Antigua was first inhabited by the Siboney ("stone people"), whose settlements date at least to 2400 BC. The Siboney were succeeded by the Arawaks, who originated in Venezuela and gradually migrated up the chain of islands now called the Lesser Antilles. The warlike Carib people drove the Arawaks from neighboring islands but apparently did not settle on either Antigua or Barbuda.
Christopher Columbus landed on the islands in 1493, naming the larger one "Santa Maria de la Antigua." The English colonized the islands in 1632. Sir Christopher Codrington established the first large sugar estate in Antigua in 1674, and leased Barbuda to raise provisions for his plantations. Barbuda's only town is named after him. Codrington and others brought slaves from Africa's west coast to work the plantations.
Antiguan slaves were emancipated in 1834 but remained economically dependent on the plantation owners. Economic opportunities for the new freedmen were limited by a lack of surplus farming land, no access to credit, and an economy built on agriculture rather than manufacturing. Poor labor conditions persisted until 1939, when a member of a royal commission urged the formation of a trade union movement.
The Antigua Trades and Labor Union, formed shortly afterward, became the political vehicle for Vere Cornwall Bird, who became the union's president in 1943. The Antigua Labor Party (ALP), formed by Bird and other trade unionists, first ran candidates in the 1946 elections and became the majority party in 1951, beginning a long history of electoral victories.
Voted out of office in the 1971 general elections that swept the progressive labor movement into power, Bird and the ALP returned to office in 1976; the party won renewed mandates in the general elections in 1984 and 1989. In the 1989 elections, the ruling ALP won all but two of the 17 seats.
During elections in March 1994, power passed from Vere Bird to his son, Lester Bird, but remained within the Antigua Labor Party. The ALP won 11 of the 17 parliamentary seats. The official opposition in parliament is led by Baldwin Spencer of the United Progressive Party.