English Harbour, with its world-famous Dockyard named after Admiral Horatio Nelson, is Antigua's most prized historic possession and will leave an indelible mark on your imagination. It's not only a monument to the past but also a focus of Antigua's future activity, and a year-round home for yachts.
English Harbour was originally established to provide the British Royal Navy with a dockyard where they could keep their ships in good condition for maintaining their ascendancy in the Caribbean against other European powers. Christopher Columbus himself didn't even stop in Antigua, content to see it at a distance and name it after the church of Santa Maria de Antigua in Spain.
Antigua was never conquered by any other European power, in good part due to the Dockyard where the British ships could be careened and overhauled, safe from hurricanes. It was also an ideal port to keep the fleet in troubled times since the enclosed harbour of Freeman's Bay is almost invisible from the sea. The narrow entrance was protected by Fort Berkeley, completed in 1744 and built on a narrow spit of land jutting out from the entrance of English Harbour.
It was realised that it would be easier to refit ships in Antigua than sending them to the 'northern colonies'. Wharves, powder magazines, cisterns and storehouses were constructed. A fortress was built on Monk's Hill, romantic ruins which can still be reached by an energetic walk from the village of Liberta. To ensure the invincibility of Antigua, the great fortifications of Shirley Heights commenced, named after General Shirley who arrived in 1781 as Governor.
All the construction was in solid local stone and brick imported as ballast for the ships from England. The development took place over a period of many years. The communication between Britain and her colonies was slow. The death rate of English sailors and engineers was high due to unaccustomed heat, excessive rum and primitive conditions, not to mention malaria and yellow fever (these diseases have now long since been eradicated).
Admiral Horatio Nelson
England's most famous historic hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, spent his formative years here. He arrived at age 26 in command of the Frigate Boreas. He was Senior Captain and Second-in-Command of the Leeward Islands Station whose headquarters were in English Harbour. By the time he left for England and greater glory in 1787, he had married a widow from Nevis, Francis Nisbett.
An imposing Victorian style building in the Dockyard itself was once erroneously known as the Admiral's House, but Nelson never lived ashore while in Antigua. This is now the Dockyard.