ANTIGUA & BARBUDA

St. John’s

A Glimpse of Antigua’s Past at Betty’s Hope

The restored sugar windmill at Betty's Hope on Antigua

Betty’s Hope was a sugar plantation for nearly 300 years. It’s restored sugar windmill is the only operating one in the Caribbean.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE MARKERS of this Caribbean island’s past are numerous but subtle: stone beehives, several storeys high, standing in fields, adjacent to houses and hotels, even next to the international airport’s main runway.

There used to be over 160 of them; there are still more than 90, although no one’s really bothered to count. Nearly all are crumbling and every one stands on what was once a sugar plantation. The beehives once had windmills attached, driving the machinery that crushed the sugar cane.

For more than 200 years Antigua was a sugar factory. Black African slaves did the work, white English planters amassed the wealth. Until the emancipation of the slaves in 1834, if you didn’t work you could be whipped, or worse. The tree where those who couldn’t be broken were lynched instead still stands at a crossroads in mid-island.

The tree is not identified for visitors, just as the beehives don’t have plaques beside them. Until very recently, there was a near-complete lack of interest on the part of Antiguans in documenting the age of the sugar plantation. Yes, it was important in the island’s history, but the most important thing about it was that it was over. Let the beehives fall to dust unregarded and take the past with them.

Two things have begun to change that: the healing march of time and the curiosity of tourists, the island’s modern-day cash crop. Most visitors come for the white sand beaches and the clear tropical water, but a small percentage want to know more about the Antiguans and their story.

The small National Museum in St. John’s, the capital, can supply the nuts and bolts information: a map of the island showing the plantations in 1750; a short, stark recounting of one of the many rebellions Antiguan slaves attempted and the harsh reprisals; the fact that 93 per cent of the island was black by 1774; that when emancipation came, 29,000 slaves were freed. It’s not like being there, though. The closest thing to that is Betty’s Hope, about 16 kilometres southeast of St. John’s.

Betty’s Hope was one of the earliest Antigua plantations. It was the largest and the longest-lasting, operating for nearly 300 years, from 1674 to 1944. One of its two windmills has been restored and is now the solitary working sugar mill in the Caribbean.

The rest of the plantation is mainly ruins in the tall grass. Plaques indicate where the Great House stood, where the slave quarters, cistern and other buildings were. Foundations remain, and some walls, but it takes imagination to visualize what it was like when it was running.

Some help is offered by a model showing the plantation in 1800, when 300 slaves worked it. It’s in a reroofed building next to the Great House that’s become the visitor information centre.

There are plans (“open ended,” as a woman from the country’s diplomatic service said) to rebuild some of the main structures, but there’s no big rush. The prevailing local opinion remains, the more historical this becomes, the better.

 

ACCESS

For information of travel in Antigua and Barbuda visit the Antigua and Barbuda Department of Tourism website at www.antigua-barbuda.org.