A travel guide to Antigua and Barbuda, a key to great nature and birdwatching sites on the islands. Part one of a four-part series.
- Four Days on Antigua, The Most Interesting Place on Earth (1/4)
- First Stop: Explore Barbuda by Land and Sea (2/4)
- Beyond the Bling: Explore the Heart of Antigua Through Birds (3/4)
- Mouthwatering Images of Caribbean Birds. Not to Miss! (4/4)
Understanding the Cultural Roots of Antigua
Antigua is Caribbean, one of the Leeward Islands in the northern Lesser Antilles. The Caribbean is named for the Carib Indians, who were neither from India nor called themselves Caribs. Leeward is pronounced with a long “e” when describing the islands, but when used in a nautical context (sailing a ship) is pronounced “lu-ard.” While on pronunciation, Antigua consists of three syllables (Ann-tee-gah,) not four.
Wonder where the word “Antilles” originated? Antilia is a mythical land seen on medieval charts floating mid-ocean between the Canary Islands and India. The Antilles are also called the West Indies. Columbus thought he had landed in India. We celebrate Columbus Day in the U.S. to mark his discovery of “our” New World. Columbus never saw India nor what is now the United States. Instead, the Americas that he discovered were islands in the Caribbean. The name America comes from Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian cartographer and explorer who decided that the land mass discovered by Columbus, rather than an Asian suburb, constituted an entirely new super continent.
European colonial powers, the megapoles, eliminated the native peoples of the Caribbean in short order, and repopulated the islands first with indentured workers and then with Africans brought in via the Middle Passage as chattel slaves. Sugar became the Caribbean surrogate for gold and silver from Terra Firma, and sugar cultivation and processing demanded an unquenchable supply of labor. Once the native and indentured labor dried up and died out, African slaves filled the gap.
According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, between the years 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were forcefully embarked on ships destined for the New World. Approximately 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage, disembarking in North America, the Caribbean, and South America. Only about 388,000 slaves were shipped directly to North America. The majority were destined for the Caribbean. Africa contributed the labor (albeit unwillingly), the Caribbean islands provided the raw materials, and Europe horded the wealth.
Why should any of this matter to a nature traveler? At one level, it doesn’t. Collecting stamps or Cabbage Patch dolls requires no knowledge of their origin. You can come to the Caribbean and never leave your ship or resort. But for those who are inquisitive, rather than acquisitive travelers, the Caribbean is the most interesting melting pot on earth.
Caribbean culture is a blend of Spanish, Dutch, Danish, English, Javan, East Indian, Taino, Arawak, Carib, French, Maroon, and African peoples who, out of inconceivable deprivation and hardship, gave rise to rich creole cultures rooted in island soils. Though many Europeans settlers experienced hardship, more often than not wealthy planters were the source of hardship for others. The planter class paled in numbers compared to slaves, free blacks, and the peasantry. Today’s cultures, the unique cuisines, music, art, dance, religions, and patois, are gifts from the poor, not the rich.
Antigua consists of two major islands (Antigua and Barbuda), with a scattering of numerous smaller islands punctuating the seascape. Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Kitts are close by. The islands of the Lesser Antilles are volcanic in origin, thrust upward by the collision of two tectonic plates, the Atlantic and the Caribbean. These volcanic islands have been submerged in the past, and are capped with limestone. Although a few, like Montserrat, are volcanically active, Antigua and Barbuda are low-lying, karst-covered islands showing little evidence of a violent past.
A nature traveler cannot escape Darwin in these islands. Since these islands were never connected to the mainland, the number of species is relatively small. The Caribbean is not a place to measure your travel dollars in “birds per buck.”
Yet while the Caribbean lacks numbers, it excels in singularity. Of the approximately 500 species of birds found in the Caribbean, more than 25% are endemic. Calisto butterflies, Anolis lizards, and land snails (almost 600 species in Jamaica alone) join the birds in manifesting the evolutionary forces so fundamental to island biodiversity.
See If You Go, below.