Montserrat

Montserrat is located in the Caribbean 27 miles south of Antigua.

Montserrat’s early history has much in common with its Caribbean neighbors, although there are some differences.

The Amerindians named the island Alliouagana, or "land of the prickly bush," which was probably named for the aloe plant. This name has been revived and used by several cultural groups in modern times.

Christopher Columbus sailed by Montserrat in 1493, although he did not land here. He named the island after the abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrate, located in a mountainous region of Spain, which he felt had a similar appearance. At that time the island was reportedly deserted, although Carib Amerindians subsequently raided the island from time to time from nearby Guadeloupe.

The first European settlers arrived around 1632, and were probably Irish Catholics from nearby St. Kitts, fleeing persecution for their religion. Catholics from Virginia joined them, and Montserrat gradually became a refuge for Catholics of Irish decent.

It has been noted that Irish people of all walks of life came to Montserrat, from wealthy landowners to poor indentured servants. These people gave Montserrat its now familiar name "The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean," and several aspects of the island’s heritage are attributed to the Irish. These include place names, surnames, the local accent (supposedly similar to an Irish brogue), and perhaps certain cultural and food items.

Tobacco was one of Montserrat's principal early crops, but was soon replaced by sugar. From the mid- 1600s until 1834 came the tragic period of slavery, when thousands of Africans were shipped to the Caribbean to work on the booming sugar plantations. These people lived and perished on the sugar estates, enduring the harshest of conditions while they boosted the economy of the "mother country." They were the ancestors of the majority of Montserrat's present-day inhabitants.

There was one documented slave uprising in 1768. St. Patrick’s Day was chosen because landowners would be distracted with the celebrations. Although unsuccessful the rebellion is significant, since it underlined the desire of the population to strive for freedom. It is commemorated every year on St. Patrick’s Day with a good humoured week of colorful activities, which also highlight the Irish heritage.

Slavery was abolished in 1834, but it would be many years before the population was able to shake off the legacy of poverty and deprivation. During the early days of this century, cotton was the main crop. The rise of the trade union movement in the 1940s and '50s paved the way to universal suffrage and the modern political and social structure seen today. The island remains a British Overseas Territory, with a British governor and a locally elected government.

Montserrat was a province of the West Indies Federation from 1958 until 1962, when it reverted to a colony of the United Kingdom.

In 1989 modern comfort was disrupted when Hurricane Hugo struck, ripping roofs off buildings, gutting homes and ruining the infrastructure. It took several years to repair this damage. By 1995, a new state-of-the-art hospital was built, as well as government headquarters, legislative council, roads and other infrastructure. People had finally rebuilt their homes.

But most of this effort and expense was to come to nothing. As if to add insult to injury, the volcano in the southern mountains became active in 1995, reaching its height in 1997 when Plymouth (the capital), as well as all southern and eastern villages, was destroyed. Residents of these areas were relocated to the north, while many migrated to Britain and elsewhere, more than halving the population.

The island was recovering from the volcanic explosion of January 1997, which destroyed much of the island’s productive capacity, when it was hit by a new series of eruptions in July 2003. Previously, Montserrat had a diverse if fragile economy, however, following the latest series of eruptions, Montserrat is reaching the point where the economy is no longer viable.

Carnival in Montserrat is a symbol of its national culture. Carnival in Montserrat is celebrated as a festival between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Close


Information provided courtesy of: Caribbean Association Midwest America