictures and maps to artefacts and a model of the central site. Open daily, 10am-4pm (US$ 2).
Virgin Atlantic operates flights to Antigua from London Heathrow, bringing Betty’s Hope within easy reach.
Written by Sarah Woods