U.S. Bases in Antigua
Although U.S. interest in the Caribbean had been growing since the late 1800s, when Puerto Rico and Cuba were won from Spain in 1898, the Virgin Islands were bought from Denmark (in 1917), and the Dominican Republic and Haiti as well as the Central American countries of Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Panama were put firmly under U.S. control, this process took an enormous step forward with the advent of World War II. The United States determined that the best way to protect its East Coast and its shipping lanes from enemy attack was to establish bases at strategic points across the Caribbean: this became the "Caribbean Coastal Frontier."
Cuba and Puerto Rico were already in hand, but the other sites had to be acquired from the British. This was easier than might have been expected because the British were hard-pressed at home and anxious not to have to defend the Caribbean colonies as well. Thus, in one of the deals of the century, they generously gave the Americans ninety-nine-year leases to eight base sites in return for fifty reconditioned but over-age destroyers.
The sites were scattered from one end of the Caribbean to the other: from British Guiana on the south to Trinidad, St. Lucia, Antigua, Jamaica, and one of the Bahamian out islands. As Eric Williams noted acerbically, the Caribbean could now be considered the "American Mediterranean."
Antigua was among the smallest of these its population was then about 30,000 and was chosen for its strategic position at the northeastern-most corner of the Antilles, where submarines were becoming an increasing threat, and was to be a center for anti-submarine patrols.
Economic Conditions in Antigua in 1940
Once one of the brighter spots in the British Caribbean, by 1916 the British Colonial Office was referring to Antigua as the "Cinderella of the West Indies" (CO 152/351/155, 3 May 1916). The Great Depression only worsened an already bad situation. The Antiguan economy and population, almost entirely dependent on sugar and its ancillary activities for its livelihood, was by the late 1930sto quote Antiguan historian Novelle Richards"a land of misery and depression, an island of slums and hovels, of barefooted, unkempt people" (Richards 1964: 1). By 1938, unskilled sugar workers were earning only a pitiful $.28-.36/day (Williams 1970: 444), when and if they could get itless than in any other Caribbean island. Bendals, the second-most important sugar factory, closed in 1940. Although the newly formed Antigua Trades and Labour Union had won a 50 percent wage increase, this had only raised average wages from 1s to 1s/6d a day, hardly enough to live on, and much of the increase was eaten up by war-related inflation. Unemployment was high. Thus for Antigua, facing a declining demand for its sole export, sugar, as well as rising unemployment, worker unrest, and generally straightened financial circumstances, the Americans arrived at precisely the right moment. As an article in Life magazine noted at the time, the Americans planned to spend U.S. $4 milliion on the bases in Antigua, a huge infusion of capital at that time. The bases thus offered the Antiguan labor force the first real alternative (aside from migration) to the plantation, and gave a desperately needed boost to all sectors of the economy.
The U.S. Bases
The Americans wanted to build a Naval Air Station at Crabbs and an Army Air Base at Coolidge. Although the overall leasing agreement was not signed until March 27, 1941, and the Antigua agreement until May 28, the U.S. flag was first raised on March 21. Work on the Naval Air Station had begun even earlier, on February 4, and the first members of the U.S. armed forces, a detachment of fifty Marines, had arrived on March 17. Work on the larger Army Air Base began on May 13.
The locations that the Americans chose for their bases were strategically placed on both sides of Parham Harbour, one of the most protected harbors in Antigua and the only one with flat land nearby for runways. The Naval Air Station was built on Crabbs Peninsula, on the east side of the harbor, on land acquired from independent peasants.
For the Army, the government acquired a much larger area across the harbor, extending from Fitches Creek to the bottom of Judges Bay (now known as Jabberwock beach), and included the 970-acre Millar's estate, owned by the Camachos; High Point, owned by the McDonalds; Winthorpes, owned by the Gomes; and the village of Winthorpes. High Point's Number 11 canefield became the site of the main runway (Quinn nd).
The entire area was fenced, from the northern end of Judges Bay on the north to Winthorpes Foot Creek on the south. There were four gates: the main gate, called the Base Gate or West Gate, at Carlisle; the North, or Jabberwock, Gate below the Antigua Beach Hotel; the South Gate just west of St. Georges; and a fourth gate at Judges/Barnes Hill.
Although these were U.S. bases, the contractors were civilian companies: the Arundel Corporation and Consolidated Engineering Co., Inc. for the Navy and S.J. Groves & Sons Company for the Army. Arundel brought about 15 foremen and hired about 1,000 local people to construct barracks, a pier, a concrete apron, and seaplane ramps, and to dredge the channels and blast the reefs for seaplane runways, a turning basin, and a shipping channel. In addition, an observation tower was erected at the tip of the peninsula. Even more people worked constructing the Army facility at Coolidge. Not only did the runway and other facilities have to be built, but the entire village of Winthorpes had to be moved to a nearby location.
The New Winthorpes Story
Much of area chosen for the Army base was canefield, scrub, and mango marsh, but it also included within its boundaries the village of Winthorpes and the estate house at High Point, occupied by the MacDonalds.
The Americans insisted that the villagers had to leave, although they agreed to let the MacDonalds stay. The stated reason was that they were elderly and infirmClytie was blind and his wife was deafbut the fact that they were white and from Antiguas planter class was undoubtedly also a factor. In fact, social life for the MacDonalds (and many other white families) quickly included the American officers, and one of the MacDonald daughters married an American officer.
The villagers at first resisted any suggestions that they moveeven though the Americans promised them a model village, with well laid-out roads, a school, a cemetery, and a good water supply (Quinn nd: 4)and insisted that the Americans should find another site for the base. After a while, however, the village elders decided it would be in their best interests to begin negotiations with the government.
The problem became where to move them. The Anglican minister at St. Georges Church, not wanting to lose a large portion of his flock, suggested Fitches Creek, but the villagers maintained that it was too swampy. The government suggested land in other parts of the island, but the villagers were adamant that they were northerners and had to stay in the north.
As the negotiations dragged on, the Americans, anxious to begin construction and increasingly impatient with the villagers, went ahead and built a perimeter fence around the entire base. All the villagers, including children, were issued passes, which they had to show whenever they wanted to leave or return. As Mary Geo. Quinn put it, We were prisoners in our own land."
The villagers chaffed under the restrictions and relations became increasingly tense. The Americans tried intimidation, sending bulldozers to drive through the villagers front yards and mow down their gardens. The villagers, whose only form of transport was one horse and cart, were terrified by such a huge noisy instrument of destruction.
Finally they agreed to move to an area just west of Barnes Hill, onto the cotton estates of Blizzards and Thibou-Jarvis that the government bought from the Shouls.
Now the struggle became what to name the village. The black-and-white map above rather presumptously named it New Gunthorpes, possibly under the influence of Moody-Stuart, since Gunthorpes was the site of the Antigua Sugar Factory. The government for its part had a number of suggestions, mostly old English village names, and was rudely dismissive of the villagers suggestion that it be called, it seems entirely appropriately, New Winthorpes. In the end, however, New Winthorpes it was.
The Americans offered to build new houses in the new village, but the Colonial government insisted that they were better builders, so instead the Americans paid the government (not the villagers) compensation. Some new houses were builtand can be seen todaybut many of the villagers preferred to move their existing houses. The houses were moved by the villages one horse and cart, and many broke down in the process.
The village elders planned the layout of the new village and allocated the plots by lotteryeach head of family pulled a ticket from a bag--the ticket having a number on it--and chose a plot, the size depending on the size of their plot in the old village. Some traded plots if they did not like the ones allocated to them. [Clip on trading plots.] Not surprisingly, the enitre process was tedious and time-consuming and was not completed until April 2, 1942the date the villagers consider that the village was officially founded.
In the end, many of the villagers felt betrayed by the entire process. They had been promised more land and bigger houses, but did not get them. The new village was on a hill and far from everyday necessities: there was no water in the village itself, so the villagers had to make long treks to fetch water from a spring in Cedar Valley, as well as to the garden plots that had been allocated to them in Cassada Garden. They were far from the sea, so they could no longer fish. Village children had always had a long walk to school, in Piggots or Cedar Grove, but now the way home was up a steep hill. The Americans offered to build a school in the village, but it was a long time in coming, not finished until 1946.
In part because of the protracted process of moving the village, and the villagers, construction on the base was not completed until the spring of 1942, although both bases had immediately begun to operate out of temporary facilities the first planes landed at Coolidge on June 6, 1941, and the first seaplane arrived at Crabbs on June 25.
By this time, submarine activity was intense and Antigua's geographical position crucial. Enemy subs attempting to reach the shipping lanes leading to Trinidad and Curaçao (where there were oil refineries), Guantanamo, Cuba, and the Panama Canal all had to pass near Antigua; in addition, all movement in and out of Guadeloupe, at that point under Vichy control, had to be monitored. Anti-submarine patrols out of Antigua extended over a 350-mile radius into the Atlantic, and there were frequent sightings well into the summer of 1943. Planes flying out of Antigua dropped depth charges and demolition bombs, although there were no reports of subs destroyed as a result. Survivors from torpedoed merchant ships were brought to both St. Kitts and Antigua. There was a blackout beginning on March 29, 1942, and when the harbor at Castries in St. Lucia was mined by the French Vichy government, ships were diverted from St. John's Harbor to Parham and an anti-torpedo net installed.
The Effect of the Bases on the Antiguan Economy
The construction of the two bases provided immediate work for thousands of skilled and unskilled laborers, from carpenters to mechanics to tally clerks, and their subsequent operation provided maintenance, artisanal, and clerical jobs for hundreds more. Further, they earned what was to them a "princely pay." For the first time since the 1700s, the Antiguan planters no longer controlled access to work, and therefore to a livelihood, for the mass of the population. Men from any village in walking distance from the Bases (including from St. Johns), as well as from other islands, applied for jobs not only as construction workers, but in the many ancillary activities necessary on a working base (in laundries, in vehicle maintainence workshops, as tally clerks, etc.). In addition, there were longer term benefits: new skills were learned, from driver to motor mechanic to heavy equipment operator, that provided Antiguans with marketable skills marketable not only in Antigua, but after the war in Aruba, Curaçao, England, and the United States. Where before there had been only one or two tractors on the island, now there were bulldozers, huge trucks, steam shovels, and other heavy equipment.
According to the Magnet, the laborers believed that wages were being kept low by the Antiguan government, which was refusing to protect them from exploitation by outsiders, while the Americans were sympathetic to the demand for an increase (Magnet, 9 April 1941, 23 May 1941). To prove the point, the Magnet printed a letter from the U.S. Department of Labor that pointed out that wages throughout the Caribbean were fixed in consultation with local governments (Magnet, 3 May 1941). The British government was also pushing the Americans to raise the rates, although the local administrator was resisting (FO 371/A3382/20/45, A4526/20/45). In the end, a compromise was reached and wages were increased slightly.
In addition to the estimated 2,000 enlisted men at Coolidge and another 300 or so at Crabbs, there were American foremen and skilled workers brought by the two civilian contractors, officers, and a constant stream of visitors off ships and airplanes. This was an enormous influx in an island with a population of roughly 25,000. Virtually all were male and white, and many of the enlisted men came from the U.S. South a decision having been made not to send black American troops to Antigua (FO 371/A3511/18/45, File 34106).
It should be noted that black American troops were sent to Trinidad, but not Antigua, presumably because of the secret nature of the anti-submarine activity in Antigua. There was a great deal of correspondence between the Colonial Office, the Foreign Office, and the Americans about this issue: the British were concerned about reports of racial animosity in Trinidad and were under pressure at home not to appear discriminatory. Thus in 1941, the British assured the American government that they had not requested that no black Americans be included among the civilian employees sent to build the bases in the Caribbean. In 1942, the question was again raised in the House of Commons and again the Americans were assured that the allegations were unfounded (CO 971/20/72059/1941; FO 371/A1065/10/45, 1942, File 30638). Nevertheless, the British were concerned that black Americans would be working beside West Indians while earning many times more, leading to local unrest, and so insisted that they preferred the use of local labor (see, e.g., FO 371/A1798/10/45, File 30640; also see Palmer 1983 for a discussion of Trinidad; and Krigger 1986 for an illuminating discussion of similar reactions to the Americans in St. Thomas when the United States took over in 1917).
This issue arose again in 1943, when the United States decided to send Puerto Rican troops to replace "continental" U.S. troops in the British West Indian islands. This time the issue of color was compounded by the issue of nation: when polled, the local governors from Jamaica, the Leewards, British Guiana, and Trinidad all objected, reporting that they were concerned about the "serious political difficulties" that could result if "other West Indians" were brought to defend their islands when local troops were not considered trustworthy enough to do so. It was not just that Puerto Ricans were "other" West Indians, however, but that Puerto Rican troops, who were of a "Spanish-negro strain," would as U.S. nationals "expect to be treated as white men, a thing that would in practice almost certainly involve serious trouble amounting possibly to disorder." Governor Jardine wrote from Antigua that he was worried about contact between Puerto Ricans, who were well on the way to self-government, and "leftist coloured Antiguans." (In Trinidad, where there had been serious clashes between the American black troops and the local population, the governor was pushing hard to get the black Americans removed, and although he was concerned that he might end up with both black Americans and Puerto Ricans, he agreed that Puerto Ricans would be preferable. He warned, however, that although the Puerto Ricans might "feel themselves to be white, they are not likely to be so regarded here," and this would undoubtedly lead to problems.) The Chief of Staff, Porto [sic] Rico Dept. of U.S. Army, cannot have helped matters much when he wrote the U.S. army commander in Antigua (who passed the letter along to the governor, who in turn passed it to the Foreign Office) that "We draft Porto Rican troops into white and coloured units... Porto Rican officers are white and of social class equal to continental officers."
The United States then told Britain that it needed to find a place for 15,000 Puerto Rican troops and wanted them in inactive theaters involving minimal shipping not a sign of great trust. It refused to bow to any British concerns: that Puerto Ricans replace black troops in Trinidad, that this be for the duration of the war only, and that the numbers be limited. It was, however, willing to select only "white Puerto Ricans with knowledge of English and high school standard" for the West Indies. The Foreign Office had no choice but agree, and Puerto Rican troops began to arrive in September 1943. (On all this, see FO 371/File 34106: A3511/18/45; A4276/18/45; A4277/18/45; FO 371/File 34111: A8080/18/45; A8250/18/45; with enclosures. Much of this correspondence was marked "Secret" and "Most Secret" and one letter noted that the matter was "explosive" and "too dangerous to be handled on paper" presumably because it concerned issues of race, which was tied in the Foreign Office mind to wartime security.)
To Antiguans, the Puerto Ricans were a real puzzle. They considered themselves white one even refused to work with a black man at the base and they were treated as white by the Americans. But as Sir Bede Clifford, Governor of Trinidad, had foretold, the Antiguans did not accept the ascription so easily: Puerto Ricans may have ridden on the whites-only busses, but to Antiguans they neither looked nor behaved like whites. An article in the Magnet referred sarcastically to the passengers as "white and so-called white" employees (Magnet, 20 December 1943). (In one of history's nice ironies, the black unit that had been in Trinidad went on to become part of the Puerto Rican unit, the 84th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion (see Palmer 1983: 61).)
The American Brand of Racism
Thus although the Americans were initially greeted with brass bands and open arms, Antiguans at all levels of society quickly found that the Americans did not see their society as they did. The Americans brought to Antigua a consciousness of race, and a level of racial discrimination and hostility, that was far greater than any that Antiguans had known, at least since slavery ended it was so strong, and so different, that many people told me that it was the Americans who had introduced racism to Antigua. This is not to say that Antiguans did not know racism: the middle classes still faced a color barrier, although it was gradually rising, while those from the laboring classes who had traveled to England or the United States and particularly those who had served in the British armed forces in World War I had returned home angry and vocal about the discrimination they had suffered. In addition, the Garvey movement had affected the consciousness of many West Indians, including Antiguans. What they meant was that the American southern (and army)-style racism of 1941 was different from the kind of "muffled" racism they had know in Antigua itself.
There are many examples, ranging from outright discrimination to more subtle changes in the structure of social life. The United States in the early 1940s was a society in which racial discrimination was pervasive, and in the South segregation, in the form of Jim Crow laws that had been passed in the early decades of the twentieth century, was still legal. Now Jim Crow practices were introduced on the base, including separate toilets and lunch counters. Antiguans who remember those days were well aware that the Americans were mainly "crackers" from the South, and talked about a war between "north against south."
To the dismay of many Antiguans and to the disgust of the Magnet (20 December 1943), these were practices the Antiguan government allowed. In fact, the British were determined to leave such matters to the local authorities in all the islands. For instance, when one complaint from Trinidad alleged that the Americans were trying to restrict "places of refreshment" to whites only, this was denied by the Colonial Secretary. A British M.P. was told by the Colonial Office that this issue had to be "left to the Governors concerned in consultation with the local United States authorities." (On this see CO 971/20/2, File 72059 (1941); FO 371/A1134/10/45, File 30639 (1942).)
Further, American racism not only divided people crudely according to simple phenotypic distinctions between white and black with black being automatically inferior but it was fierce and personal: the Americans introduced a new level of racially based violence, verbal and physical: filthy language, drunken driving, fist fights, brawls, and shooting incidents all became commonplace. White soldiers expected Antiguan workers to jump on command, and quickly resorted to verbal and even physical abuse. They were trigger happy and prone to pulling out knives and guns, and there were a number of serious incidents, including at least two murders: one was a man from Freemans Village who tried to steal from an American soldier; another, called Son-Son, was shot in town by a Marine when he refused to be forced off the sidewalk and into the gutter by the American.
There was no equal justice: although the American who shot Son-Son was sent away, for the most part the Americans often got off with a reprimand while the Antiguans were punished with jail time. An article in the U.S. magazine, The Nation, noted that although those who commited offenses outside the bases were technically subject to British law, Southern Americans would not accept coming before a local magistrate, and that if this were allowed to happen, "ugly hostility on both sides may be anticipated" (Nation, 20 September 1941: 251). It was the local belief that, even when they were court-martialed, all the soldiers had to do was pay $.05 as a fine for the price of a bullet and accept transfer out of the country. In 1940, Antigua had the lowest crime rate per capita in the Leewards; by 1942, the rate had doubled (Hammond 1952: 40).
As noted, the Americans did not want to bring black Americans to the base, but there were a few; two in particular are remembered locally for their willingness to come to the defense of the Antiguans when they saw them being harrassed by the white soldiers.
It should be noted that there was also little love lost between the British and the Americans, although the issue was not race but class and nation. The Leeward Islands Regiment was stationed at Campside, where a British Sergeant-Major named Floodgate was training Antiguan troops. Floodgate got into frequent fights with the Americans in taverns in town, and in one well-remembered story, trounced six American soldiers at one time.
As the war progressed, the British increasingly capitulated to American interpretations of justice, even when they felt they were not in the best interests of the local population. For instance, the Americans refused to have their men tried by local (nonwhite) juries, and the British then discussed how to rewrite the jury law to make it possible for them to do so although they noted that such legislation "would require very careful drafting to avoid any suspicion of colour prejudice" and that this was possible in the United States not because of the laws but because the "sheriff only picks white persons when a white person is going to be tried" (FO 371/A7337/10/45, File 30647; A9614/10/45, File 30649). In the end it was agreed that no colonial jury would satisfy the Americans and the effort to make them accountable to in the local courts was dropped.
The coming of the bases also changed relations between working-class men and women. Because of peculiar to Antiguans American notions of "democracy," racial barriers that were strictly enforced during the day suddenly dropped at night, when the American enlisted men were all too happy to socialize with working-class Antiguan women, including "interfering" with the wives of Antiguan men. In addition, the Americans had a whole new way of courting, one that had a lasting effect on Antiguan social patterns. The Americans had money to spend on their dates, and they spent it freely, leading to expectations on the part of the women that Antiguan men found hard to meet. Antiguan men complained bitterly that the women were receiving money and gifts and were becoming much too "independent." The Americans also scattered largesse around, handing out candy, beer, and cigarettes, and even tossing dollar bills out of their trucks as they passed through the villages on Sunday trips to Shirley Heights. They dressed in ways that Antiguans found strange: for many, it was the first time they had seen grown men without shirts and in short pants in public, and the Americans wore no hats. Prostitution, which up until then had been undercover and confined primarily to the days when the British ships were in port, was now open.
The Legacy of the Bases
By July 1943, with a change of regime in the French islands, the submarine threat diminished and Antigua's importance immediately declined. Aerial patrols moved over to Coolidge in December 1943 and Crabbs became a Naval Auxiliary Air Facility in February 1944, providing refueling facilities, quarters for visiting crews and some communications. It went into caretaker status in January 1945.
Despite their short life, the U.S. bases had a profound impact on the Antiguan economy and society. The infusion of U.S. dollars led to a huge rise in the standard of living. A number of schools (including Ottos Primary School) and houses (including Michael's Village) were subsequently built from the lumber that had been at the Base.
The Americans not only provided relatively well-paid jobs at a time when the economy was depressed, but taught the people who worked there many new skills, particularly related to construction. In addition, the fact that Antigua had a long runway gave it a jump start on the tourism industry. (Before Coolidge was turned back to the British, Villa Airport received commercial flights, the first in March 1943 [Dyde: 236]. The runway was short and covered in grass, which made it hazardous when it rained [Warren personal communication].) The Officer's Mess became one of Antigua's first hotels for tourists.
In addition, the rent the Americans paid for continuing use of Crabb's and of the northern part of the army base have gone into major infrastructural projects, including the dredging of the St. John's harbor and acquiring land elsewhere in the island. And last but certainly not least, the Base was a training ground for many of the future leaders of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union, including V.C. Bird, Kem Roberts, Bradley Carrott, Lionel Hurst, and J. Oliver Davis, all of whom worked there at one time or another.
[References to come]