Early Times to the 17th Century
The first permanent settlers were an Amerindian tribe called Siboney who came to the area around 2900 BC. They were followed by the Arawaks who arrived around the 1st century AD and called Antigua ‘Wadadli,’ a name still used today. Around AD 1200 the Arawaks were forced out by invading Caribs, who used the islands as bases for their forays in the region, but apparently didn’t settle them.
Columbus sighted Antigua in 1493 and named it after a church in Seville, Spain. In 1632 the British colonized Antigua, establishing a settlement at Parham, on the east side of the island. The settlers started planting indigo and tobacco, but a glut in the supply of those crops soon drove down prices, leaving growers looking for something new.
Colonial Times to the Present
In 1674 Sir Christopher Codrington arrived on Antigua and established the first sugar plantation, Betty’s Hope. By the end of the century, a plantation economy had developed, huge numbers of slaves were imported, and the central valleys were deforested and planted with cane. Britain had annexed Barbuda in 1628 and granted it to the Codrington family in 1680. After the slave trade was abolished in 1807, the Codringtons established a 'slave breeding farm' on Barbuda, which remained in operation until slavery as such was abolished in 1834. In 1860 Barbuda reverted back to the Crown and became a dependency of Antigua.
As Antigua prospered, the British built numerous fortifications around the island, turning it into one of their most secure bases in the Caribbean. The most heavily fortified area was English Harbour, where the Caribbean fleet of the British Royal Navy was based from 1725 until 1854. What is today’s Nelson’s Dockyard was continually expanded and improved throughout the 18th century. Other forts were Fort James and Fort Barrington who protected the harbor of St John’s.
With the abolition of slavery, the plantations went into a steady decline. Unlike on some other Caribbean islands, the land was not turned over to former slaves when the plantations went under, but was instead consolidated under the ownership of a few landowners. Many former slaves moved off the plantations and into shantytowns, while others crowded onto properties held by the church.
Road to Independence
A military-related construction boom during WWII, and the development of a tourist industry during the postwar period, helped spur economic growth. A first step in Antigua's road to independence was the West Indies Act of 1967 in which Britain granted the island control over domestic issues while retaining responsibility for external issues and defense. Finally, on November 1, 1981, Antigua and Barbuda became an independent state within the British Commonwealth with Vere Cornwall Bird as its first prime minister.