Antigua was first inhabited by the Siboney ("stone people") whose settlements date at least to 2400 BC. The Arawaks who originated in Venezuela and gradually migrated up the chain of islands now called the Lesser Antilles succeeded the Siboney. The warlike Carib people drove the Arawaks from neighboring islands but apparently did not settle on either Antigua or Barbuda.
Christopher Columbus landed on the islands in 1493 naming the larger one "Santa Maria de la Antigua." The English colonized the islands in 1632. Sir Christopher Codrington established the first large sugar estate in Antigua in 1674, and leased Barbuda to raise provisions for his plantations. Barbuda's only town is named after him. Codrington and others brought slaves from Africa's west coast to work the plantations.
Antiguan slaves were emancipated in 1834 but remained economically dependent on the plantation owners. Economic opportunities for the new freedmen were limited by a lack of surplus farming land, no access to credit, and an economy built on agriculture rather than manufacturing. Poor labor conditions persisted until 1939 when a member of a royal commission urged the formation of a trade union movement.
The Antigua Trades and Labor Union, formed shortly afterward, became the political vehicle for Vere Cornwall Bird who became the union's president in 1943. The Antigua Labor Party (ALP), formed by Bird and other trade unionists, first ran candidates in the 1946 elections and became the majority party in 1951 beginning a long history of electoral victories.
Voted out of office in the 1971 general elections that swept the progressive labor movement into power, Bird and the ALP returned to office in 1976 and the party has won renewed mandates in every subsequent election.
As a member of CARICOM, Antigua and Barbuda supported efforts by the United States to implement UN Security Council Resolution 940, designed to facilitate the departure of Haiti's de facto authorities from power. The country agreed to contribute personnel to the multinational force, which restored the democratically elected government of Haiti in October 1994.
During elections in March 1994, power passed from Vere Bird to his son, Lester Bird. In the last elections in March 1999, the ALP gained a 12-seat majority, while the opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) led by Baldwin Spencer retained four seats, and the Barbuda People's Movement (BPM) retained one seat.
Antigua and Barbuda's location close to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico makes it an attractive transshipment point for narcotics traffickers. To address these problems, the U.S. and Antigua and Barbuda have signed a series of counter-narcotic and counter-crime treaties and agreements, including a maritime law enforcement agreement (1995), subsequently amended to include overflight and
order-to-land provisions (1996); a bilateral extradition treaty (1996); and a mutual legal assistance treaty (1996).
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