TRAVEL: Bowled over by the West Indies

Antigua, more English than England, appealed to Geoffrey Wheatcroft - and not just because of the cricket

OF COURSE, I had an ulterior motive. When I said we should go to the West Indies, there were several possibilities discussed. The old Fleet Street saying has it, if you're going to an under- developed country , be sure to go to one that was under-developed by the French. Martinique and Guadeloupe had their attractions, not only gastronomic. But they had a drawback: they don't play cricket.

Without coming quite clean about my reasons, I suggested Barbados (which I know) and Trinidad (which I don't), but the dates which I gnomically said were essential did not quite fit. Eventually we lighted on Antigua in the first week of February - just when, as it happened, the England touring party was playing a four-day match against the Leeward Islands in St John's. Whatever the base or abstruse motives, it turned out to be a happy choice.

Antigua has many charms. There are its 365 beaches (one for every day of the year, as you are told about every day of the year), there are the fish and the rum punches, there is the winter sunshine, though fierce storms can blow as well. But its particular fascination is as a fragment of British colonial history whose relics are some of them sad and some happy. Happiest of all, needless to say, is cricket.

Like other colonies which ended in our hands, Antigua has a Spanish name. Columbus sighted the island on his second voyage in 1493 and named it after the statue of Santa Maria della Antigua in Seville cathedral. By the time a party of English settlers landed in 1632, the original inhabitants, the Carib Indians, had vanished. Soon plantations were established, first tobacco, then sugar, and African slaves were brought to work them. Betty's Mill is one survival of that period, a cane-crushing plant now being restored on its forlorn little hill-top. The Antiguan people are another: almost all 65,000 of them are of African descent.

There is no point in trying to pass over the plantation years, especially if, like me, you live outside Bath in Somerset. Large parts of that grand Georgian city were built with West Indian sugar money, notably Beckford's Tower which overlooks Bath and which was built by the eccentric William Beckford, who also built Fonthill in Wiltshire with his sugar fortune. So is the magnificent Codrington Library at All Souls College in Oxford, named after a planter and governor of the Leeward Islands.

The historic centre of Antigua isn't St John's, the little capital where the vast cruise ships from Miami dock, but English Harbour on the south of the island, a fine natural harbour of two lagoons whose 18th- century buildings have been happily preserved. The best view of the harbour is from Shirley Heights, a great headland overshadowing the lagoons, where 200-year-old barracks have been converted into a hotel and bar. It was presumably at English Harbour that Sir Thomas Bertram landed when he went out to inspect his Antiguan plantation in Mansfield Park. Driving around and across the island (which I'm fairly sure Jane Austen never visited), I wondered where Bertram's plantation might be. On the north-west, near St John's, a county of flat fields and sand? Or in the much damper and lusher south-west, with its dense foliage and banana palms? Or on the north-east, where we stayed at the Long Bay Hotel, with its long beach on one side of a spit of land and on the other a lagoon where I attempted to sail baby boats?

Jane Austen's novel has become contentious because of the Antiguan reference. In his recent book with the self-explanatory title Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said devotes a good deal of attention to the book. It doesn't occur to him that the Antiguan plantation is a device in the plot designed to remove Sir Thomas from the action at a critical moment, and may have no political or economic significance.

What's for certain is that Bertram's plantations, had they existed, would have decayed and fallen. The years after the emancipation of the slaves were bleak ones for the West Indians: they were paid a pittance by land- owners who were no longer obliged even to feed and clothe them. What is strange is how much of England the islands retained, Antigua more than most: it is in some ways more English than England. At Willikie's on a Sunday morning you see something you will never see from Land's End to Hadrian's Wall: an Anglican church with standing room only, packed out on to the porch.

The hotels and restaurants are also curiously reminiscent of home. Around English Harbour there are several Italianate or seafood eateries which might be found in the Home Counties. Although St John's is little more than an overgrown village, whose buildings are still mostly only two-storey, it too has something of the air of an English seaside town.

And there, on the edge of the town, was one of the things we - or I - had come for. The attachment of the West Indians to cricket is a fascinating oddity. It was introduced some time in the last century, presumably by British soldiers and sailors. By 1895, when a touring English side found that it was the national passion of the island, a member of the touring party kept a diary in which he artlessly recorded that "in Antigua they get severely offended if they are addressed as `Niggers'. Blacks is the name they like to be called"; and described how a match had been watched by a crowd of 7,000, which must have been a fifth of the population of the island then. He recorded an Antiguan cricketer who said that "although some of his team were physically puny, if they had the same food as we, they would readily have beaten us."

You cannot say he was wrong. The Antiguans ate better, grew bigger, and they beat us. I watched the tour match between the MCC (as I still think of them) and the Leewards, which is to say effectively Antigua. It says something that an island with a population of 65,000 can give England a close-run game. But then this tiny island has produced Viv Richards, Andy Roberts and Richie Richardson, and on a good day a best-of-Antigua XI from the last 25 years could take on any Test side in the world.

So several happy days were spent like this: early swim, breakfast, read and swim again, then to the cricket, leaving my wife contentedly on the beach where I rejoined her after close of play for a last swim, a rum punch and then (perhaps) a drive to dinner near English Harbour.

I was restless after a week and needed something more than a diet of sun, sea and sport. But to escape the English February, there are few better places than Antigua for a break. !

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor