The first inhabitants of Antigua, around 2400 B.C., were the Ciboney (“Stone People”). Arawaks from South America followed around 2000 years ago, but were driven off the island around 1200 A.D. by the fierce Caribs from South America. The Caribs are said to have given the island the name “Wadladi,” still in use today and also the name of the local brew.
The first European to arrive here was Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage in 1493. He christened the island “Santa Maria la Antigua” after the miracle-working saint of Seville. It would take a century and a half for the Europeans (Spanish, Portuguese, and then English) to finally put down a settlement that the Caribs didn’t destroy. The English settlement was founded in 1632 in the south of the island, in an area now called “Old Road.”
Early attempts at tobacco production proved unsuccessful. In 1684 Sir Christopher Codrington came to Antigua with the goal of large-scale sugar production, which was quite successful. Huge numbers of slaves were brought to the island to support this new industry. By the mid-1700s, the island was home to more than 150 sugar cane plantations. Each had its own cane-processing windmill, and you can see many of these stone towers today, serving as houses, bars, restaurants, and shops. Betty’s Hope is Codrington’s original sugar estate, where visitors can see a fully-restored sugar mill.
The slaves were formally freed in 1834, the earliest abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean; however, without an apprenticeship period, many of the slaves had no choice but to return to the same estates for very low wages. The sugar industry had already begun to decline as cheaper sources of sugar became available in Europe. Antiguans struggled until the tourism industry began to develop more than a century later.
Vere Cornwall Bird is probably the only national hero Antigua ever had. In 1943, he was elected president of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union, and from that time he led the island through the various stages of independence, culminating on November 1, 1981 when the nation became fully independent. Bird retired as Prime Minister in 1994, and was succeeded by his son Lester. V.C. Bird died in 1998, but his name lives on throughout the island including the airport, which is named after him.