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“Say Their Names!” A celebration of the legacy of enslaved dockyard workers

On March 8, 1744, a devastating explosion shattered through Nelson’s Dockyard, leaving a trail of destruction, and claiming the lives of eight men. For centuries, their names remained shrouded in obscurity, their stories lost to history. Now we know them as Billy, London, James Soe, Caramatee Quamono, Dick, Joe, Scipio, and Johnno.

The explosion was a tragic accident that occurred due to badly stored gunpowder. The blast not only resulted in loss of life but also caused significant damage to the surrounding area. In the aftermath, the enslaved workers who perished in the explosion were relegated to anonymity, their identities overlooked, and their sacrifices forgotten. 

During the 18th century, Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua was a bustling hub of maritime activity, serving as a vital naval base for the British Royal Navy in the Caribbean. The dockyard was home to a diverse population, including British naval officers, enlisted sailors, craftsmen, merchants, and enslaved men. These inhabitants worked tirelessly to maintain and repair naval vessels, support maritime operations, and facilitate trade in the region. The dockyard’s strategic location made it a key centre for military operations and commercial ventures, attracting people from various backgrounds seeking opportunities for employment and advancement.

The contributions of enslaved men are often overlooked in historical narratives, but they were essential to the functioning of Nelson’s Dockyard and played a significant role in shaping the socio-economic landscape of Antigua.

Thanks to meticulous research and dedicated efforts to preserve their memory, on Wednesday these men are recognised and honoured.

“The Original 8 names came out of Antigua assembly minutes, “explained Dr Chris Waters, Manager of the heritage Department at Nelson’s Dockyard.

Inspired by these names, a trip in 2019 by members of the Heritage Department to The National Archives in London, brought to light historical documents, with dozens of lists of names of enslaved and free Africans who laboured in the Dockyard. From eight original names to well over 700. These men – and women – enslaved and free, were skilled workers. They were a key part of the building and maintenance of the Dockyard and left a legacy still visible in the buildings today.

Now, in year five of the March 8th Project, a vibrant evening of music, poetry and history unveiled a new gallery at the Nelson’s Dockyard Museum, a March 8th Memorial commemorating not just the men who lost their lives in the 1744 explosion but all those who lived and worked in the Dockyard, including the West Indies Regiment who made their home in Middle Ground. Through artifacts, documents and interactive displays, the exhibition provides insight into the lives and legacy of these men and women.

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