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. From that point on, Antigua history took a dramatic turn. Codrington guided development on the island as a profitable sugar colony. For a large portion of Antigua 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. Lord Horatio Nelson, a major figure in Antigua history, arrived in the late 18th century to preserve the island's commercial shipping prowess.
European and African diseases, malnutrition and slavery eventually destroyed the vast majority of the Caribbean's native population. No researcher has conclusively proven any of these causes as the real reason for the destruction of West Indian natives. In fact, some historians believe that the psychological stress of slavery may also have played a part in the massive number of native deaths while in servitude. Others believe that the reportedly abundant, but starchy, low-protein diet may have contributed to severe malnutrition of the "Indians" who were used to a diet fortified with protein from sealife.
Sugar became Antigua's main crop in about 1674, when Christopher Codrington settled at Betty's Hope Estate. He came from Barbados, bringing the latest sugar technology with him. Betty's Hope, Antigua's first full-scale sugar plantation, was so successful that other planters turned from tobacco to sugar. This resulted in their importing tens of thousands of slaves, as sugar cultivation and processing was labour intensive.
Many West Indian colonists initially tried to use Indians and Europeans as indentured servants to man the plantations. These groups succumbed easily to disease and/or malnutrition, and died by their thousand. The African slaves had the misfortune of adapting well to the new environment; and thus became the number one choice of "unpaid labour." In fact, the slaves throve physically and also provided medical services, and skilled labour, such as carpentry for their slave masters.
Today, collectors prize the uniquely-designed "colonial" furniture built by West Indian slaves. Many of these works feature what are now considered "traditional" motifs, such as pineapples, fish and stylised serpents.
By the mid 1770s, the number of slaves had increased to 37,500 from 12,500 in 1713, whereas the white population had fallen from 5000 to below 3000. The slaves lived in wretched and overcrowded conditions, and could be mistreated or even killed by their owners with impunity. The Slave Act of 1723 made arbitrary murder of slaves illegal, but did not do much to ease their lives.
Unrest among the slaves became increasingly common. In 1729, a slave named Hercules was hanged, drawn and quartered, and three others burnt alive, for conspiring to kill the slave owner Crump and his family. In 1736, a slave called "Prince Klaas" (whose real name was Court) planned an uprising in which whites would be massacred. Court was crowned "King of the Coromantees" in a pasture outside the capital of St. John's, in what appeared to be just a colourful spectacle, but was for the slaves a ritual declaration of war on the whites. Due to information obtained from other slaves, colonists discovered the plot and suppressed it. Prince Klaas and four accomplices were caught and executed by the breaking wheel. Six slaves were hanged in chains and starved to death, and another fifty-eight were burned at the stake.
The American War of Independence in the late Eighteenth Century disrupted the Caribbean sugar trade. A young Nelson was posted to Antigua to enforce the Navigation acts to stop trading with the newly indendent USA. He made himself unpopular with local merchants who were keen to get the highest prices for their produce.
The slave trade was abolished throughout the Empire in 1807 and the Antiguan plantations had to rely on replacing the slave labour internally. In 1834 the slaves were freed creating a radical shift in the economic dynamics of the colony. However, by this time sugar cane was no longer fetching the high prices that it had historically fetched. This was due to the increased use of sugar beet in Europe which was cheaper and easier to source. Antigua started a slide into economic stagnation with no obvious replacement for the cash crop of sugar.