Nelson’s Dockyard is Antigua’s main historic “attraction” (excluding its now sadly decaying old cricket ground!) so inevitably we visited it during a stopover there in Jan 2012 even though it didn’t then appear on either UNESCO’s Inscribed or T List. Somehow we had the feeling that it could be “fattened up” to become Antigua’s first WHS nomination – so it was a pleasant surprise just a few days later to discover that it had indeed been made Antigua’s sole T List entry!
Looked at objectively, it is an amazing relic from the days of sail dating back to the later 18th Century. A superb natural and easily defendable double harbour (“English Harbour”) was turned, under the management of Nelson in his pre Napoleonic War days, into the most significant “state of the art” forward shipping base in the Caribbean. It gave the British Navy an enormous advantage over the other colonial powers who, lacking such a facility for ship servicing, careening, revictualling etc were even less able to compete. It continued in this role through the 19th century and even acquired a minor “palace”, Clarence House, for one of Queen Victoria’s sons who mad a career in the navy and was in charge in Antigua – and through to late colonial days this house was used as a “hideaway” by UK royalty. Later however the complex was gradually decommissioned as wooden sailing ships gave way to iron hulled steam and coal bunkering etc became far more important. Thus many of the military structures spread around the harbour and up into the nearby hills decayed. However, the stone walled harbour facilities at its heart remained, together with some of the associated buildings.
More recently, English Harbour has taken on a new role as an ocean yachting centre and a tourist centre with hotels, restaurants etc. As we walked round past all the multi-multi million pound/euro/dollar boats tied up on modern pontoons extended from Nelson’s stone walls and the shopping/restaurant/hotel opportunities incorporated into the 18th/19th century wooden buildings (or even extended into reasonably sympathetic new structures) it was perhaps too easy to dismiss the place as a millionaire’s playground, a hang out for yachting groupies and a tourist trap and forget/ignore its genuine historic value.
UNESCO has been making a push recently to increase the inscribed base of Caribbean island nations with Bridgetown Barbados added and Jim Crow/Blue Mountains in Jamaica narrowly deferred in 2011. I am sure that Nelson’s Dockyard can be expected to follow soon once Antigua has done the necessary re “Management Plans” etc. Its touristy aspects and added unauthentic buildings seem unlikely to prevent inscription given the fair wind which UNESCO gives to nations it is courting on the grounds of “inclusivity”. As stated above, there is genuine historic value here and indeed the modern use of the facility for “rich man’s yachting” could be regarded as a plus point compared with an alternative scenario of “Maritime Museum” with only historic ships on show. It would seem likely however, that any inscribed area would cover more than just the dockyard area. Up on the hill above the harbour with superb views among the ruined military buildings (photo) there is a newly built tourist information centre running a newly conceived “audio visual” presentation but here too are the foundations and walls of a wide range of other 19th century military structures. Most are surrounded by undergrowth and barbed wire and it is here perhaps that Antigua will need to do more to demonstrate that it is preserving the historic remains beyond the main historic dockyard centre.
Date posted: May 2012
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