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One of the true gems of the Caribbean

Simon Cambers from Antigua

Roving Reporter by Simon Cambers in Antigua

The Nelson Dockyard: one of Antigua's finest assets © Wisden
Whether by design or by fortune - and let's face it, the chances are it's the latter - the huge influx of English people who have decended on the English Harbour area of Antigua have stumbled across one of the true gems of the Caribbean.
Situated on the south coast of an island covering only 108 square miles, English Harbour is a mecca for anyone with even a passing interest in sailing, with Admiral Nelson, who arrived in 1784, still the cause of much tourism in the area. More on that in a minute.
Antigua's history begins a long time before Mel Gibson, sorry, before Christ. The first inhabitants, the Siboney (or 'stone people') date back to 1775 B.C, while the first successful entrepreneurs, if you like, the Arawaks, came at the time of Christ.
Having reputedly paddled across from South America, the Arawaks introduced agriculture to the islands of Antigua and Barbuda, bringing with them a host of goods ranging from pineapples and tobacco to cotton. Most of them left in around 1100 A.D., but some stayed, only to be raided by the Caribs, not the producers of the local beer, but an Indian tribe based in Dominica, who ranged all over the Caribbean.
The earliest European contact with the island was made when Christopher Columbus skirted the island during his second Caribbean voyage in 1493. Columbus was the man responsible for the name Antigua, after Santa Maria la Antigua, the miracle-working saint of the Spanish city of Seville.
The Caribs held firm for more than a century, however. In 1632, a group of Englishmen from St. Kitts arrived to begin European settlement and after a brief invasion by the French, Antigua became under England's power once again in 1666. In 1684, with the arrival of Sir Christopher Codrington, the island entered the sugar era.
Codrington's initial efforts proved to be quite successful and over the next fifty years sugar cultivation exploded so much that by the middle of the 18th century the island boasted more than 150 cane-processing windmills. Eat your heart out Holland. Almost 100 of them remain today, although they have changed tack somewhat, becoming restaurants and bars. So valuable was sugar to Antigua that a total of 40 forts were built around the island between 1672 and 1815 in an effort to protect their crops, with a huge slave trade developing in the process.
By the end of the 18th Century, Antigua had become an important strategic port. Known as the "gateway to the Caribbean," it offered control over the major sailing routes to and from the region's rich island colonies, and here's where Nelson and English Harbour come in.
Horatio Nelson arrived in 1784 at the head of the squadron of the Leeward Islands to develop the British naval facilities at English Harbour - seen as a good shelter from hurricanes - and to enforce stringent commercial shipping laws. Senior Naval Officer of HMB Boreas, Nelson oversaw the building of Nelson's Dockyard, which was regarded as one of Antigua's finest assets. The Admiral also indulged in a squabble with the United States when he tried to enforce the Navigation Acts, prohibiting trade with the newly formed country.
Because most people in Antigua depended on this trade, this made Nelson rather unpopular. Not content with this inspired piece of public relations, Nelson spent most of his time cramped inside his ship, where he was remorselessly attacked by mosquitos, causing him to label the area an 'infernal hole.'
The future King William IV, who was among those serving under Nelson, was much more popular and it was under his reign, in 1834, that Britain abolished slavery in the empire. Partly because of this, the sugar industry declined in the 1850s and although historians claim emancipation actually improved Antigua's economy, the islanders struggled for much of the next century.
After the rise of a strong labour movement in the 1940s under the leadership of V.C. Bird, Antigua became an associated state of the Commonwealth in 1967, and in 1981 it achieved full independent status. Today, tourism thrives on the island, with English Harbour the focal point for those with a sense of history, with several fine hotels and restaurants built out of the old naval dock yard materials.
A huge yachting event in the last full week of April draws the best sailors from around the world, and even crusty old Nelson would be proud of those people who travel to see where he cocooned himself in the late 18th century.
Simon Cambers is covering England's tour of West Indies for Reuters