Antigua is an island in the Leeward Islands of the West Indies and is part of the twin-island country of Antigua and Barbuda which became an independent state within the Commonwealth of Nations on November 1, 1981. In my stamp collection, I separate the issues of the British colony of Antigua from those of Barbuda and the combined Antigua and Barbuda; all will be dealt individually in this blog. Also known as Waladli or Wadadli (meaning “our own”) by the native population, Antigua was named by Christopher Columbus following his sighting of this island while passing by in November 1493. Meaning “ancient” in Spanish, he named the island after an icon in Seville Cathedral called the Santa Maria de la Antigua (St. Mary of the Old Cathedral). The capital city, St. John’s, is situated in the northwest of the island and has a deep harbor able to accommodate large cruise ships. Famed for its protected shelter during violent storms, English Harbour on the south-eastern coast is the site of a restored British colonial naval station called Nelson’s Dockyard after Captain Horatio Nelson who lived there from 1784 to 1787.
The Spanish attempted to colonize Antigua in the 16th century but found it to be too dry. In 1632, a group of English colonists left St. Kitts to settle on Antigua. Sir Christopher Codrington, an Englishman, established the first permanent European settlement. Codrington guided development on the island as a profitable sugar colony. For a large portion of Antigua’s history, the island was considered Britain’s “Gateway to the Caribbean”. It was located on the major sailing routes among the region’s resource-rich colonies. The American War of Independence in the late 18th century disrupted the Caribbean sugar trade. At the same time, public opinion in Britain gradually turned against slavery. Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, and all existing slaves were emancipated in 1834.
Letters carried by merchant vessels were called “ship letters”. By the Ordinance of 1657 and the Post Office Act of 1660, ship letters were charged with inland postage. Shortly afterward, the British Post Office offered to pay one penny for every letter brought by a private ship and handed by the captain of a ship to the postmaster at the port of arrival. Some letters were carried by private individuals travelling on a ship back to England, but this was unlawful. Up to 1702, letters to and from Antigua were all carried by merchant vessels, but then the British Packet Service started, being replaced about two years later by Edmund Dummer’s packet service. In 1705, Dummer was allowed to appoint his own postmasters, and he named Richard Buckeredge as his postmaster in Antigua. About 1,500 letters were brought to England by each monthly packet, but only four out of each twelve arrived safely. The cost of replacing his lost ships was ruinous and Dummer gave up the service.
With renewal of the Post Office Packet Service in 1755, sailings were irregular owing to the hazards of war, piracy and weather. In 1757, Stratton and Sargent of Falmouth, became the managers for the Post Office of the West Indian Packet Service. On September 6, 1768, the G.P.O. London announced that the mail for the West Indies would be made up on the first Wednesday of each month. No handstamps have been chronicled for Antigua prior to 1780. In 1792 an experimental service saw a schooner collecting the Leeward Islands mail from the Packet Office in Barbados.
In 1799 a Ship Letter Office was opened in London and no vessel was allowed to unload its cargo until such letters as it had carried were handed in at the nearest post office. With the introduction of steam, the packet service underwent a great change and the ships ceased to be owned by the G.P.O. and in 1818 the Crown took over as owners. This move was unsuccessful and the service reverted to private vessels who carried mail under contract. In 1840 the British Packet services to the West Indies ceased and sea mail was carried on the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company,
The island authorities on Antigua set up an internal post between St John’s and English Harbour in March 1841 with Mr Scotland as the postmaster. From 1858 British stamps were made available for use on the island. These were the 1 penny, 2 pence, 4 pence, 6 pence and 1 shilling values of Great Britain issued between 1856 and 1858. Letters from St John’s were postmarked A02 and those from English Harbour were obliterated with A18. The Post Office Act of Antigua, passed on April 24, 1860, by the Assembly of the Leeward Islands, transferred control to the local government.
Early in 1861, a request was received by Perkins, Bacon & Co. to supply an estimate for the preparation of postage plates for Antigua. The design of these stamps was based on a drawing of Queen Victoria’s head by Edward Henry Corbould. The estimate, which was for 1 penny and 6 pence values, was eventually accepted and the 6d. value was printed and released in August 1862. The stamp was printed on unwatermarked paper in a rather severe recess engraved design by Charles Henry Jeens. The 1d. value in the same design was released in January, 1863, and various reprints of both values took place between 1864 and 1867. These printings were on paper watermarked with a small star.
On January 23, 1890, the Governor of the Leeward Islands wrote to the Colonial Office proposing the unification of the stamps of the Leeward Islands Presidencies in one issue for use throughout the Colony. This proposal was accepted and from October 31, 1890, until 1903 Leeward Islands were in sole use in all the islands including Antigua. At a meeting on June 29, 1903, the Executive Council of the Leeward Islands authorized separate issues for each of the islands to be used concurrently with those of the Leeward Islands. Ten values, from ½ penny to 2s 6d, showing the Royal Arms and the Seal of Antigua and a 5 shilling denomination showing the head of King Edward VII were issued in July 1903.
On November 15, 1938, a new definitive issue for King George VI was released. This consisted of ten values, ½ penny to 5 shillings in four designs, and was recess engraved by Waterlow & Sons on Script CA watermarked paper. The scenes depicted were all of historical interest and the airplane on the 6 pence value indicated that it was intended primarily for air mail. Scott #84, pictured here today, was the low value in this series — ½ penny yellow green, perforated 12½. It portrays an aerial view of English Harbour with Falmouth Harbour also visible.
The Royal Navy had begun using English Harbour as a safe haven in the 17th century. In 1704 Fort Berkeley was built on a spit across the harbor entrance to defend it. HM Naval Yard, Antigua, began on the eastern side of the harbor (on the site presently occupied by the Antigua Slipways boatyard) in the 1730s. The Yard was expanded across the bay on the western side (on the site known today as Nelson’s Dockyard) in the 1740s. It was the Navy’s base of operations for the area during the eighteenth century but ceased in importance by 1815. In 1889 the Royal Navy abandoned the Dockyard and it fell into decay. The Society of the Friends of English Harbour began restoration in 1951 and a decade later it was opened to the public. Today it flourishes as a yachting center as well as an historic monument and is described as “the only working Georgian dockyard in the world.” Much of the surrounding area is a National Park.