“Think of me tonight with a woman in my arms and a bottle of rum in my belly,” said William Clarke to his fellow seamen in Antigua’s English Harbour as he left the Rattler in 1786. Two weeks later, this “partied-out” sailor was recovered in a drunken state; his court martial was held aboard the frigate Boreas with its commander, Horatio Nelson, presiding. Clarke was sentenced to hang for his behaviour, but was spared by Nelson at the last minute.
Stories about English Harbour roll off the tongue of Antigua’s resident historian, Desmond Nicholson. His painstaking research has helped to revive the rich history of English Harbour and the Dockyard named after England’s naval hero, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. Visitors to Antigua can wander through the old military buildings: officers’ quarters, the hospital, the blacksmith’s shop, the galley and kitchen, the stores. The complex also includes hotels, restaurants and boutiques, and a fine museum.
Nicholson recommends starting at Dow’s Hill Centre, above the dockyard. It provides an introduction to Antigua’s development and the 15 square miles of Nelson’s Dockyard National Park. A multi-media show takes visitors on a 15-minute audio- visual tour through six periods of Antigua’s past, from pre-history to the present day. Admission is EC$10, and the proceeds are used for continuing restoration.
For restoration is never complete, says Nicholson. Researcher, archaeological collector, historical consultant and museum founder, a sturdy man in his tall frame, he breezes about English Harbour and the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, where he serves as Research Director, like a man half his age.
Though academically untrained, Nicholson’s appetite for facts has uncovered historical and archaeological information that has been published and presented at professional conferences. Serious about his work but with a keen sense of humour, he has seen the dockyard transformed from abandoned ruins to a vast open-air museum.
Desmond Nicholson first sailed into English Harbour in 1949, aged 23, with his parents and brother Rodney. At the helm was his father Commander Nicholson who, as a naval officer, had patrolled the Caribbean for German warships during World War II.
Post-war England was hard for men coming out of the military in search of work, so the Nicholsons set out to start life anew aboard the family’s 70-foot schooner Mollihawk. Thinking they might sail on to Australia, they decided to refit their yacht in English Harbour, just as English sailing vessels had done two centuries before in the fiercely protected naval yard built for the maintenance and protection of His Majesty’s ships.
In its day, English Harbour offered British warships a safe place to wait out hurricanes. With deep water close to shore, it was an ideal place for careening, the business of hauling down the ship’s mast so the keel could be exposed for repair and painting. The dockyard also saved England the expense and danger of having to sail to the North American colonies for refitting.
The harbour was first used during the late 17th century; the first buildings were erected in 1725, and it officially became a royal dockyard. In 1745 the naval yard was expanded to the west of the harbour where storehouses and other service facilities were added. The dockyard’s importance reached its peak between 1775 and 1810, the time of the Napoleonic wars. From 1815, it gradually diminished, and in 1889 the navy left. The new steamships were too long for the harbour: the yard was formally closed.
While refitting their yacht in the abandoned dockyard, the Nicholsons found some “nuggets on the shore” in the form of wealthy American tourists who wanted to be transported through the islands. “So we started taking people boozing, cruising, snoozing down the islands, and that’s how we started our charter business,” said Nicholson. Word travelled, and their charters became popular, so the Nicholsons stayed in English Harbour, living and operating out of the old Paymaster’s House. Soon they became agents for other yachts such as the Freelance, which Nicholson calls “the romance ship” because he met his wife Lisa on it. “I married my charterer’s daughter,” he says with a pirate’s whisper.
The Nicholson charter business brought English Harbour alive again, and this led to the gradual process of restoration. In the early 1950s visiting yachts were encouraged to stay in the harbour instead of sailing on to St. John’s: the governor, Earl Baldwin, arranged for skippers to travel by taxi to the capital to clear customs.
Baldwin’s successor, Kenneth Blackburn, aiming to make the harbour a sailing ship port again, formed the Friends of English Harbour. The group raised money to restore and preserve the old dockyard buildings with help from influential supporters in England, such as Lady Churchill who became chairperson of the repair fund. Princess Margaret and Prince Philip were among the patrons.
Commander Nicholson became the first restoration supervisor, and in 1960 the dockyard had enough services to be re-opened. Among the guests at the ceremony were Sir Anthony Eden, Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Hailes, the Barbados Prime Minister Sir Grantley Adams, MP Hugh Fraser, and singer Marian Anderson. That year there were visits to the dockyard by Princess Margaret (on her honeymoon) and Sir Winston Churchill.
In 1969 the Antigua Slipway, capable of hauling out schooners up to 16 tons, was installed. Today the thriving dockyard can repair anything from the smallest dinghy to the largest of wooden ships; its services include electronics, refrigeration, woodworking and sail making, as well as shops and tourist attractions, all housed in the historic dockyard structures.
As new life was being breathed into the dockyard, Nicholson developed a broader involvement with the island’s history and archaeology. He retired from the charter business in 1985 to become the first Executive Director of the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda.
Located in the St John’s courthouse, which dates from 1750, the museum traces the nation’s history from 10,000 years ago –including the islands’ formation and first Amerindian settlers – through to the present day. “I had so many artifacts all over the house,” says Nicholson, “that my wife wouldn’t live with me any longer unless I got rid of them.”
Nicholson feels that archaeological artifacts don’t just benefit museums: they enhance a development site. The treatment of the treasures still lying under the surface of Nelson’s Dockyard pains him. “We’ve had bulldozers roaming over the whole park without any archaeological plan,” he complains. In a report to the International Congress for Caribbean Archaeology in June 1993, he noted the accidental discovery of two archaeological sites within the harbour, neither of which had been properly excavated.
The bulldozing of land for a house site overlooking the dockyard in 1980 uncovered a midden, or garbage dump, for the old naval hospital. Members of the Historical and Archaeological Society of Antigua and Barbuda, of which Nicholson is president, succeeded in stopping the operation for one day to recover artifacts; but without national antiquity laws to press the case, nothing more could be done, and the site disappeared.
About the same time, a dredging operation in the harbour in an area known as Tank Bay brought up valuable artifacts from the mud. A series of pulley wheels for hoisting sails provided enlightening information on technological development; other finds included ship chandlery materials, gun furnitures, and a 200-year-old rope made from fibrous husks of coconuts, naturally buoyant and resistant to rot.
From the hospital midden, which was dated 1780-1820, came two “widow’s teapots” that were inspired by the Biblical story from Kings (chapter 18), a ceramic pot used for preparing lead salt for antiseptic use (pity the poor patients!), vials marked with “devil’s claw” government emblems, and chamber pots of glazed redware produced in Barbados.
Nicholson’s research into historic references to the naval hospital have brought to light some of the hardships endured by sailors stationed in the dockyard. They include the widespread malignant fever of 1793 that was believed to have been brought ashore in seamen’s bedding, and incidents of yellow fever, one which took the lives of “67 officers and men” in three weeks.
In 1808 the naval hospital, and English Harbour in general, were reported to be “an extremely unhealthy place” by John A. Waller, surgeon. Another reference called the place “the grave of Englishmen”. This bleak assessment isn’t surprising, considering the enclosed nature of the harbour, the disease-carrying mosquitos then abundant, and the seamen’s custom of throwing all their garbage overboard.
Nor was there much respite from hardship. Understanding the nature of their overworked and homesick crews, some commanders refused them shore privileges, to prevent desertion. They may also have wanted to protect their men from a port known for having “too little shade, too much drink and too many women.”
Not that it was necessary to go ashore to encounter women: enterprising ladies known as “Bumboat women” regularly swam out to the ships with items to sell. They would push before them wooden tubs filled with their wares and their clothes which had been removed for the swim. “You can imagine what other wares they sold,” remarks Nicholson. Aboard the vessels, the ladies would get dressed, sell their goods, then stow their clothes in the tubs again and return to shore, nudging the tubs before them.
Nicholson gained a wealth of information from carvings made by sailors on the walls of an old water catchment system. Originally capable of storing 240 tons of water, the catchment was installed by the island’s planters who wanted to encourage visits by warships to protect their trade. At the Public Records Office in London, Nicholson traced the carved names of boats, sailors, the villages they came from, and dates, in old naval log books. “It’s so exciting to look at the original handwriting of the captains of these ships . . . I feel sometimes as though I can see the dockyard so plainly, as it used to be.”
Nicholson’s next priority is to add definitions to the artifacts in the Dockyard Museum. “Most people imagine that a museum is a place where you go and see artifacts, but it’s not. A museum is a place where you get an interpretation of a certain subject and where you can go and research that subject.”
If Nicholson has his way, the Nelson’s Dockyard National Park will continue to evolve through proper archaeological and historical investigation. And living history will help visitors to see the harbour as the author H. W. Coleridge saw it in 1825, when he called it the prettiest little harbour he had ever seen, “a combination of tropical beauty and English style and spirit.”
He had heard of the closed-in, unhealthy conditions, but what he saw was cheerful English sailors in their West Indian home. “Indeed it is a season of great merriment with them: they live on shore, after their regular dock labour, dance and sing all evening in their own abundant content.”