An international member of the Georgian Group recently drew the Group’s attention to the fact that Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua was on the tentative UNESCO list.
The Group has always been strongly in favour of enhancing the protection and preservation of eighteenth-century architecture in the Caribbean, Angus Ackworth, a founding trustee of the Group wrote Treasure in the Caribbean, a first study of buildings in the British West Indies in 1949, at the same time that the Group was campaigning for the preservation of England’s war-damaged Georgian heritage.
Recently the Group has been engaged with the restoration of St George’s Church in Grenada and maintain close links with the Georgian Soc Nelson’s Dockyard was the former naval dockyard for the British Navy in the Leeward Islands of the Eastern Caribbean. It was established in English Harbour in the late 1720s and closed as a military installation in 1895. The narrow deep bays that comprises English Harbour are almost completely enclosed by hills that provided the navy a safe, defensible harbour that was ideal for careening and repairing the wooden ships of war and for shelter during the hurricane season.
This was a strategic advantage to the British as they were able to maintain a strong military presence in the Eastern Caribbean. With the loss of its North American colonists in 1776, the dockyard at English Harbour grew in importance as a station for repairs and provisions prior to the return voyage across the Atlantic to Britain; particularly so for battle damaged vessels. Naval tradition dictated that the senior naval officer at the dockyard assumed command and as a result many famous British naval heroes served in and commanded operations of the dockyard.
These include, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, Admiral Vernon, Admiral Hood. Famous naval officers who visited the station include Admiral Collingwood, Prince William Henry (William IV), George V, and others.
The facility grew in capacity, size and importance over time. To protect it, a considerable investment was made by the British Army in building fortifications, hospitals, barracks, ordnance stores and infrastructure on the hills surrounding the Dockyard.
Many regiments were sent to garrison the forts and it is said that about 40 per cent did not make the return voyage, falling victim to the numerous tropical diseases including malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery. Most of these military facilities are today in ruin, but they provide abundant research opportunities for the archaeologists and museum curators.
The Dockyard was finally abandoned as a British Naval outpost in 1889. For the next fifty years the old naval dockyard was used by Antiguan seamen and boat builders from the village of English Harbour as a careenage and repair facility for their wooden sloops and schooners that traded and provided inter island transportation. It was also used as a training facility for the West Indian soldiers prior to overseas service during both World Wars.
The site is now a protected area; the premiere National Park of Antigua that was established by the National Parks Act, 1984 and is managed as a heritage tourism site.
Nelson’s Dockyard is a unique continuing cultural landscape. It rose to prominence as a British Naval Dockyard during the turbulent years of the eighteenth century; the Age of Sail. Its unique geological setting of deep water, narrow bays surrounded by protective hills and a narrow entrance were ideal attributes for repairing the hulls of sailing vessels and for providing shelter during the hurricane season. Geographically, English Harbour presented the opportunity for the British Navy to provision and repair their warships prior to the trans-Atlantic crossings.
This was particularly important after the loss of the North American colonies in 1776, and American waters became a dangerous and hostile area for British shipping. The Dockyard and the supporting army barracks and fortifications surrounding it, was of major strategic value as a staging area for mobilising and shifting military forces and for protecting its shipping, trade and colonial interests.
In this light, the naval facility at the Antigua Dockyard contributed significantly to the expansion of the British Empire. While the French could not maintain a significant naval presence in the hurricane ravaged Eastern Caribbean, the British could and their ships stationed in English Harbour could be repaired and refitted for action immediately after conflict. They could also deploy their regiments to any area in the region in a very short time.
To this end, numerous support facilities were built. These include warehouses, workshops, Officer’s quarters, careening pits, saw pits and many more. These today comprise a unique collection of Georgian period structures within an enclosed military compound. The facilities established for these purposes eventually passed into the hands of the local area residents who were the descendants of the British sailors and enslaved Africans and the local Antiguan government. They continued to use the dockyard in its original capacity for the repair of sailing vessels. By the 1950 and the arrival of the first charter yacht to English Harbour, restoration efforts began on the
old buildings. This in turn led to the development of the yacht charter industry that quickly spread throughout the Caribbean. English Harbour remains today the center of the sailing and repair. The tradition continues and the area residents continue to work on the boats and marine trades. The army barracks on the surrounding hills however, have become archaeological sites that will comprise the buffer zone.
The history of English Harbour and the naval dockyard is directly linked to that of North America, Britain and Europe. It served as a naval outpost that facilitated Great Britain’s rise to naval supremacy and Empire. It afforded protection of vital trade from the sugar colonies and the revenues that funded the industrial revolution. Many of the British naval heroes served at the Antigua Dockyard. Today, the rich legacy of Georgian period structures of the dockyard and and nearby coastal fortifications creates a visual time capsule that has become the center for yachting and sailing in the Caribbean.
The proposed WHS will be as a continuing cultural landscape that began as a naval repair facility and continues today as the birthplace of the Eastern Caribbean yacht charter industry. Sailing traditions remain strong and many of the popular and major yachting events were started and still hosted in English Harbour.
It continues to be a “mecca” for seafarers, yacht provisioning, repair, hurricane shelter and the heart of the Caribbean yacht chartering.
The history of the Antigua Naval Dockyard and surrounding military complexes on Shirley Height’s is well documented at the National Archives in Kew, UK, and British Naval archives elsewhere, such as Greenwich, the Admiralty, and the Dockyard Museum in Antigua. This is supported by many publications about Georgian naval dockyards, and the famous Captains and Admirals who served at this stations, particularly so for Lord Horatio Nelson. The Nelson’s Dockyard Museum in English Harbour also provides insights into the history, lives and times.
The facility today comprises a collection of restored Georgian period structures. Several others are in partial ruin. The National Parks Authority that is dedicated to restoration and the continued preservation of the buildings manages them. They are protected by the National Parks Act, 1984, and are managed by a government statutory body and qualified technicians. Management Plans, Development Plans and Financial Plans and the Act of Parliament provide guidance and a legal base.
The old seawall serves today as a marina that generates revenue for the restoration efforts. It is open to visitors and many regattas and marine events are hosted within the dockyard. Entrance fees and rental of the restored structures also contributes to the restoration, conservation and management. There is an active archaeological unit within the museum that guides restoration,
research and ensures authenticity.The proposed boundaries will be the set immediately within the confines of English Harbour, and the surrounding hills with natural preserves of forest and archaeological sites will comprise the buffer zone. All of this is situated within the 12 square miles of protected area of the Nelson’s Dockyard National Park. The full extent area of the proposed WHS and buffer zone has not yet been finalised but will total approximately 120 hectares. This will be finalized by the time of nomination.
The Group has written to UNESCO to ask that this important site is made a World Heritage Site.
The Georgian Group is the conservation organisation for the preservation of historic buildings and planned landscapes of c.1700‐1840 in England and Wales. It was established in 1937 and since 1971 has been the statutory advisor on planning issues that affect Georgian heritage.
As a charity, the Group encourages partnerships through small grants and annual awards, and is supported by a very active membership. Georgian Locations offers the serviced commercial hire of a select range of historic spaces in Central London, suitable for filming and events.
Please contact Roberto Kouyoumdjian for details.
The Georgian Group, 6 Fitzroy Square, London W1T 5DX
T: 020 7529 8920
T: 01952 214062