Nelson’s Dockyard Museum: Part 2

Continued from yesterday: The work was grueling, the conditions were extreme, and the sailors were paid almost nothing. If the crew didn’t move fast enough, they were severely punished. One of the more common punishments was being flogged (whipped). The whip they used was called “cat-o-nine-tails,” which had one handle with 9 cords. It was kept in a canvas bag. When the cat came out of the bag, someone was getting beaten, hence the term “don’t let the cat out of the bag.” Another method of punishment was making them hang on to the top of the mast for several hours. In bad weather and rough seas, this was horrible. Another was they would tie a man to a rope and dunk him repeatedly in the water. And yet another punishment was cleaning the head (toilet). All the punishments were always public and everyone had to watch except the skeleton crew needed to keep ship moving.

There was one ship surgeon on board, and no other medical staff. If you got hurt in battle, basically the only treatment available was amputating the hurt limb. Many died of blood loss and shock relating to the amputation. That is, if you were lucky enough to be treated by the doctor before you died of blood loss, anyway, since usually many people were hurt at the same time. And, they had no pain killers. You drank some booze and bit down on a piece of leather while two guys held you on the table. We could go on, but it just gets worse. The most amazing part of all is that the sailors usually didn’t set foot on land for several months at a time. Later in his career, Horatio Nelson went two whole years without setting foot on dry land!

Yet another exhibit was on the weaponry used. In addition to the usual cannons, guns, swords, and knives, they had a display on the creative innovations used. For example, they employed stink bombs. They would light an earthenware pot on fire that was filled with pitch, resin, brimstone, asafoetda and gunpowder, then launch it at the enemy in an effort to stink them out. They also utilized exploding bombs, which were hollow cannon balls filled with gun powder and bullets with a fuse. When the cannon shot off the shell, the friction would cause the fuse to light, then, a few seconds later the shell would explode and send bullets flying (hopefully exploding after the shell was onboard the enemy’s ship/building). They would also heat up regular cannon balls until they were red hot before firing them, in hopes that when it hit the wooden frame, the whole boat/building would light on fire. And these are just a few examples. In and amongst the display are directions on how to properly load cannons/big guns. It sounds like a multi-person task and an extremely dangerous job. Samples of the various shells and weapons were included in the display.

Of course, there was a display on the dockyard itself. The reason the first naval base initially went into Antigua was because the sugar farmers had begged the British to protect them from pirates and other people trying to pilfer their crops. The sugar planters even sent their slaves over to construct many of the buildings, under supervision of the British Navy. The navy also used prisoners of war from other nations as slave labor for erecting and working in the dockyards. All the fort walls were topped with broken bottles with jagged edges to keep people in/out. We have seen broken glass topped concrete walls often in third world countries on our travels.

At its peak, 333 people were employed at the dockyard. By the late 1700s, 70% of the skilled laborers were black slaves. In 1807, slave trading was abolished, though owning slaves bought prior was still legal. The British would capture illegal slave trade ships, but rather sending the slaves back to where they came from, would keep the slaves for themselves. They were called the “King’s Negroes,”, were taught skills and paid wages, but they weren’t free to leave. They had to work for the crown for the rest of their lives. Of course, up until 1806, anyone who enlisted in the military, whether voluntarily or by force, was trapped in the military for life and could never get out. In 1806 they started permitting white soldiers to leave after a minimum of seven years. Skilled slaves were treated better than the unskilled. Also, skilled slaves were sometimes rented out to the plantations. When slavery was abolished in 1834, the skilled black laborers were still an important part of the work force.

The forts had segregated housing. The divisions were officers, junior officers, regular army, skilled slaves, non-skilled slaves, and other regiments. Officers generally had their families with them, but only a handful of the rest of the ranks were allowed to bring their families. It sounds like it was a poor place to raise children anyway, with the soldiers partaking in heavy gambling, drinking, and all the other evils people try to protect kids from.

There was a hospital atop one of the hills on the north side of English Harbor, open from 1793 to 1822. Care in the hospital wasn’t much better than on the ship. The medical practices used dated back to the Ancient Greek times. When people came down with tropical diseases, treatments included cutting the patients so they bleed huge quantities and intentionally poisoning patients to induce vomiting. The idea was that your fluids carried the sickness, so the cure was to get rid of all the fluids in your system. In the 18th century, more than 50% of soldiers sent to Antigua died of tropical disease, probably dying from the treatments as much as the disease itself. English Harbor was sometimes referred to as the “grave of the Englishmen.” And, of course, mosquitoes were a big problem in Antigua, and since it wasn’t known that mosquitoes carried disease, no effort was made to control them. Nelson had complained bitterly about the mosquitoes.

In times of peace, the military was used to put down labor disputes amongst the sugar workers. Once the sugar industry collapsed, the Caribbean was no longer a strategic military location and the number of soldiers and support staff consistently dwindled until the base was finally closed in 1889.

Beyond the big displays mentioned above, there were lots of very small exhibits. There was one on the indigenous peoples of the islands. Both the Arawaks and pre-Arawaks lived in the English Harbor area. Another display listed the job duties associated with each title. As an FYI, the Lieutenant was in charge of kidnapping. There was some memorabilia documenting the dockyard’s restoration process. The first efforts were actually made in 1931, when the government made some repairs to the officers quarters with money donated by a Canadian business. The restoration effort fell flat on its face. When the effort was picked up again in 50s, the English and Canadian navies both helped with the restoration process. There were some neat before and after pictures posted.

Not long after we had finished up at the museum, it was time to take John to the airport. We said sad goodbyes and headed back to the car rental place in Falmouth Harbor to return the car. We could see that the Maltese Falcon had pulled into the marina, so, of course we had to go and check it out up close. It is big, but the other boats in the marina aren’t much smaller. Check out the sail riggings. Definitely different than anything we have seen before.


In the evening, we spent some more time visiting with the boats around us. We have enjoyed all the new friends we have made here and hope the rest of the Caribbean is this social.

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