A final slope takes us to the southern edge of the island of Antigua.
To the southwest is the ill-fated island of Montserrat, which the Soufriére volcano turned into the only territory on earth with a ruined and abandoned official capital.
to the south is Guadalupe, on the contrary Montserrat and Antigua, during the colonial era of these parts and today, French.
Guadeloupe and the French rivalry played a major role in the function of English Harbor and Nelson's Docks, which we were eager to discover.
When we conquer the panoramic top of Shirley Heights, facing north, it is above all the intricate orography, the relief of Antigua's bottoms and the intimacy it maintains with the tropical Atlantic Ocean, which dazzles us at 360º.
The Iconic View from Above Shirley Heights
Exposed to the Trade winds, humidity blown from the east and the opposite Caribbean Sea, Antigua goes through the year without anything that can be compared to a dry season.
From there, downwards and onwards, the vegetal result of its abundant rainfall also extends.
Luckily, and little more than that, on that early morning in mid-November, what was left of a depression, of bad weather that had irrigated other places, passes over Antigua. Bright white patches of clouds flow over the landscape. They impose a rolling shading on it.
From that height, we contemplated the half-moon-shaped cove, enclosed by a promontory lower than the one we had conquered. From this lofty plane, we could see that behind it was another one, we found, on the map, that of Falmouth Harbour.
Twelve or thirteen sailboats moored dotted the nearest translucent sea, that of English Harbour.
Where it narrowed to an eastern extent, instead of just sailing ships, we also saw large yachts, larger than the line of secular buildings that justified their presence.
The heights of Shirley Heights honor Sir Thomas Shirley, one of the governors of the Leeward Islands. Today, they are known for revealing Antigua's most iconic views and sunsets.
Its setting became so notorious in the British colonial sphere that, for decades, it was entitled to its own stamp on the monarchical collections of “fine mints”.
In a contemporary context that is substantially more playful than that of philately, between 4 pm and 10 pm on Sundays, Shirley Heights hosts one of the eat parties Caribbean memories.
Antigua and the Colonial Era, in the British Possession
In the midst of the colonial era, of course, the beauty of the scenery and the festivities were of little concern to the military commanders and governors who passed through there.
In the early XNUMXth century, the British were vying hand in hand with the French and the Dutch over each Antilles and supremacy over the vast Caribbean domain.
In 1632, the British took possession of the archipelago of Antigua and Barbuda. Antigua, in particular, has proved to be a strategic gem.
The south of Antigua where we were traveling allowed them to follow the movements of the Gauls to the south, starting from the island of Guadeloupe. What was at stake then was much more than the mere possession of the islands.
At that time, the Dutch, the English and the French were trying to expand, in their tropical territories, the cultivation of sugar cane, which, still in the XNUMXth century, the Portuguese developed in Madeira Island and in the São Tomé and Principe.
With a hot and humid climate, the so-called West Indies quickly proved to be perfect for the production of the appreciated, still rare and valuable sugar.
Now, aware of the “sugar-sweetened” wealth that each island full of sugar cane could guarantee to its respective Crowns, each power did everything it could to seize and preserve the largest number of islands. By providing them with slaves who would ensure the workforce and, in the end, the profit.
At the outset, Antigua would be just another island with that potential. Its privileged location on the map of the West Indies and its growing prosperity made it a constant target that the British did everything to defend.
But not only.
English Harbor and Antigua: The Same Strategic Location in the Lesser Antilles
Bearing in mind that then, as now, from May to November, successive hurricanes and tropical storms battered the various islands, isolated from the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea, the two “harbours” that we admired formed invaluable shelters.
The years passed. In 1671, the first recorded entry of a British ship into English Harbour took place, requisitioned from the Crown for use by the governor of the so-called Leeward Islands, already traveled by pirates, often sponsored by rival nations and determined to plunder and/or sink. the ships they targeted.
Accordingly, the authorities endowed Antigua with dozens of forts. In 1704 they decided to build one at the entrance to English Harbour. They named it Fort Berkeley. Both the fort and the cove, also protected by nature, have lived up to expectations.
Two decades have passed. Aware of the security it guaranteed to ships, the British Royal Navy began to anchor in English Harbor on a continuous basis. In September 1723, the port's reputation was reinforced.
From Hurricane Shelter to Royal Navy Naval Base
A powerful hurricane slammed against the coast and damaged more than thirty ships anchored in other ports and points around the island. Instead, Her Majesty's only two ships sheltered in English Harbor survived unscathed.
From then on, always using slave labor, the British Royal Navy dedicated itself to making it a naval base and shipyard.
Gradually, the importance of the port adjusted to that of sugar.
Satisfied with the visual elevation of Shirley Heights, we returned to sea level. The entrance to the complex forces us to go around the capricious cut at the top of the cove.
Nelson Dockyards. The docks that welcomed the Admiral
At the base of the promontory that delimits it, a so-called Dockyard Drive crosses a green isthmus and takes us back to the edge of an inlet with water so calm that it acts as a mirror.
Moments after we left the Eastern Caribbean Amalgamated Bank, we find the first buildings of the complex, erected in 1788, recently restored from ruin to immaculate elegance.
In such a reliable way that, in 2016, UNESCO granted it the status of World Heritage.
The old warehouses and store for pitch and tar, as well as those for gunpowder, were converted into a sumptuous four-star inn, Admiral's Inn and Gunpowder Suites and its “Boom” restaurant.
It has the competition of another christening of Copper & Lumber Store, according to the place where the copper that covered the bottom of the ships and the wood, used by sailors to stretch their hammocks, were kept.
Different palm trees adorn them, several of which are imperial. Over the years, the palms have grown above a line of iconic stone pillars, originally laid out to support the Casa dos Barcos and Sotão das Velas, which a hurricane of 1871 robbed the roof of.
Next is the Docks Museum, housed in the airy Victorian house that housed the British Royal Navy officers and which improved the conditions in which they were housed in their former quarters.
Between 1784 and 1787, one of them was Admiral Horatio Nelson.
Horatio Nelson's Mission on the Challenging Island of Antigua
Around the age of 27, Nelson found himself named captain of the “HMS Boreas”, sent to Antigua with the mission of developing local facilities and enforcing British law at a time when commercial anarchy, exploited by pirates and privateers, seemed to be taking hold.
Nelson came to occupy the post of Supreme Commander of the Leeward Islands. During this period, he encountered such resistance to his mission that he vented that the island of Antigua was little more than a vile place.
With eighteen more years of naval experience, Nelson would guarantee the British an unlikely triumph over a larger Franco-Spanish armada at the Battle of Trafalgar.
This decisive victory won him undisputed prestige. And numerous honors, of which the subsequent baptism of the Docks of Antigua with his name is not particularly noteworthy.
Tired of identifying the buildings and their functions, the old ones and the current ones, we chose to sift through the installations, absorbing the atmosphere that is breathed there.
Sailors of our times, wealthy or even millionaires, wash or have the decks and other salt-vulnerable parts of their sailboats and yachts washed, lined up around the docks.
One or the other, exchange adventures of recent navigations, with curious eyes on the boats that enter. This new life at Nelson Dockyards is recent.
Colonial Decline, Abandonment and the Deserved Recovery
In 1883, the Slavery Abolition Act put an end to forced labor by Africans.
It precipitated the decline of the sugar trade and made the British turn their attention to other profitable parts of the world.
Six years later, they abandoned the Naval Base and docks to the elements and recurring hurricanes.
The recovery of Nelson Docks did not set sail until 1950, funded by the Society of Friends of English Harbour, lasted a decade.
In 1982, among its refined patrons were Simon Le Bom and other members of Duran Duran, all lovers of the sea and sailing.
The band filmed in Shirley Heights and in English Harbor the video for their hit “Rio”, partly on board a sailboat anchored in Antigua called “Island".
Since then, countless other moments of fame radiated from there.
English Harbor is, for example, home to two of the most prestigious sailing competitions in the world, the Antigua Sailing Week and the Antigua Charter Yacht Meeting.