The Heritage and History of Antigua

By: Sarah Woods

August 28, 2014

A kaleidoscope of candy-hued colonial cottages and market stalls piled high with tropical fruits and blooms, the charm-packed capital city of St John’s is a great place to explore the rich heritage and history of Antigua. The bright-white Neo-Baroque cathedral’s distinctive 70ft cupola-topped towers loom high above the skyline (on Long Street). According to local lore, the carved figures of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist that adorn the iron entrance gate once adorned the masts of one of Napoleon’s ships – just one of many legends, myths and kooky Bonaparte superstitions spawned by the British Fleet during the Napoleonic Wars.
Antiguan Church | Heritage & History of Antigua
Charming Antiguan churches like this one litter the island ©

Navigating St John’s is easy, as it is laid out on a grid system that barely spans five square miles. By far the best way to experience the historical beauty and attractions of St John’s is to simply walk its streets: the main drag – Market Street – stretches from the West Bus Station north to High Street, the capital’s busiest point. West from here, the touristy area of Heritage Quay is popular with a lively cruise ship crowd – passengers disembark here for duty-free shopping and to haggle with street vendors over brightly painted ceramics, beaded jewellery and carved figurines. Nestled by the docks, beautiful Redcliffe Quay has been painstakingly restored and is one of Antigua’s ritziest addresses.

Panoramic view of Antigua | Heritage & History of Antigua
The island’s verdant hills offer an alternative, yet equally beautiful, view of Antigua’s natural beauty © Claudia-Z/iStock/Thinkstock

To dig deeper into the island’s treasure-trove history, head to the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, housed in St John’s 18th century former Court House. Umpteen exhibits, from artefacts and documents to archaeological finds and replica dwellings of Arawak Indians, trace the history of the islands from their geological origins and first inhabitants – the Siboney (“stone people”) of at least 2400 BC to the arrival of Columbus in Antigua in 1493, naming it after the Church of Santa Maria de la Antigua in Seville. The English, who ruled until 1967 except for a brief French occupation, first settled on the island in 1632. As with other colonial settlements in the Caribbean, it became a hub for sugar-cane production worked by imported African slaves before emancipation. In 1834, England abolished slavery in the British Empire with Antigua instituting immediate full emancipation rather than electing for a four-year phasing in. Today, the island’s vibrant Carnival festivities commemorate the earliest abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean. In Antigua, mementoes of the past remain scattered across the island, from military relics, slave dungeons and disused sugar plantations to old artillery quarters, barracks, gun platforms, stables, cannon-topped fortified ramparts and flagstaffs  – a total tally of 334 historical monuments that are easy for visitors to sightsee.

Nelson's Dockyard | Heritage & History of Antigua
Nelson’s Dockyard is the island’s most famous landmark ©

As one of Antigua’s most iconic attractions, Nelson’s Dockyard National Park in English Harbour is a much-photographed landmark and home to Antigua’s former 18th-century British Naval Dockyard. Lord Nelson, a zealous Naval Officer and the famous British hero of Trafalgar (1805), was here as a 27-year-old Senior Captain – under his guidance the Dockyard’s main function was to maintain and careen ships, thus saving the long and potentially perilous voyage to America. Prince William Henry, the Duke of Clarence (who later became King William IV), was a captain under Lord Nelson and was stationed at the handsome residence of Clarence House, set overlooking the dockyard.

Falmouth bay and English Harbour | Heritage & History of Antigua
Shirley Heights offers great views of Falmouth Bay and English Harbour © Cornel Stefan Achirei/iStock/Thinkstock

As well as restored historic buildings and some of the island’s best nature trails, the site’s beautiful old stone warehouses – now home to hotels, restaurants, shops and galleries – portray a rich seafaring history that is compellingly told in detail at the Admiral’s House Museum and Dockyard Museum. Stepping through time is no gruelling slog in Antigua – the style is much more a leisurely stroll peppered with opportunities to soak up stunning views. One of the most memorable vistas is the panorama of the island from the hilltop ruins of Fort Shirley, perched atop Shirley Heights, which at about 490ft affords a jaw-dropping view of English and Falmouth Harbours. The remnants of the 18th century Fort James and Fort Barrington, built to protect St. John’s from the French, are also incredibly scenic – so be sure to keep a camera at the ready.

Fort James | Heritage & History of Antigua
Make sure you have your camera to hand if you plan on visiting Fort James ©

Header image © Merrilyanne/iStock/Thinkstock
Virgin Atlantic operates flights to Antigua from Gatwick. Book your flight today.

Sarah Woods

Sarah Woods

Award-winning travel writer, author & broadcaster Sarah Woods has lived, worked and travelled in The Caribbean since 1995. She has visited resort towns, villages and lesser-known islands where she has learned to cook run-down, sampled bush rum, traded coconuts, studied traditional medicine, climbed volcanoes and ridden horses in the sea. Sarah is currently working on a travel documentary about the history of Caribbean cruises.

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