The first settlements on Antigua date from about 2400 BC, and were composed of the Siboney (an Arawak word meaning ‘stone-people’), peripatetic Meso-Indians whose shell and stone tools have been found at dozens of sites around the island. Antigua was later settled by the pastoral, agricultural Arawaks (35-1100 AD), who were then displaced by the Caribs, an aggressive people who ranged all over the Caribbean. The earliest European contact with the island was made by Christopher Columbus during his second Caribbean voyage (1493), who sighted the island in passing and named it after Santa Maria la Antigua, the miracle-working saint of Seville. European settlement, however, did not occur for over a century, largely because of Antigua’s dearth of fresh water and abundance of determined Carib resistance. Finally, in 1632, a group of Englishmen from St Kitts established a successful settlement. Sir Christopher Codrington arrived in Antigua in 1684. He had come to Antigua to find out if the island would support the sort of large-scale sugar cultivation that already flourished elsewhere in the Caribbean. His initial efforts proved to be quite successful, and over the next 50 years sugar cultivation on Antigua exploded. By the middle of the 18th century there were more than 150 cane-processing windmills on the island, each the focal point of a sizeable plantation.
By the end of the 18th century Antigua had become an important strategic port as well as a commercial colony. Known as the ‘gateway to the Caribbean’, it was situated in a position that offered control over the major sailing routes to and from the region’s rich island colonies. Horatio Nelson arrived in 1784 at the head of the Squadron of the Leeward Islands to develop the British naval facilities at English Harbour and to enforce stringent commercial shipping laws. It was during King William IV’s reign, in 1834, that Britain abolished slavery in its empire. Antigua instituted immediate full emancipation rather than a 4-year ‘apprenticeship’ as in the other British Caribbean colonies. Emancipation actually improved the island’s economy, but the sugar industry of the British islands was already beginning to wane. Until the development of tourism in the past few decades, Antiguans struggled for prosperity. The rise of a strong labour movement in the 1940s, under the leadership of V.C. Bird, provided the impetus for independence. In 1967, with Barbuda and the tiny island of Redonda as dependencies, Antigua became an associated state of the Commonwealth, and in 1981 it gained independence as a unitary state, despite a strong campaign for separate independence by the inhabitants of Barbuda.