Antigua and Barbuda was a fairly peaceful backwater prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the 15th Century. The islands had been occupied by the Siboney as far back as 2,900 B.C. and then by the Saladoid people and the Arawaks.
The Caribs were the last people to occupy the islands before the Europeans turned up. Christopher Columbus was the first reported European to see the islands in 1493, but only at a distance when he named the larger one Santa Maria de la Antigua as he sailed past.
The Caribs kept the Europeans at bay until the early 1600s when the British arrived from nearby St Kitts. Thomas Warner was the first governor but it was Sir Christopher Codrington who made the most lasting impact when he established a sugar plantation on Antigua in 1674; the largest settlement on Barbuda is named after him. Sugar rapidly dominated trade from the islands and the slave trade from Africa grew to meet the demands of the many sugar plantations.
During the 18th century Antigua was also the main base of the Royal Navy Caribbean fleet and had become an important strategic port for commercial trade. By 1834 Antiguan slaves were freed but most had little choice but to remain on the islands and their descendants today make up the majority of the population.
Around 1939 the Antigua Trades and Labour Union (ATLU) was formed and Vere Bird, who became its president in 1943, used it as a political vehicle to drive an independence movement. Although independence wasn’t to come until 1981, the ATLU put up five candidates for the first elections in 1946 and Bird was elected to the legislature and appointed a member of the Executive Council.
The second election, but the first to be held under universal adult suffrage was in 1951 when the Antigua Labour Party (ALP), founded by Bird in the same year won all eight seats on the legislature.
The Antigua Labour Party went on to win nine of the next twelve general elections. They lost in 1971 to the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM) led by George Walter and then held on from 1976 until 2004 when they lost to the United Progressive Party (UPP) under the leadership of Baldwin Spencer and then again in 2009 to the UPP.
Perhaps more remarkably, Vere Bird went on to become the Prime Minister of independent Antigua and Barbuda from 1981 until 1994 (he was Premier of Antigua for much of the time from 1960 to 1981) when he was replaced by his son, Lester Bird, who was Prime Minister from 1994 until 2004.
Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State
The bicameral parliament has a Senate with 17 members appointed by the governor general and the House of Representatives with 17 members who are elected to serve five year terms.