For first-time visitors to the Caribbean island of Montserrat, some of the local vocabulary evokes Geology 101. Words like “pyroclastic flow,” “seismic” and “dome collapse” pop up often in conversations with native islanders and longtime residents.
After all, these people experienced firsthand what now draws many tourists to the British overseas territory: the catastrophic damage from the Soufrière Hills volcano, which erupted twice in the mid-1990s and changed life forever on the drumstick-shaped island in the West Indies.
Known among locals simply as “the volcano,” Soufrière Hills roared to life in 1995 after decades of inactivity, causing many residents of Montserrat’s capital city, Plymouth, to flee. But the real destruction came in 1997, when it erupted again, killing 19 people, burying Plymouth under as much as 40 feet of volcanic debris and mud and forcing government officials to proclaim the city and the southern two-thirds of the 40-square-mile island uninhabitable.
More than two-thirds of Montserrat’s 12,000 residents left, and those who stayed found themselves facing yet another disaster in 2003, when the volcano’s dome collapsed, unleashing clouds of ash across the landscape that required a massive cleanup.
Today, Plymouth and its environs stand abandoned and frozen in time, looking like the set of an apocalyptic sci-fi movie. Behind the locked gates prohibiting entry into the “Exclusion Zone,” a deep drift of mud, lava and ash almost buries the clock tower of the former courthouse and rises to the upper stories of other buildings, prompting descriptions of a modern-day Pompeii.
“That’s still our catch phrase,” said Rosetta West, development officer for the Montserrat Tourist Board. “It’s really awe inspiring, I must say, even as someone from here. … You can’t really understand the contrast. One side of the island is lush and green, and the other is gray and dismal from the ash – although lately I’m seeing signs of grass growing and trees coming back.”
The island’s tourism infrastructure is showing similar signs of resurgence. In 1994 and 1995 the number of visitors, including overnight tourists and day trippers from Antigua, averaged 33,000 a year. Now it’s 7,000, according to government figures. The island hasn’t even had an official director of tourism for the last couple of years.
But West says the position will soon be filled, highlighting the government’s renewed focus on bringing visitors to the island. In 2005 Montserrat opened an $18.5 million airport to replace the one that was destroyed. And since then, several other major development initiatives have gained momentum.
The pivotal project on the horizon is a new capital city and port that will be built on the northwest coast, in Little Bay. According to Ivan Browne, CEO of the government-owned Montserrat Development Corporation, the project will include a hotel and government buildings and is estimated to cost around $300 million. Completion is estimated for 2020.
In the meantime, Montserrat tourism officials are awaiting a decision from the British government on whether it will fund all or a portion of the estimated $150 million needed to build the port. Covering the entire cost, Browne noted, would help quicken Montserrat’s efforts to become self-supporting again.
But even with tourism on the upswing, don’t expect Montserrat to fall into the fate of some other Caribbean islands: overrun with all-inclusive megaresorts, pre-packaged excursions and aggressive vendors. Tourism officials – and locals, too – are committed to maintaining the island’s unique identity: an unhurried pace, nearly nonexistent crime and other quirky attractions that are as fascinating as its volcano.
In addition, “the people in Montserrat are a huge attraction – they’re very friendly and welcoming,” said Pam Arthurton, a Montserrat native who runs an Antigua-based tour company called Carib-World Travel. “It’s a breath of fresh air to see the Caribbean as it used to be.”
Some visitors are surprised to learn of Montserrat’s heritage, which traces back to the 17th century, when settlers from Ireland colonized the island. Known sometimes as “the other Emerald Isle,” Montserrat throws an epic, weeklong celebration around St. Patrick’s Day, and its passport stamp features a shamrock.
Then there’s Montserrat’s spectacular, though not widely known, rock-star history. In 1979, Beatles producer George Martin opened Air Studios Montserrat, and over the next decade the tropical outpost drew such musical legends as Paul McCartney, The Police, The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. The studio was shuttered in 1989 because of damage from Hurricane Hugo, and it remains closed to the public, but music lovers can still get a taste of Monserrat’s musical heritage at the Olveston House, a restaurant and guesthouse owned by Martin, whose star-studded guest list has included Sting and Elton John.
For many, though, the volcano remains the main draw. Tours into the Exclusion Zone are popular (and are allowed only with a permit), and the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which keeps a 24-hour watch on the volcano, is one of the most advanced seismic centers in the world.
At the charming guesthouse Gingerbread Hill, co-owner Clover Lea calls her lava-loving travelers “volcanophiles” who enjoy listening to her and her husband, David, give their firsthand accounts of the destruction and recovery. David also captured some well-known footage of the erupting volcano.
“People always want to know what makes a place tick, and we always get asked, what do people do for a living? Why did the people who stayed stay?” said David, who, along with Lea, arrived as a missionary in 1980. They opened their guesthouse in stages over the years.
“And really, the worst of the volcanic days were awful. It was ash everywhere, all the time, but we still didn’t have any intention of leaving.”
Added Lea: “[It’s like] the little island that could … There is no place like Montserrat. Its beauty, its people. We are truly blessed to have lived here all this time.”
When Donaldson Romeo was a young black portrait artist fighting deportation from Britain, he never dreamed that within a short few years he would be sitting in a prime minister’s chair and wearing an “Irish tartan” waistcoat against the backdrop of a Union Jack.
“Is it straight?” he laughs, adjusting the perfect knot in his matching tartan tie. Seconds later, he jumps up to remove a large spider that has upset one of his aides – a reminder that he is no ordinary premier.
The 54-year-old Montserratian leads residents of a 40sq m mountainous volcanic rock, home to spiders and lizards and leatherback turtles, to three species of hummingbirds and to the rare oriole. Its customs officers stamp shamrocks on visitors’ passports, and its flag comprises a British blue ensign with Irish goddess Ériú in green bearing a black crucifix and golden harp.
The Caribbean outcrop west of Antigua is one of Britain’s last colonies, now known as “overseas territories”, but Montserrat’s links with Ireland date back to plantation owners and slavers of the 17th century.
“I’ll leave the history to the historians,” Romeo smiles.
Originally known as Alliouagana, and renamed by a passing Christopher Columbus, the original residents were Saladoid Indians, along with Arawak and Caribs from South America.
Irish indentured servants became the first European settlers when they were shipped out from neighbouring St Kitt’s in 1632. The English governor of St Kitt’s, Thomas Warner, had feared the mainly-Catholic Irish might side with the French, who had their eye on the colony he had been awarded as a royal patent.
Survivors of the Amazon, fugitives from Virginia, and prisoners sent out from here by Cromwell added to the Irish mix. Some 70 per cent of all settlers gave Ireland as country of origin in the first Leeward islands census of 1678. When sugar cane replaced tobacco and indigo, entrepreneurs from several Irish counties, including representatives of several Galway “tribes”, set up plantations and imported thousands of African slaves.
Queen’s University Belfast academic Donald Akenson and Sir Howard Fergus, Montserrat historian and poet, have researched the less edifying aspects of this relationship, debunking any notions of a “nice” Irish slave holder or overseer. Ears could be cut off as punishment for minor theft, death was a regular penalty, and mulattos born of mixed-race relationships could not be christened by Catholic priests.
As Akenson notes in his 1997 study, If the Irish Ran the World, pre-emancipation Catholics denied full rights were “notably callous” towards potential black congregation members. The Church of England did “only marginally better”, and it was the Wesleyan Methodists, arriving towards the end of the slave era, who showed any serious concern for the spiritual welfare of those in captivity, Akenson says.
After the slave trade was made illegal and the cultivation of sugar beet in Europe undermined the Montserrat sugar economy, the Quaker Sturges family purchased the sugar estates to grow limes. The system of education they introduced benefited families like that of Romeo, who was sent to a secondary school in the US and who has both Italian and Irish blood.
“Like you Irish, we Montserattians can be found from Alaska to Australia, but like turtles we love to return,” he says.
The largest homecoming is during the week-long St Patrick’s festival. Dating back to 1985 when March 17th was declared an official holiday, it was initially focused in St Patrick’s village.
Dancing and singing resembling sean nós was recorded by an RTÉ Radharc television crew in the 1970s. And there were also traces of the Irish language used in the plantations.
Then a sociologist, President Michael D Higgins also tracked the connection with a Channel 4 television crew in 1986, returning in 2000 and accompanied by then RTÉ western editor Jim Fahy, who made a documentary, Dust in the Wind. While enjoying the music and revelry and “goat water”, resembling Irish stew, Higgins acknowledged the serious dimension to March 17th. It was in 1768 that a group of slaves planned a revolt while their masters were drowning shamrock with rum.
After their betrayal and capture, the ringleader, by the name of Cudjoe, had his head hung from a silk cotton tree. A dawn “freedom run” from Cudjoe Head Corner to the village of Salem commemorates the failed uprising, and participants are welcomed at the finish line by a “jump-up” or street party to the strains of calypso and traditional Caribbean soca.
For more than a decade, the Dublin-based Martin Healy Trad Band has been a guest at the annual mardi gras. Healy, who was joined this year by fellow traditional musicians Tommy Keane and Jesuit brother Tom Phelan, says his interest was sparked by the late Pete McCarthy, who travelled to Montserrat.
In his book The Road to McCarthy, the writer observed the “strange and rather eerie hybrid of Morris, Irish and African tribal dance” performed by the island’s masqueraders. Wearing tall bishop’s hats, masks and cloaks strewn with multi-coloured ribbons representing freedom, the dancers move to the crack of a whip and beat of the drum in a satire on European slave owners.
“Fabulous . . . energetic,” is how current British governor Elizabeth Carriere describes the dance, and the various elements of the St Patrick’s festival, ranging from “rhythm” nights to cricket and music by the Emerald Community Singers.
“People love the fact the island has a strong Irish imprint,” says Carriere, wearing the Montserrat national dress of Irish tartan skirt and white cotton blouse for the occasion.
“They love it because there is a romance around it, a cultural construct, it is celebratory.”
Prior to coming to Montserrat, Carriere had worked in South Sudan and Rwanda and says that parallels can be drawn between the psychological trauma experienced in these countries due to conflict and dislocation, and that experienced by Montserratians from the stress of prolonged danger, uncertainty and dislocation as a result of volcanic eruptions.
“Montserratians say to me ‘you should have seen us, we were the jewel of the Caribbean’,” Carriere says. Since 1989, the island has experienced a devastating hurricane, followed by a series of severe volcanic eruptions from 1995 -1997, the first recorded in some 400 years.
The 1997 eruptions obliterated the capital Plymouth, and ended a period of economic self-sufficiency and a vibrant cultural and social life. Since then, most of the island’s once-12,000 strong residents have left, and two thirds of the island became an exclusion zone.
With British government aid, and some also raised in Ireland, remaining residents remain stalwart, friendly, bordering on exuberant as they undertake the slow, painful task of rebuilding their economy, their community and their institutions on the northern end of the island.
Much of the reconstruction after the 1989 hurricane Hugo had taken place in the path of the subsequent volcanic flows from the Soufriere hills, which had been predicted by scientists some years before.
During the second of the eruptions, in 1997, 19 people died. Radio journalist Rose Willock says many of the fatalities were farmers who were living in shelters since the first evacuation, and who had returned to check on animals and crops.
“One of those who died was a very good friend who was in her 70s,” Willock says. “She was going to visit her daughter in Canada and wanted to cut some cassava to make a flat bread for her, but she never made it.”
“Another two women were the mother and aunt of one of our fire officers involved in the relief effort,” Willock says. “The fire officer lives in the US now, but he once told me that he has to keep laughing about life, because if he starts crying he knows he will never stop.”
“I was in Guadeloupe selling art and I came back to see people living like refugees, having lost their homes and everything,” Romeo recalls. Some 75 per cent of the population accepted one-way tickets out offered by the British government, but subsequently found it very hard to cope.
Romeo, who gave up medical studies to help his father run a family business, took up politics on a platform of campaigning for those forced into exile.
Among those who spearheaded subsequent fundraising efforts were expatriate residents, including the “fifth Beatle”, the late Sir George Martin. His Associated Independent Recording Studio (AIR) on Montserrat had previously hosted recordings by Paul McCartney, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, The Police, Eric Clapton and the island’s own hit singer, Arrow.
“And there the studio is now, or what’s left of it,” retired policeman Dannie Lyons says, gesturing to the roof of a building virtually shrouded in undergrowth, several miles south of a viewpoint at the island’s volcano observatory.
A little earlier, we had walked with Lyons through part of the “exclusion zone”, now nicknamed “Pompeii”, a destination for tourist helicopter flights.
“There is my former office,” Lyons says, showing us the ruin of Plymouth’s police headquarters, with dried volcanic material halfway up its outer walls. Burnt glass jars and a singed shopping trolley lie among the rubble of one of the capital’s main supermarkets. Willow trees and castor oil plants grow up around the abandoned offices of Cable and Wireless and Barclay’s Bank.
Bougainvillea and oleander flourish among abandoned bungalows, with terraces of villas on the surrounding hillsides apparently untouched at first glance – until one’s eye focuses on the relentless grey landscape of sediment. The shooting boulders and superheated gas burned all before it and stripped the capital and surrounding villages of basic services.
Lyons, who was born in Grenada, came to Montserrat as a 19-year-old police recruit and never left. He was on duty on one of those memorable days in 1997, when burning cloud shut out the sun and fire lit the sky. In 2010, the volcano’s lava “dome” blew, and the eight-mile-high burst of cloud and dust was photographed by a Nasa satellite in space.
With some 60 per cent of the island’s budget subvented by Britain, there is currently no great desire for independence, Lyons says. Many among the Montserratians remaining depend on civil and public service incomes.
“Actually, Britain wanted to close the island down, because it was costing too much taxpayers’ money, but the volcanologists refused to declare the entire territory as unsafe,” explains fisherman and publican Danny Sweeney. Sitting in his Jumping Jack bar in Salem, Sweeney has been something of a celebrity since he taught Sting how to windsurf. He is proud of his Irish roots – “it is part of who we are, we can’t deny it” – while making gentle jokes about Ireland’s historical responsibility to Montserrat.
For Romeo, the challenges include securing housing and rebuilding an economy strong enough to allow emigrants to return. Some £400 million was invested in Montserrat’s redevelopment after the volcanic eruptions, but no permanent housing has been built in that time, he says.
There are other challenges – more than half the population comprises expatriates from neighbouring Caribbean islands, Britain and north America. The new settlers include young immigrants from the Dominican Republic who were brought in under controversial circumstances to meet a shortage of women.
There was further trauma last year when former chief minister David Brandt was arrested on sexual abuse charges. Brandt, a lawyer who served in the post from 1997 to 2001, has denied the charges.
The island has no proper hospital, no decent harbour – the ferry link with Antigua cannot berth at Montserrat in certain wind conditions – and the new airport serves only small planes.
As Rose Willock points out, the population never received any long-term counselling in the past 20 years. However, the island enjoys an abundance of natural spring water, the volcanic soil nurtures bananas and coconuts among many vegetables and fruits, and the forest environment moistened by “ghauts”, or mountain streams, hosts a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. Some of the more recently-arrived residents are also very committed to the island, and Dannie Lyons points out that they are both valued employers and contributors to a fragile economy.
The St Patrick’s festival provides a focus for cross-community contact. Participants in this year’s dawn “freedom run” and “jump up” were fed saltfish, eggplant, fritters and bush tea prepared by a mixed Methodist church team including returned Montserratian Winnie Saunders, who is a retired civil servant and London bus driver, and Canadian potter Marsha Cox.
English IT expert Neil How, who moved to Montserrat in 2008, is involved in archival work with the National Trust. It is hoped funding will permit digitisation of slave records in the British National Archive in Kew.
Visiting curator and archivist Francesca Franchi explains there is a plethora of material which survived the natural disasters. These include registers saved by the island’s many churches and collections such as those of the Quaker Sturge family.
The focus on genealogy and identity has another dimension. Premier Romeo identifies sustainable tourism as what he terms an “ash to cash” opportunity.
“Ash to cash” includes the lucrative export of sand created when the volcano enlarged parts of the island. The government is also working with Icelandic experts on developing geothermal energy, and it could be a “green island” in the best sense within a decade, he says.
Romeo is an optimist, and enjoys a good working relationship with Governor Carriere.
He hopes to experience the best of this island north of the tropics by building strong cultural ties between Montserrat, Ireland and Boston, USA.
“My mother, Beth Lynch Romeo, says that the Irish taught us the best stonecutting in the region, and they taught us how to fight, as in the art of throwing stones and bottles,” he laughs.
But he also believes the two islands, thousands of miles apart, share one common desire to attract skilled young people back. “After all, the Irish taught us how important it is to come home . . .”
This report was supported by the Global Irish Media Fund