It is important for the Virtual Nomad to give every place the significance it deserves. A tiny island state is no exception. Even if, for food, we group it with the much more well known Argentina (see next entry), we still stop to cherish the landscape, the words, tastes and sounds of the Caribbean island state called Antigua and Barbuda.
The kids have no idea where Antigua and Barbuda is. The three adults (JK, CH and I) surely know it is somewhere in the Caribbean but we all fail to place it. After a while, we hit the right spot.
Antigua and Barbuda is a young state, independent since 1981. It consists of two major islands (you guessed it – Antigua and Barbuda) and several smaller islands. It is situated in the Caribbean and, like other island states, is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The capital is St John’s and the population is around 120,000. Antigua and Barbuda makes most of its money from tourism.
With the food we cheat. This time we combine an Argentinian night (next entry) with desserts from Antigua and Barbuda. The reason for this is that the local cuisine relies a lot on fresh fish and the Caribbean types are rare in winter. The dessert selection seems varied and broad enough to gain its own entry.
I buy fudge and tamarind balls online, and get peanut brittle from Harris Farm Market but decide to prepare coconut sugar cakes myself despite my atrocious attempt with Angolan funge. The result is not amazing but it is good enough. The desserts are yummy and make us think that the people of the Caribbean enjoy their sweets.
The traditional dance of Antigua and Barbuda is the quadrille, 18th and 19th century Europe’s gift to the colonies. The Caribbean version is a bit more rhythmic than its stiff European version.
As for the music, it is influenced by West African slaves. One of the earliest forms of the music is benna. Benna is a calypso-influenced Antigua and Barbudan music style that originally was used as a way of communicating news and gossip.
Other popular types of music in Antigua include the aforementioned soca, with roots in calypso, funk, soul, and other types of music. The Antiguan queen of soca is Claudette Peters. Her song Nasty has clear carnival energy and her 2002 international hit is an upbeat Caribbean soca
Calypso is strongly identified as a Caribbean music of style, first identified in Trinidad but immensely popular around the Caribbean. Originally a means of communication for West African slaves, it quickly spread around the Caribbean. Famous Antiguan Calypso musicians are King Short and King Swallow, an Antiguan icon who passed in 2020 at the age of 78.
Other popular music styles in Antigua and Barbuda include dancehall and, of course, reggae. Causion is the ‘Antigua’s Reggae Ambassador’. His song Antigua Me Come From is a lovely hymn for Antigua on a cold winter morning. He is currently battling colon cancer.
Two big islands and several small ones
Most of the population live on Antigua (97%). The population is largely of African descent and the spoken language is English.
The Super Quick History of Antigua and Barbuda tells us that no one really knows who the first people that inhabited the islands were. The first named people were the Arawak from the beautifully named Orinoco River in Venezuela who were conquered (and possibly eaten) by the cannibalistic Caribs. In 1493, a fella’ named Christopher Columbus arrived and gave Antigua its name.
Spain saw no value in the islands so the British took over in 1632. The islands were the destination for many African slaves until slavery was abolished in 1834. Antiguan independence has its roots in the fight of a Salvation Army officer, Vere Bird, for better working conditions for the black majority. He became the first Prime Minister in 1981. He was of course, not all good because – as we have seen in other countries so far – power corrupts, makes people greedy and alienates them from their original ideals.
Then of course we visit Geography now which always does well covering general facts. We learn that the flag was created in 1967 by Sir Reginald Samuel. The sun in the flag is the symbol of a new dawning of the new era, the black refers to the black ancestry, white the sand and blue is a symbol of hope and the sea. The red refers to the vibrancy and energy of the people. We also learn that 30% of Antigua is suitable for farming but only 18% is used for farming.
The Internet is full of touristy videos of Antigua and Barbuda beaches and carnivals. Less so about the devastating Hurricane Irma that, in 2017, destroyed most of the island of Barbuda and all inhabitants evacuated to Antigua or the criticism of the Bird family dynasty’s extended stay in power.
Vere Bird is an(other) interesting political figure who fought for the rights of the working class and then was the Prime Minister for 13 years, followed by his son Lester Bird who was the Prime Minister for ten years. The Birds (including the eldest son Vere Jr) have faced accusations of corruption, connections with Colombian drug carters, arms dealings, use of public funds for private benefit, etc. The current Prime Minister Gaston Browne is married to Lester Bird’s niece Maria Bird-Browne.
Other interesting facts of Antigua
- The highest point in Antigua, Boggy Peak was called Mount Obama from 2009 to 2016 (yes, named after President Obama). The original name refers to the stories the masters told the slaves about a Boogie Man that lived on the mountain, so that the slaves would not escape. Some people did and established their own settlements on the mountain. It is not that high, a mere 402 metres.
- Antigua and Barbuda has the lowest suicide rate in the world in 2022 (the highest being Lesotho, followed by Guyana and Eswatiti).
- Hurricane Irma destroyed 95% of all infrastructure of Barbuda leaving 60% of the population homeless.
- Many of Antigua’s smaller islands are owned by very wealthy people.
Mothers and daughters
Antigua’s most prominent writer Jamaica Kincaid is an Antiguan-American author and Professor of African and African American Studies in Residence at Harvard University. She was born in St John’s (island of Antigua) and now resides in the US. Her books are described as semi-autobiographical, which feels accurate for her first novel, Annie John (1985). It is a fairly short book (162 pages), primarily a coming-of-age story and a study of a mother-daughter relationship from childhood to early adulthood.
For me, it is an enjoyable book but there is nothing exceptional about it. The focus is the transformation of the mother-daughter relationship from childhood to separation. Some reviewers have seen it as a study of race, gender and colonialism but for me it’s much more superficial than that – it represents a quite universal story of coming-of-age from a self-centred and predominantly unlikable perspective that at times is very annoying. Some aspects of Caribbean mysticism and magic are included but mostly it is about rebelling, first crushes (even if same-sex, but does not really make a difference) and breaking free from the repressive presence of a mother. The mother does not get a voice and seems to be doing her best in the circumstances, so the growing rejection sounds a bit harsh at times, but probably reflects the author’s relationship with her own family that she stopped talking to for a couple of decades.
There are delicious colonial jabs such as “The headmistress, Miss Moore. I knew right away that she had come to Antigua from England, for she looked like a prune left out of its jar for a long time and she sounded as if she had borrowed her voice from an owl”.
No sweet mango
The first feature film from Antigua (2001) is a romantic comedy called the Sweetest Mango, which is about a woman who returns from Canada to her native Antigua. This is all I can gather because the movie is not available for rent, to buy or stream from anywhere other than India.
Instead, I watch Working Girl (2009) about a schoolgirl’s journey to prostitution due to her mother’s illness. Painfully badly acted and at times comical in its melodramatics, and with an unexpected twist, it still manages to somewhat deliver a universal story about abuse, exploitation and poverty. It is not in any way a remarkable film but it is a rare treat of Caribbean film making. What makes it more interesting than the plot itself is the landscape, settings and language. Written and directed by Antiguan Nigel Trellis, it is filmed in Antigua with an all-Caribbean cast.
Next stop: Argentina