Newport Harbor, located toward the southwestern shore of Rhode Island’s Aquidneck Island and English Harbour, on the southern side of the beautiful Caribbean island of Antigua . . . two lively and charming ports of call, found on two similar but distinct islands. Separated by approximately 1500 nautical miles - Aquidneck in the north Atlantic, Antigua in the heart of the Eastern Caribbean – share a common history, people and culture. Rich in seafaring tradition, their colorful histories are wrought with the struggle for freedom, independence & hard work and are inhabited respectively by a people fiercely proud of this heritage.
The Histories of Aquidneck Island & Antigua
The development, population and present economy of Aquidneck Island and the Leeward Island of Antigua, has been greatly influenced and determined by their respective and prime locations on the Eastern Seaboard and the heart of the Caribbean Sea. While Aquidneck Island includes the municipalities of Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth, it is Newport -- the “City by the Sea” -- for which it is most widely known.
For centuries, deep-water harbors, offering safe haven from storms and ease of access from the open oceans, have developed cultures, economies, populations and trade opportunities, which indelibly influenced their maritime histories and enduring vitality. Newport and Antigua are no exception in this regard - serving as perfect examples of that mutually nurturing connection between water and land.
Aquidneck and Antigua both attracted early settlers seeking religious freedom. Today on both islands, you will find churches and places of worship representing a wide variety of denominations. Newport is home to the Touro Synagogue – the oldest synagogue in the United States. Antigua has many Anglican and Moravian churches, as well as the Baha’i Faith and a sizable population of those who adhere to the Rastafarian culture. While not strictly a religion, Rastafarianism is guided by the bible, and in its purest form embraces a peaceful, natural lifestyle, which speaks out against poverty, oppression and inequality.
Rhode Island’s fervor for religious tolerance and freedom is believed to have ignited with Ann Marbury Hutchinson, who was banished from Massachusetts for her religious beliefs in 1637. Ann moved to Rhode Island, along with William Coddington, John Clarke and others, forming a settlement on Aquidneck Island in 1638. Clarke & Coddington went on to found Newport in 1639, setting the stage for a vibrant new community encircling the harbor. Interestingly Antigua, in 1684, received a visit from a gentleman with the similar name of Codrington, who came to investigate the potential for the sugar trade – thus instigating one of the major economic and cultural influences in the history of that island.
Inspired no doubt, by their founders’ bold efforts to establish religious freedom, Rhode Island became the first of 13 original colonies to declare political independence from Britain in 1776. Antigua however, remained a British Colony for almost another two hundred years - until 1967, when along with her dependencies Barbuda and the tiny island of Redonda, she became an Associated State of the Commonwealth, and in 1981 achieved full independence. Today both islands’ tumultuous efforts for personal, religious and political independence are celebrated annually with enthusiasm and style! July 4th festivities ring throughout all the communities of Aquidneck Island, while late July brings 10 lively days of joyous ”Carnival” to Antigua. One of the best celebrations in the islands this summer’s Antigua Carnival is scheduled from July 27th through August 6th and commemorates the abolition of slavery.
As former British colonies, Aquidneck and Antigua have long hosted bases and yards for naval operations at various times in their respective histories. Forts, bunkers, wharves and battlements still stand throughout both islands, reminders of a similar past and their strategic value to various rulers and governments. Aquidneck’s Fort Adams sits at the south entrance to Newport Harbor, where in earlier times a watchful eye was cast to the bay and the sea for approaching enemy vessels. Today this old fort and its spacious grounds serve as a treasured state park, offering a variety of recreational opportunities, events and music festivals for residents and visitors. This summer Ft. Adams will again host the renowned JVC Jazz Festival, August 8-10th, and the Apple and Eve Folk Festival, August 15-17th as well as many other events.
High on the hills to the east of English Harbour, Antigua lies the restored ruins of an 18th century English observation post “Shirley Heights” which today enjoys a new life as a recreational and leisure venue for Antiguans and visitors alike. Named for Sir Thomas Shirley, this military complex sits advantageously overlooking English and Falmouth Harbours. The site offers nearly 270 degrees of breathtaking panorama, including views of the nearby islands of Montserrat and Guadeloupe. Shirley Heights was a perfect vantage point in more hazardous times for securing English and Falmouth Harbours from enemies. Today it remains popular among locals, yacht crews and “tourists in the know” for its famous Sunday afternoon gatherings to enjoy a rum punch, barbecue and steel & reggae bands and is a popular spectator position during Antigua Sailing Week and other regattas. Similarly, Newport’s Castle Hill is a popular Sunday gathering spot for music and brunch or watching the start of races.
Naval operations in turn, have traditionally afforded security and protection to each island’s growing populations and commercial ventures through times of uncertainty, predation and war. Aquidneck Island still reigns today as a preferred homeport for vessels of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, with many piers, ship berths and wharves dotting the western shores of Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth. Though the busiest years for Newport naval operations seem to be now past, the Navy still remains a strong, visible and welcome presence, with the heaviest concentration of its remaining facilities in Middletown. The oldest and esteemed U.S. Naval War College welcomes military and naval students, strategists and teachers from all parts of the world. With handsome buildings and grounds, it sits proudly off the northern end of Newport Harbor, on Narragansett Bay. Prime shoreline resources not to be wasted, many former Navy properties have been converted to civilian uses, with boat building, marine trade and repair businesses thriving and serving an ever growing private yacht industry.
Antigua’s distinguished place in maritime and naval history is unequivocal. The 1650’s mark the earliest uses of English Harbour for ship careening and warship repairs. Nelson’s Dockyard, in English Harbour, is the only remaining Georgian naval dockyard in the world, dating back to 1725. Named after the famous British hero of Trafalgar (1805) - Lord Horatio Nelson, the Dockyard was originally designed to service wooden sailing warships, maintaining and careening them, thus saving the long voyage to America for docking. The yard also saw the siting of other buildings and services critical to ships and their maintenance – not the least of which was water collection, in cisterns that are still in use today. Antigua’s welcoming infrastructures for a naval presence, brought an extra measure of security to the island throughout its early years, when hostile foreign ships and pirates plied the surrounding waters. Straddling the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, about midway between the Leeward and Windward islands, Antigua is aptly referred to as “The Heart of” or “The Gateway to the Caribbean.”
Newport functioned successfully as a major trading and export center in earlier times with rum, candles, fish, furniture and silver being major exports. In addition to trade, Newport’s history is rich with notable artists, writers, scientists, educators, architects, theologians, landscape designers and craftsman. Two well-known craftsmen in Newport’s history, Townsend and Goddard, had strong Caribbean connections, importing mahogany from the West Indies to craft fine furniture.
Newport and Antigua each played a significant role in the “Triangle Trade” of the 18th & 19th centuries in which rum from New England was shipped to West Africa and traded for slaves, who were then shipped to the West Indies “sugar islands” to work the plantations. Molasses, a byproduct of sugar production, was in turn shipped to New England distilleries to produce yet more rum. The sugar cane gown in Antigua was harvested and taken to large mills powered by the strong, steady Caribbean trade winds. Each mill could in a week grind about 200 tons of sugar cane to produce 5,500 gallons of syrup. The syrup was then boiled down to crystallization stage and the molasses drained off from the sugar crystals for use in rum production. While some of the molasses was distilled locally, the majority of it along with the sugar was exported. During the 1700’s and 1800’s New England rum produced from West Indies molasses was considered the most desirable to be had, history recording that in 1761, Rhode Island had 22 distilleries and three sugar refineries. Indeed rum was a major factor in the subsequent industrialization of New England, as many of the profits were used to build textile mills and develop other manufacturing ventures.
Rhode Island outlawed slavery in 1774 and following the American Colonies’
independence from Britain, Parliament passed the “Navigation Act
of 1783 which prohibited American ships from trading with British Colonies
and ended the Triangle Trade. Captain Horatio Nelson of the British frigate
Boreas was charged with enforcing the Navigation Act. Slavery was finally
abolished in Antigua in 1834 when King William IV issued a decree of full
Wrought with speculation and controversy, this Newport landmark is believed by some to have been built by Vikings around the year 1000 A.D., yet others posit that it is merely the ruin of a windmill built by an early resident of Newport, Governor Arnold. But as with Stonehenge and Easter Island, the origins and purpose of Newport’s “Old Stone Mill” remains an intriguing mystery.
Yachting & the Beginnings of the Yacht Charter Industry
During World War II Royal Navy Commander V.E.B. Nicholson purchased a 70’ vintage 1903 schooner, “Mollihawk”. Following the war and his retirement, the Commander, with his wife and two sons, Desmond and Rodney, sailed Mollihawk from Ireland to the West Indies - arriving in Barbados on January 1, 1949. They meandered up the island chain, arriving in Antigua a month later, soon to settle in the village of English Harbour. While refitting Mollihawk alongside at Nelson’s Dockyard, the Commander and his sons were approached by a wealthy American from the newly established Mill Reef Club. He inquired if they might take him and his friends sailing “down island”. Thus began the official launch of the yacht charter industry in the Caribbean, and the humble start of the Nicholson legacy. Desmond & Rodney Nicholson both still live in Antigua with their families and both enjoy a visit to Newport whenever possible.
Through many years of hard work and a sterling reputation for honesty, Commander Nicholson and his sons promoted the growth of the yacht charter industry -- even advising and assisting in the upstart of many competing charter companies. Nicholson has continued to thrived and grow to become the major player it is today in the yacht charter industry. The V.E.B. Nicholson office in English Harbour offers yacht services and yacht charters worldwide, as well as organizing the world’s largest charter yacht show each December, posing a tremendous benefit to Antigua’s economy. In the 1970’s Nicholson established a retail charter office in Boston, Nicholson Yacht Charters, and in 1992 opened an office in Newport for its busy clearinghouse division, offering charter management services for upwards of 70 yachts – sail & power – ranging in size from 50’ to the 250’ modern clipper ship Stad Amsterdam.
Throughout the years the Nicholsons have encouraged Antiguans to become involved in yachting and many can be found crewing on yachts worldwide as well as operating prosperous marinas and yacht service businesses in Antigua. Antiguan born Sylvia Weston is well known and respected throughout the yachting industry and has been a charter broker with Nicholson Yacht Charters for nearly 40 years!
Newporters Robert H. Goddard and Hope Goddard were the first most faithful yacht charterers at English Harbour at the start of Antigua’s yacht industry. Later they were sponsors of the yacht Freelance, Antigua’s entry for the 1976 Tall Ship’s Race and also of Hugh Bailey, one of the leading Antiguan yachtsmen, for which he later received an award “order of the British Empire”.
Constantly seeking ways to nurture its ties with Antigua, the Nicholson Newport office annually collects items to be donated to the churches and schools on her sister-island. In the fall children’s summer clothing, books or educational supplies
(as well as nautical books for Desmond Nicholson’s Dockyard Museum
Library) are collected and arrangements made for the items to be carried
to Antigua on their yachts heading south for the winter season. The items
are in turn distributed to local churches by the Nicholson Antigua office.
Each island hosts many other world-class sailing races, maritime events and superb vacationing opportunities during their respective “high” seasons. Antigua’s harbors hum with activity from the festive start of the Nicholson Charter Yacht Show, the traditional kick off of the Caribbean yachting season. Now in its 42nd year, it is the oldest & largest charter yacht show in the world, and is held annually early each December, showcasing the world’s finest power and sailing charter yachts to brokers from all over the world. The prime Caribbean yachting season continues through the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta and Antigua Sailing Week from mid April to early May each year, following which yachts begin their annual migration to summer cruising grounds – typically New England (primarily Newport) and the Mediterranean.
The government of Antigua, aware of the significant contribution of the Nicholson family to the history and present economy of the island, has recently presented Rodney & Desmond with awards of recognition and dubbed the annual Nicholson Charter Yacht Show a “National Treasure.” The Nicholson office in Antigua continually works closely with the Antigua government to improve all aspects of service and hospitality for visiting yachts. In early March of this year a major project was begun on restoration and fortification of the sea wall in historic Nelson's Dockyard. Well under way at this writing, the project also includes improved shore power facilities & amenities for yachts: electricity will include 380 volts, three phase at 125 amps to 125/250 volt, single phase at 50/100 amps. Telephone and cable TV connections will be added as well.
In August 2002, as a result of the diligent efforts of the Antigua Marine Trades Association, the Antigua & Barbuda Ministry of Tourism appointed Mr. Andy McDonald to the position of Yachting Liaison Officer. Mr. McDonald's main function is to facilitate communications between the Antigua Government and the Marine Trades regarding yachting concerns. Demonstrating its support for the yachting industry, the government responded quickly by passing legislation to expedite the customs clearance of imports and shipments as well as duty-free fuel for yachts. Further legislation is presently pending to improve immigration procedures and establish duty free provisioning for yachts. (More details are available on the Antigua Marine Trades Association website: www.antiguamarinetrades.org). In addition a program is currently underway to have all reefs and anchorages in Antigua and Barbuda marked with buoys by the end of 2003. The new buoys marking the entrance to and the channels in Falmouth Harbour are now in place.
Newport ‘s prime yachting season begins just as Antigua’s draws to a close, usually opening with the Newport Charter Yacht Show in June, which welcomes the charter yachts back from Antigua and other Caribbean islands, as well as Florida. In “even” years, the Newport Charter Show is soon followed by the start of the famous Newport to Bermuda Race, as it will again in June 2004. (The 2003 race starts from Marion, MA, as it does in alternate years.) Thereafter follows an “endless” summer of wonderful sailing events including the prestigious New York Yacht Club Cruise and the Newport Bucket. Newport summer season winds down with the Classic Yacht Regatta over Labor Day weekend.
The Newport International Boat Show and concurrently running Newport
Yacht Brokerage Show, held in mid-September (this year, September 11-14)
brings another end of sorts to Newport’s summer yachting season.
Departing yachts make final preparations for their passages south -- and
the cycle repeats itself. But, don’t expect to see all boats gone
from Newport and surrounding waters – autumn is considered an alluring
time for sailing. Hearty New England sailors, garbed in fleece and foul
weather gear, continue to sail and participate in the later fall regattas
and races. The “brisk” Block Island Bucket is scheduled this
year for October 18th.
While most of Aquidneck Island’s fertile, productive farmlands have now been turned into housing developments there are today a number working farms still in operation whose fresh produce can be purchased at local Farmer’s Markets. Fishing along with lobster and shellfish have always been a part of Newport’s culture, however for most of the 20th century the economy of Aquidneck Island heavily relied on the US Navy base that employed a large number of local civilians and utilized local goods and services. In the 1930's the America's Cup races came to Newport, Rhode Island introducing yachting to the region. Aquidneck Island today offers world renown shipyards and yacht builders as well as a myriad of state of the art yacht services.
Indeed both islands today rely on tourism as major contributors to their current economies with hotels and cruise ships being significant factors. However, recent reports estimate that yachts visiting Newport and the Narragansett Bay area contribute a staggering $200 million annually to the region’s economy. A Yachting Study on Antigua and Barbuda released in 2002, and based on data compiled in 1999 by the Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, states, “Despite the absence of reliable data, we have determined that the contribution of the yachting industry to the economy is in excess of EC$75 million yearly” (approximately US $30 million).
Both Newport and Antigua are today world-class tourist destinations attractive
to seasonal residents, vacationers as well as conventions. Both are also
enticing to the rich and famous for their surreptitious ambiance as well
as being safe and wholesome environments for family vacations. From Newport’s
famed Bellevue Avenue mansions and Ocean Drive “cottages”
to Antigua’s Mill Reef Club and its gorgeous hillside villas. Tennis,
cricket, polo, golf, surfing, sailing, hiking or beachcombing; stunning
beaches or historic architecture; elegant dining or casual cocktails;
fine shops, art galleries, music and festivals, museums and parks –
Aquidneck Island and her sister island Antigua have something for everyone!
A walk through Newport’s Common Burying Ground between Farwell
& Warner Streets depicts how far back the Antigua – Newport
connection dates. There one will find tombstones bearing the names of
sea captains and their Antiguan crew and others who arrived in Newport
on vessels that set sail from Antigua.
Each May following the end of Race Week many Antiguans holding proper visas seek passage on the yachts heading to Newport for the summer months where they are sure to find a constant stream of work. For many Antiguans and other Caribbean natives, eager to return to their Caribbean islands, after a summer’s work in New England, a yacht delivery passage is a chance to “hitch a ride” home, while earning a good wage for their services.
Suffice it to say, literally hundreds of yachts, their crews, support staff and agents, as well as independent marine trades people, travel regularly between these two “sister” islands - following the seasons and enriching each community with their presence and commerce. The bond is so strong that many have homes, family, business associates and offices on both islands. Indeed, Antiguans are a growing segment of the Newport population bringing with them their fierce devotion to the game of cricket (several local teams now compete during the summer months). In addition there is now a wonderful Caribbean restaurant on Jamestown with another expected to open in Newport in time for the summer 2003 season.
Among the many “symbols” of Antigua is the pineapple. Prized for it’s particularly flavorful and sweet flesh, Antigua’s native “black pineapple” is referred to by many as “Antiguan gold.” Throughout both Antigua and Newport are found countless houses adorned with pineapple carvings or symbols incorporated into their architecture. The pineapple as an almost universal symbol of warmth and hospitality has its origins in Spain (“pina” after the pinecone), where villagers placed the fruit at the entrance to a village to welcome visitors. This symbolism spread to Europe & North America. It is said that in New England ship’s captains would impale a pineapple on their porch railing to announce their return from a voyage and signal that they were accepting visitors.
Hurricane season finds the residents of Aquidneck and Antigua alike, keeping a watchful eye and ear for the weather and an eagerness for the change in seasons. Many yachts wait out the end of the Atlantic summer storm season in Newport, hoping to set sail for the Caribbean by late October or early November. With luck and a keen sense of conditions, the migratory yachting fleet will find itself safely repositioned from Newport to Antigua – enthusiastic for another season of pristine Caribbean sailing. Antigua offers several excellent “hurricane holes” and is a popular place for Caribbean based yachts to seek shelter during “hurricane season.”
While Antiguans today are privy to the same modern weather reports as Newporters – television, cable & the Internet, – old timers and true sailors tune in to Jol Byerly’s daily weather forecasts on “English Harbour Radio.” Jol’s reports keep yachtsmen and locals reliably informed of the movement and status of Atlantic storms and weather systems. Both islands have suffered the effects of these horrific storms and both have shown the same resilience!
Both Antigua and Aquidneck Island are home to many very talented artists who are inspired by the beauty of their respective islands. Aquidneck’s beautiful beaches, rugged coastline and varying atmospheric conditions & Antigua’s colorful houses, tropical flora, sunshine and turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, are inspiration to painters, photographers, sculptors, scrimshanders and potters alike.
Today, both Newport Harbor and English Harbour are as vibrant as ever – having nurtured and cultivated their favored positions in the world of shipping, yachting, tourism and maritime trade. Both islands remain justified in boasting their reputations as two of the most venerable, hospitable, well-serviced and popular destinations in the yachting world! Countless residents of Aquidneck Island initially arrived as crew on yachts making their annual migration north from Antigua and other Caribbean islands. Many have gone on to start or run successful businesses serving the yachts that continue to each summer grace the shores of Aquidneck Island through the Antigua - Newport connection.
- Karen Kelly Shea has worked with Nicholson since 1989 as Charter Manager, opening Nicholson Yachts of Newport in 1992, via the Antigua connection. She resides in Newport with her husband Denny and 2 children, Kelly 6 and Emmet 2. The family visits Antigua many times each year often staying with Rodney Nicholson.
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