Dr Sherry Hutt opened her lecture about Antigua with the line… ‘The islands of the Caribbean have their patron hero. Just as inns of the northeastern United States proudly boast that, “Washington slept here,” Caribbean ports boast that “Nelson docked here.”’ In fact, there’s a whole village named Admiral Nelson Harbour.
We joined one of the inclusive tours provided by the Viking Sea, called ‘Amazing Antigua’. As part of our trip we were introduced to Antigua’s British past and travelled through the tropical countryside up to Shirley Heights, the principal fortification for the British. Over four hundred feet above the sea on a sheer cliff it offers the best views of English Harbour and the Atlantic Ocean.
Nelson and Antigua
Nelson had spent his formative years in the merchant navy and then working through his exams in the Royal Navy and in 1780, now in his early twenties, was sent to the West Indies. Over the next seven years he served in several missions, but mainly his role was to create and protect the British trade routes through the area – and secure Britain’s supremacy at sea.
One of his first missions saw him sailing up river to Lake Nicaragua in order to find an overwater route to the Pacific. Standing in his way was a fort held by the Spanish, Nelson leapt into the battle, inspiring his men who took the fort. He started moving up in the world, but contracted dysentery and was sent back home to convalesce. On his way home, he also took three French ships.
Admiral Hood sent Nelson back to the West Indies to capture more French ships where he became well-known across the Caribbean, coming ashore for supplies and entertainment. But by 27, he was bored.
He married Frances Nisbet, daughter of the president of Nevis Island. A quiet women, she doesn’t really seem to be Nelson’s type and soon after they were married he was back at sea (what does that tell you?) By 1787, Nelson was back in England with his wife and child, just in time for France to declare war on England and Holland.
There’s now a substantial period where Nelson loses an eye at the siege of Corsica, captured the Spanish fleet at battle of Cape St Vincent, made Knight of the Order of Bath, a Rear Admiral and loses his right arm at Tenerife. He also meets the love of his life, Emma Hamilton and then at 40-odd he comes up against Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Trafalgar.
At Nelson’s Dockyard, as it’s now known, Nelson commanded the fleet from there for three years. It is the last remaining Georgian dockyard still in use today. Elegant ships which you can rent for the tidy sum of $300,000 a week, line the dockyard.
The village reminded us a little bit of Portmeirion in Wales, not for its architecture, but due to its enclosed nature. It feels like the whole village is one large open air museum.
The ‘Admiral’s House’, (Nelson stayed there once!), is now the museum and local craftspeople have taken over the other 18th century buildings, including one chap who carves magnificent wooden sculptures from mahogany and other trees which were blown over in the serious 2017 hurricane season. There’s also a selection of restaurants and cafes on the waterfront. We sipped a rum punch wandering around.
Captain’s Farewell Party
This was our penultimate day and on this night the captain hosted his ‘Farewell Party’. It was kind of like the last scenes of Dirty Dancing where the staff of Kellerman’s Holiday Camp get up on stage and sing a lovey-dovey goodbye song, before Patrick Swayze busts in and demands that nobody puts Baby in a corner.
It wasn’t quite so cliche as that, but lots of staff, including our own amazing cabin keeper, named Nelson, headed up on stage to much thankful applause. Lovely.