Most Antiguan people are of African lineage, descendants of slaves brought to the island centuries ago to labour in the sugarcane fields. The first settlements, dating from about 2400 B.C., were those of the Siboney people (an Arawak word meaning "stone-people"). Beautifully crafted shell and stone tools have been found at dozens of sites around the island. Long after the Siboney had moved on, Antigua was settled by the pastoral, agricultural Arawaks (35-1100 A.D.); the first well documented group of people that paddled to the Island from present-day Venezuela.


The Arawaks were eventually displaced by the Caribs -an aggressive people who ranged all over the Caribbean. Their superior weapons and prowess enabled them to defeat most Arawak nations in the West Indies. The earliest European contact with the island was made by Christopher Columbus during his second Caribbean voyage (1493), who visited the island in passing and named it after Santa Maria la Antigua, the miracle-working saint of Seville. European settlement didn't occur for over a century, largely because of Antigua's scarcity of fresh water and determined Carib resistance. Finally, in 1632, a group of Englishmen from St. Kitts established a successful settlement, and in 1684 the island’s sugar era began.


Sir Christopher Codrington arrived on Antigua in 1632 from St Kitts. An enterprising Englishman, Codrington had come to Antigua to find out if the island would support the sort of large-scale sugar cultivation, a worthwhile trip that saw Antigua’s history take a dramatic turn from the community of indigenous people to a profitable sugar colony. Over the next fifty years sugar cultivation on Antigua exploded and by the middle of the 18th century the island was dotted with more than 150 cane-processing windmills. Today almost 100 of these picturesque stone towers remain in the form of houses, bars, restaurants and shops.

But Antigua had more than sugar to offer; its geographical position offered control over the major sailing routes to and from the region's rich island colonies. Horatio Nelson arrived in 1784 to develop the British naval facilities at English Harbour and to enforce stringent commercial shipping laws. The first of these two tasks resulted in construction of Nelson's Dockyard, one of Antigua's finest physical assets; the latter a rather hostile attitude toward the young captain. Nelson spent almost all of his time in the cramped quarters of his ship, declaring the island to be a "vile place". Serving under Nelson at the time was the future King William IV, for whom the more pleasant accommodation of Clarence House was built- and can occasionally be visited today. Most of the island's historical sites, from its many ruined fortifications to the impeccably-restored architecture of English Harbourtown, are reminders of colonial efforts to ensure its safety from invasion.


It was during King William's reign, in 1834, that Britain abolished slavery in the empire. Antigua freed slaves immediately rather than a four-year 'apprenticeship,' or waiting period and were alone in doing this among the British Caribbean colonies. Antigua's Carnival festivities commemorate the earliest abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean.


Emancipation actually improved the island's economy, but the sugar industry of the British islands was already beginning to wane and Antiguans struggled for prosperity until the development of tourism and popularity of the islands as a luxury Caribbean escape. The rise of a strong labour movement in the 1940s, under the leadership of V.C. Bird, provided the energy for independence. In 1967, Antigua (Barbuda and the tiny island of Redonda as dependencies) became an associated state of the Commonwealth, and in 1981 it achieved full independent status. V.C. Bird is now deceased; his son, Lester B. Bird, was elected to succeed him as prime minister.