Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-Hole BBC4

Date Posted: 29/04/2013

Hooray! My documentary on an archaeological excavation at English Harbour in Antigua will be broadcast on BBC4 at 9pm on Wednesday. You can see a clip and get more info on the programme at the BBC website.  There are a  few more bits and pieces on the blog I wrote just after the dig.

But this is the story…..

Opposite English Harbour in Antigua is one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. Sheltered from the prevailing winds, a crescent of sand curls around a natural marine amphitheatre. The stage is a mirror-glass sea and the actors yachtsmen; they are watched from the beach by holiday-makers who have paid a small fortune to be there.

This is now a land of honeymooners and rock stars: Eric Clapton’s sprawling cliff-top hide-out is nearby, but there are layers of history here.  The yachts’ tiny modern anchors sometimes catch their flukes on giant iron specimens that litter the seabed, anchors so huge that they defy belief and conjure sinister shadows of the immense ships they once held fast.

This much is known.  The waters of English Harbour have revealed maritime treasures for generations and its sunken artefacts are a constant delight for snorkelers who can be bothered to leave their rum punches at the bar. What is not well known is that the beach has its own secrets, its own layers of history, and it was only when a recent hurricane tore through Antigua that they started to be revealed.

In 2010 Hurricane Earl whipped the sea into such a frenzy that it burst over the sand dune at the back of the beach at English Harbour and formed a small lake. In the subsequent weeks the water found its way back to the sea and cut a deep channel through the dune. Soon bones –large leg bones -began to wash up on the shore while smaller, finer bones – fingers and toes – poked out through the sand. One child tried to put up a beach umbrella but found that he couldn’t drive the pole into the sand. He soon found out why: he was trying to push it though a skull, only centimetres below the surface.

Locals walked the tide line and gathered together the bones they could find, which proved to be the remains of at least seven individuals, and took them to Dr Reg Murphy who runs the museum across the bay at English Harbour.  Over the coming months he gathered together an international team of historians and archaeologists to uncover the puzzle of Galleon Beach. What on earth had happened here?

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In the eighteenth century, Antigua was one of several British Caribbean islands that played a crucial part in the British economy by producing sugar on a vast scale. Britain’s main colonial rival, France, controlled the nearby islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. But Antigua was particularly valuable for its harbour on the southern shore that provided shelter for large fleets during the hurricane season. In the 1720s the British established a dockyard here, an industrial centre for British naval power in the Caribbean.

When war broke out against Revolutionary France in the early 1790s, it was therefore inevitable that the Caribbean, and in particular English Harbour, would become the focus of intense activity.  Thousands of British troops crammed aboard hundreds transports to be convoyed to the Caribbean by powerful fleets, themselves manned by thousands of sailors. Many of those men would never come home.

The Caribbean was a notorious hotbed of disease and English Harbour was particularly foul. As an industrial centre it was full of the sights, smells and waste of maritime industry. Its advantage as a harbour in being so sheltered was also its disadvantage as a centre of population: mosquitos bred in the nearby swamps; the tide barely moved in the upper reaches of the harbour; the air was hot and still.  In the 1780s Nelson was placed in charge of English Harbour and his letters home are full of grimace and exasperation. ‘I detest this place’ he wrote to a friend, and later described it to another as ‘an infernal hole.’

Nelson, however, never even saw Antigua at its worse. He was there at a relatively quiet time – he was in command in the period after the American War of Independence, which ended in 1782, but before the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War, in 1792 – and it was during such periods of war that the Caribbean was particularly dangerous and English Harbour particularly overcrowded. With the sudden influx of thousands of men without natural defences against diseases like typhus and yellow fever, sickness spread through overcrowded ships like fire.

To make matters even worse, we know that the period at the start of the French Revolution was rare for its horror. A new strain of Yellow Fever had come to the Caribbean from a recently established British Colony on the western Coast of Africa near modern day Sierra Leone. This fever became known as ‘Boulam Fever’ for the doomed Boulam Colony whose intrepid founders died from hostile locals and rampaging disease before being largely forgotten by history. But two of those original founders made it to the Caribbean, hot with infection, just as the British troops arrived to fight their war with the French.

English Harbour, as the centre of British Caribbean power, soon found itself in the path of this viral hurricane. British soldiers and sailors began to fall like so much sugar cane, cut in its prime. And where was the most convenient location to bury large numbers of dead men, quickly? The beach – that beautiful beach – that Caribbean picture-postcard which is, in fact, a graveyard.

In the summer of 2012, Dr Reg Murphy and his team opened several trenches on the sand dune, filmed by the BBC, and their discoveries are changing the way that we think about this period in our history. New avenues of research have been opened and old assumptions questioned. Who were these men buried in the sand? Who were the children buried with them? And, perhaps, most intriguing of all, why do their bones all show signs of lead poisoning? Uncovered at last, the bones can now tell their own story.

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