This whimsically charming historical site was built as a shipyard for the British navy. It consists of a group of elegant Georgian-style naval buildings and structures, set within a walled enclosure. The natural environment of the south side of the island of Antigua, with its deep, narrow bays surrounded by highlands, created natural harbours that served as a significant strategic position for the British Navy, and offered shelter from hurricanes and was ideal for repairing ships. It provides an architectural time capsule of maritime glory, complete with stately stone pillars and abundant artefacts, and flanked by original fortresses.
The dockyard features original sail loft pillars and numerous buildings such as the 1789 Copper and Lumber Store, the former Naval Officer’s house, officers’ quarters, guard station and even a small bakery dating back to 1772 which still contains three ovens that once supplied the compound with fresh bread. Also included are various fortifications which were constructed to protect the area from invaders. Among them is Shirley Heights Lookout, a favourite tourist haunt on account of its spectacular panoramic views. Galleon Beach, a former burial site for British sailors who fell victim to 18th-Century yellow fever outbreaks, also falls within the boundaries.
The construction at the dockyard began as early as the 1720s but its strategic importance increased after Britain lost the American War of Independence, where it suddenly had two new enemies in the United States and its ally, France. Antigua’s geographical location, at the gateway to the Caribbean, also offered control over the major sailing routes to and from the rich island colonies.
The reluctant Lord Nelson was sent by Britain to enforce the Navigation Act which barred foreign ships from trading with British colonies and made him hugely unpopular with local merchants who depended on trade with the fledgling United States. Lord Nelson is said to have spent much of his three years there in the cramped quarters of his ship, the 125ft (38m) frigate Boreas.
The dockyard still conjures up evocative images of its 18th-century position at the helm of imperialist Britain’s crusade for wealth and power. The construction of the dockyard by the British navy would not have been possible without the labour of generations of enslaved Africans since the end of the 18th century. Its aim was to protect the interests of sugar cane planters at a time when European powers were competing for control of the Eastern Caribbean.