Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua
When the British took control of Antigua in 1632, they transplanted their culture over the top of the Caribbean island.
When I visit today, it’s clear the Caribbean culture that has taken control of the British legacy. And, in one special night, I see this play out in glorious ebullience!
It’s not usual that I would visit a historical monument, an important piece of the island’s colonial story, a World Heritage Site… and find it being used as the stage for a raucous reggae concert!
I’m talking about Nelson’s Dockyard, on the edge of English Harbour in the southeast of Antigua. It’s probably the most important historical landmark in the country and the only site on the World Heritage List.
A brief history of Nelson’s Dockyard
The buildings here are from the 1740s and onwards. The complex at Nelson’s Dockyard was constructed along the waterside by the British to support their maritime activities.
The dockyard grew in importance over the years because of its location on English Harbour, which was deep and protected, making it perfect for a naval base for the British. So the site also grew, with buildings continuously added or improved – for offices, residences, storehouses, shops, and even for a hospital.
As the British ramped up their activities in the Caribbean and surrounding areas, the naval base and the dockyard became even more critical In the 1780s, it was used as a base by the famous British military leader, Horatio Nelson, after which it is now named.
Nelson’s Dockyard was eventually abandoned by the Royal Navy in 1889 and fell into disrepair, before the restoration effort began in the 1950s.
I wonder what those who pushed for the restoration more than 60 years ago would think of the sight that I arrive to.
Reggae in the Park in Antigua
As I come through the main gate of the outer protective wall, the sound hits me but I still can’t see the stage. Walking along the path, I see historic buildings on each side of me, some of them illuminated by coloured lights.
To my right, I recognise the former Naval Officer’s House from a photo – wooden with wraparound balconies on both storeys and palm trees out front. It’s now the Dockyard Museum but it’s closed tonight, with just a security guard at the front.
Further along, I’m able to peek into some of the other buildings that, although restored, have open interiors. The site is not particularly large and it doesn’t take long until I reach the water’s edge.
It’s from here that I get my first view of the stage. Jamaican-American performer Tarrus Riley is up there, singing with a large band behind him. In the long lawn in front of the stage, about a thousand people are dancing.
The music is great and the atmosphere in the crowd is happy. This is an annual event put on for Antigua Sailing Week called ‘Reggae in the Park’ but I think there are a lot more locals here than international visitors.
That’s what makes it so special. It’s an Antiguan event, with Caribbean music. It’s so full of life and the music is so fun, you can’t help but smile. And it’s all happening on a site created by the country’s former colonisers.
It’s not how I normally visit World Heritage Sites – but I love it.
Sunday night at Shirley Heights
The concert at Nelson’s Dockyard is only an annual event. However, on the other side of English Harbour at Shirley Heights, there’s a weekly celebration of life in Antigua.
Shirley Heights is part of the same World Heritage Site as Nelson’s Dockyard. It was a military complex, with a guard house, magazine and kitchen, quarters, parade ground, hospital and canteen.
It had two main functions. To protect the harbour and to signal other forts using a system of flags.
So, it’s no surprise when you know its function to discover that Shirley Heights has one of the best views in Antigua. The buildings on the edge of the lookout are where the party happens each week.
It’s called the Sunday Barbecue and it’s been going for more than 30 years. Between 4pm and 10pm, there are drinks and food for purchase. But most importantly, there is the incredible vista and the most glorious sunset you will see on the island.
And, as always, there is music. This time it’s a band of steel drums, playing a mixture of local Caribbean music and their own versions of Western hits.
Sunday night at Shirley Heights is one of the most popular weekly events for tourists and locals. And, to me, it’s another special example of how these historic and heritage-protected buildings can be given a fun new lease on life in a way that celebrates the local culture.
Another day, I find myself climbing up a hill to an old British fort on the coastline. Called Fort Barrington, it was built in 1779 to guard St John’s Harbour.
There’s nobody else here when I arrive. It’s a short but steep walk up to the ruins and then through the entranceway in the stone walls. There’s a powder magazine and two gun platforms left – sturdily built and not going anywhere. But the other structures that would once have been here have gone.
It’s not a huge compound these days but there’s enough to get a sense of how the men would have once sat up here, watching the horizon for enemy boats.
As it happens, Fort Barrington was the only military defence post on Antigua to see any action, when it was briefly captured by the French.
It’s interesting to see one of the old British colonial sites that’s empty, without a concert or a barbecue going on. It feels more historic, like relic from the past, not part of a history that’s been woven into modern day.
There are a couple of British sites in Antigua that I don’t get a chance to visit – Fort James, for instance. I know that there’s a push from the national government to restore them even further and then maybe push for another World Heritage Site listing.
Even though I can’t assess the heritage value, I do think it’s a good idea. The history is important and it has had a huge impact on what the country of Antigua and Barbuda is today.
Just as long as a few of these sites still have parties, I’ll be happy!
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Visit Antigua and Barbuda but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.