Legend has it that when Columbus was near Redonda on November 11th 1493, he sighted the island and named it ‘Santa Maria de la Antigua’, supposedly after a chapel dedicated to a famous miracle-working virgin in Seville Cathedral, Spain. Antigua means ‘ancient’ in Spanish. Despite giving it a name, Columbus never actually landed on the island.
An alternative explanation comes from a writer of 1756, a sailor of HMS Blandford at the Antigua Navy Yard, who claimed the name Antigua was given by Columbus as ‘anti-aguo’, signifying no water or an enemy to water. The truth has sadly been lost to time.
The native Carib name of Waladli (which has since been changed to Wadadli by modern Antiguans), was found in Father Breton’s 17th century French dictionary together with the names of other Caribbean islands (Breton 1665:416). The name is very close to the Amerindian word for oil, which was ‘wadli’ (Breton 1665:403). The Dominican Caribs had few reefs on which to collect natural resources, whereas Antigua had many, so these prehistoric peoples may have come to Antigua to collect shark and other oils found in a reef environment. These oils would have been used for lighting and medicinal purposes.
According to Ferdinand Columbus, the son of Christopher, the earlier name for Antigua used by other Arawakan-speaking peoples was Yarumaqui. The meaning may be derived from the Yaruma, a plant from which canoes and rafts were made, and ‘qui’, an island. This plant no longer grows on Antigua, but is common on the surrounding wetter islands.