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Antigua and Barbuda became officially independent on 1 November 1981, ending over 350 years of British rule. This module provides an overview of the key events on Antigua and Barbuda' road to independence.

Road to Independence

The first inhabitants were the Siboney, who can be dated back to 2400 BC. Arawaks settled subsequently, around the 1st century CE. The Caribs arrived later, but abandoned Antigua around the 16th century, due to the shortage of fresh water. Christopher Columbus sighted the larger island in 1493, and named it after a church in Seville, Santa Maria de la Antigua. After unsuccessful attempts at colonisation by the Spaniards and French, Antigua was colonised by Sir Thomas Warner in 1632, while Sir Christopher Codrington settled in Barbuda. Antigua formally became a British colony in 1667. Britain annexed Barbuda in 1628; while in 1680, Charles II granted the island to the Codrington family, who held it until 1860, in which year it was annexed to Antigua. As the only Caribbean island under British rule to possess a good harbour, Antigua was the dockyard for the British West Indies, used by the Royal Navy from 1725 until 1854.

Sugar succeeded tobacco as the chief crop and led to the importation of enslaved Africans to work on the highly profitable estates, many of which carried their names (Vernon, Gunthropes, Duers, Parry, Cochran and Winthorpe). Later Africans were brought to provide slave labour to work on these estates. In 1728 there was a small uprising and in 1736, a major slave rebellion was claimed to be uncovered. The three ring leaders – Court, Tomboy and Hercules – were ‘broken’ on the wheel and some 80 others were brutally executed. After the abolition of the slave trade (1807), the Codringtons established a big ‘slave-farm’ on Barbuda, where children were bred to supply the region’s unpaid labour force, until slaves were emancipated in Antigua on 1 August 1834. Freed slaves continued to provide cheap labour for the owners of the sugar estates well into the twentieth century. Many villages were established when the freed slaves moved away from their former masters’ estates, including Freetown and Liberta (or liberty village).

In 1846, the Assembly voted to import Portuguese workers from Madeira and the Cape Verde Islands, and around 2,000 arrived as replacement labour over the next nine years. Just after the start of the next century, several traders from Lebanon arrived on the islands and settled there.

In early 1918, the planters attempted to exploit the workers by changing the method of paying for cane at the factory, resulting in the 9 March 1918 riot.  Many people were killed and injured during the disturbances, forcing the planters to reverse their decision on cane payment.

Demand for self-determination developed in parallel with a concern to create political and economic linkages with other small Caribbean countries. The Trade Union (labour) movement became the main focus of political development, and gathered strength during the economically troubled mid-years of the 20th century. Vere C Bird formed the country’s first trade union in 1939, and later became leader of the Antigua Labour Party (ALP).

The first elections under universal adult suffrage took place in 1951, and were won by the ALP. The country joined the West Indies Federation at formation in 1958; this arrangement replaced the earlier Leeward Islands federal grouping of which Antigua and Barbuda had been part. The West Indies Federation collapsed in 1962 – too late to revive the old Leeward Islands federation, since most of the eligible Eastern Caribbean countries were in the process of moving towards independence.

In 1961 Bird was appointed to fill the newly created position of chief minister. Five years later, he led a delegation to London to consider the issue of Antiguan independence. Following a constitutional conference, Antigua became an associated state in February 1967, under the West Indies Act (1967) with Barbuda and the tiny island of Redonda as dependencies. Antigua was internally independent, but its foreign affairs and defense still were controlled by the UK.

The ALP was ousted at the next elections in 1971 by the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM), led by George Walters. Both parties had their roots in the labour movement; the main difference at that time was that the PLM was campaigning for early independence, while the ALP wanted stronger economic foundations to be developed first. The ALP returned to power at the 1976 elections.

Following their landslide victory in the 24 April 1980 general election, regarded as a popular mandate on independence, another constitutional conference was held in London in December 1980. An obstacle to achieving independence was the issue of Barbudan secession; this barrier was overcome when a compromise was reached that made Barbuda relatively autonomous internally.

Bird led the country to full independence on Sunday, 1 November 1981, when the flag of the new nation of Antigua and Barbuda was raised for the first time as the country became a fully sovereign and independent state. At the stroke of midnight on 31 October 1981, the Union Jack was lowered from the flagpole at the St. John's Recreation Ground, and replaced by the new Antigua and Barbuda flag. Church bells pealed, fireworks lit up the skies, and guns boomed from three British warships and one ship each from the United States and Venezuela which sailed into St. John's, the capital, to salute the new nation. Princess Margaret, appearing on behalf of her sister, Queen Elizabeth II, presented the instruments of state to new Prime Minister Vere Cornwall Bird. Sir Wilfred Jacobs become the country's first Governor-General.

Other dignataries at the independence ceremony were Prime Minister Edward Seaga of Jamaica, and Canada's Secretary of State Geral Regan. The United States was represened by a 14-member delegation headed by Deputy Secretary of State William P. Clark Jr.

As part of the independence celebrations, Bird dedicated a Canadian-financed airport terminal with Canada's Secretary of State, Gerald Regan.

The new constitution of Antigua and Barbuda established the country as a constitutional monarchy which recognises Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. She is represented by a Governor-General appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister. The 1981 constitution also allowed for a bicameral legislature - a Senate and a House of Representatives.

With independence, the new state became the 157th member of the United Nations and the newest member of the Commonwealth. Antigua and Barbuda joined the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States at its formation in 1981.

Meaning of Independence

Antigua and Barbuda becoming an independent nation, now meant that Britain, no longer controlled the affairs of the country. It was now the responsibility of the newly elected Prime Minister and the locally elected Cabinet. Independence also meant that a Constitution, symbols, emblems, an army, and passports had to be developed for the country. As an independent nation, Antigua and Barbuda assigns Ambassadors overseas who represent the country. They sign treaties on behalf of Antigua and Barbuda and become members of various international organisations. This is important, as it gives the country equal rights on various issues relating to international trade, policies and treaties.

Download The Antigua and Barbuda Constitution 1981
Download The Antigua and Barbuda Termination of Association Order 1981
Download Recent Independence Addresses
Ebony, January 1982.
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