The future has never looked brighter for Antigua’s past. Janet Kipling meets two inspirational people who are fighting to save the island’s heritage
“It’s who we are as Antiguans. It’s what makes us unique and what makes us similar. History is not in books – it’s out there.” So says Dr Reg Murphy, Director of Heritage Resources for National Parks Antigua, who has been working tirelessly for decades to uncover, understand and preserve his island’s history, and to encourage other people to cherish it. There is little local legislation to protect historic buildings in Antigua, so it’s a constant struggle. But the effort is beginning to pay off. The past few years have seen a swathe of restoration projects completed and, in 2016, UNESCO World Heritage designation was awarded to Nelson’s Dockyard. As such, there has never been a better time to delve into Antigua’s rich past.
Unearthing a passion
A former building contractor, Reg became fascinated with the artefacts he found on construction sites – everything from Arawak pottery to military buttons, bottles, tobacco pipes, sometimes even an old cannon. He began working with Desmond Nicholson, the godfather of historical research and documentation in Antigua, whom Reg credits for encouraging his interest. Indeed, so deep did Reg’s passion run that in the early 1990s he gave up his work in the building trade to obtain his Masters degree and a PhD in anthropology and archaeology. And in 2011 he became President of the Antigua & Barbuda Historical and Archaeological Society.
Reg’s first major historical project, back in the 1980s, was Betty’s Hope. One of the oldest and largest sugar estates on Antigua, Betty’s Hope was created in 1650 and named after the daughter of the Captain General of the Leeward Islands, Christopher Codrington. Unusually, it had two windmills for crushing the cane and extracting the juice. The stone towers of the mills had survived, and Reg searched all over the island, eventually collecting enough pieces of metal to assemble a single mechanism for a working mill. Betty’s Hope opened as a visitor attraction in 1994.
“There are mills all over the island in various stages of preservation or disrepair,” says Reg. “People think they’re water towers – even local people who might drive past them every day. I felt it was important that people should really understand what our history is and why they are there.”
Hacking through history
An interest in the mills, and the work of Desmond Nicholson, has also driven Agnes Meeker. A sixth-generation Antiguan, Agnes is the person you go to if you want something done. She was the driving force behind the island’s first hospice, former President of the Antigua & Barbuda Historical and Archaeological Society, chairman of the Museum of Antigua & Barbuda, and has spent decades putting together thick files of notes on all the sugar mills from the various estates around the island. At long last, the result of this work is destined for publication.
“Desmond started to document the existing mills in the 1990s,” says Agnes. “I took over in 1997. There were around 200 estates originally, but ownership tended to change quickly, because Antigua’s erratic water supply made it an extremely tough life, and many mills ended up being merged. There are only 110 discernible mills now, and I have been to all of them.”
Like Reg, Agnes is a firm believer that history is ‘out there’. Literally hacking her way through dense bush to reach these stone windmill towers, she’s amassed the only complete photographic record to be undertaken. “The drought in the 1990s helped,” she observes. “A lot of bush died, so it was easy to get to the mills. Now many have been swallowed up again and can’t be seen any more.”
The first printed volume detailing the story of each mill by parish is currently in production, along with a smartphone app that history-seekers will be able to use to pinpoint the locations of the mills.
How has Agnes found the energy for this long project? “I’ve kept going because it’s exciting,” she says. “People come to Antigua all the time to research, and they usually find their way to me. Items continue to surface, mainly in private papers stashed in attics. Someone dies and people find them. They’re scattered all over the world; I’d like to see them all collected in one place.”
There’s no doubting that Antigua has history worth protecting – not least the best-preserved Georgian dockyard in the Caribbean. When the first ship sailed into the tranquil waters of what’s now called Nelson’s Dockyard, the sailors’ spirits must have soared. Sheltered from hurricanes and easy to defend, it was the ideal spot for repairing the British ships that were safeguarding the West Indian sugar trade. Admittedly, not everyone was enthusiastic; English naval hero Horatio Nelson, later the victor at the Battle of Trafalgar, famously dubbed it a ‘vile hole’ – indeed, during his three years there he wrote numerous letters home expressing his dislike of the cramped conditions and mosquitoes. He couldn’t have foreseen that the site would later be named in his honour.
The dockyard was created in the 1720s, but declined with the sugar industry and closed in 1889. However, many of the buildings, which were built by enslaved Africans using bricks imported as ballast on slave ships, proved able to withstand neglect. The dockyard was restored in the 1950s; today you can visit the Naval Officer’s House, the officers’ quarters, the Sail Loft and even the old Dockyard Bakery, which is once again making fresh bread.
Reg began the daunting task of securing UNESCO designation for the site six years ago. “It was already in a national park, but the buildings needed help to protect them,” says Reg. “The process was rigorous. We had to show that ten criteria were fulfilled illustrating how people have used this unique natural environment. That was easy: first it was the planters, then the British Navy and now the global yachting community. But compiling all the maps, diagrams and plans for the future was daunting. We got a visit from the inspectors, then myself and two colleagues flew to Paris to be grilled. After our slide show there were no questions – then they applauded! They said it was the perfect site and the best presentation they’d ever seen.”
The UNESCO protection also covers the forts surrounding the dockyard, such as the tourist must-see of Shirley Heights. Nearby Galleon Beach also features. It’s another spot popular with visitors but it wasn’t until a hurricane in 2010 uncovered human remains here that its dark past was revealed. The subsequent archaeological dig, led by Reg, established that the palm-fringed beach was actually the graveyard of numerous British sailors who died from yellow fever.
UNESCO designation, which also protects sites such as India’s Taj Mahal, the Great Barrier Reef and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, now means this whole area cannot be touched. “This is really important,” says Reg. “Anyone in Antigua buying land with a historical building on it can knock it down and reuse the stones. At least now, in this area, they can’t do that.”
On the rails
At the same time, Agnes was working on another project. Her father had been the manager of the massive Gunthorpes Sugar Factory, which received its deliveries of cane from locomotives running on a network of railways around the island. When Antigua’s sugar industry finally collapsed in the 1960s, the factory closed and the rolling stock was abandoned to the bush – until, that is, Agnes helped to organise a rescue mission.
The locos were in a lamentable condition and needed specialist help. Step forward railway buff and winter Antigua visitor Lawrence Gameson, who runs a metal components factory in the UK. Replacement parts were specially commissioned, and four locos were painstakingly restored by Lawrence and fellow railway enthusiast Doug Luery, who lives in Antigua and not only documented every locomotive but was also responsible for saving several by storing them away.
Now, the four locos are on display at the Museum of Antigua & Barbuda in St John’s. Among them is ‘Bessie’, the only surviving 1917 Simplex First World War armoured locomotive, which saw service in the British Trench Railways in France. After the war she was sold to the Antigua Sugar Factory for £622.
In Antigua, there’s always another neglected building to bring to life, another slice of the past to uncover and document. Agnes will be working on the second and third volumes of the sugar mills directory, while nursing a dream of restoring the derelict factory into an open-air walk-through museum exploring 300 years of sugar history. Reg has just started a project to extract soil samples from two sites at Indian Creek occupied by Arawaks 2,000 years ago. He hopes to find out how and why they lived in this arid spot. Then there are four shipwrecks deep in the water of Nelson’s Dockyard to survey, including a French frigate captured in 1758.
Both Reg and Agnes have been recognised for their passion and commitment. Reg was awarded the Grand Officer of the Most Precious Order of Princely Heritage (GOH) by the Government of Antigua & Barbuda; Agnes was given an Order of Merit and MBE. Their dedication is all the more remarkable in the face of considerable pressure to build new and keep the past in the past. For, of course, at every turn, Antigua’s history is linked with slavery – a history some say is best left behind.
“The terrible times have gone,” says Agnes. “It’s done, it’s finished. But to deny all of it would be foolish. People have to know where they came from to know where they’re going.”
For Reg, himself of African and Irish descent, it is a matter of honouring those who suffered such unimaginable fates: “I see a lot of work by people that were slaves. And this work shows considerable skill, knowledge and quality. I hear them saying: ‘this is my art, this is what I do, I’m going to leave something important to tell our story’. They have left something for us. They are not forgotten. We can’t go back. But we can learn the lessons by reading the clues, and know where we want to go.”