Montserrat — History and Culture
Montserrat, known as the Caribbean’s own Emerald Isle, shares much in common with Ireland. Irish influence is evident in the surnames of many residents, the island’s resemblance to Ireland’s coast and the fervour with which Montserrat celebrates St Patrick’s Day. In fact, Montserrat is the only place outside of Ireland where St Patrick’s Day is an official public holiday.
The Arawak and Carib were Montserrat’s first residents before Christopher Columbus discovered the island and named it after Catalonia’s Monastery of Montserrat in 1493. Many of the first European settlers were indentured Irish servants transported to the New World against their will, much like the African slaves who followed after Montserrat became an English territory in 1632.
Sugar and Sea Island cotton plantations, along with rum, formed the backbone of Montserrat’s economy for several decades. France briefly captured the island in 1782, but became a British territory under the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolutionary War. This dramatic period in island history is displayed at the Montserrat National Trust headquarters (P. O. Box 393, Olveston).
St Patrick’s Day became an official public holiday after a failed March 17, 1768 slave uprising, but the island did not abolish slavery until 1834. When Montserrat’s economy suffered after sugar prices plummeted in the 19th century, a British philanthropist named Joseph Sturge purchased his own sugar estate in 1857 to prove that hiring paid workers was more beneficial than using slave labor. The Sturges became Montserrat’s most powerful family. They started a school, began Montserrat’s commercial lime juice industry and founded the Montserrat Company Limited. After the Sturges began selling land to the local population, most of the island was owned by shareholders.
Between 1871 and 1958, Montserrat was part of the British Leeward Islands colony, becoming part of the West Indies Federation during the following four years. After Sir George Martin opened his AIR recording studio in 1979, many of the world’s top musicians flocked to the island to record their albums in Montserrat’s private and tranquil surroundings.
Hurricane Hugo, however, brought an abrupt end to Montserrat’s growth when the Category 4 storm destroyed 90 percent of the island’s buildings, including AIR Studios. Once Montserrat recovered from that natural disaster, the long-dormant Soufrière Hills volcano buried Plymouth, the island’s capital, in over 39 feet of mud. The Soufrière Hills volcano also destroyed Montserrat’s airport and forced over half the population to relocate.
To this day, the southern part of Montserrat hit hardest by the Soufrière Hills volcano remains unsafe for people to live in or visit. To view the mighty volcano, you can head to Jack Boy Hill or the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (P. O. Box 318, Flemmings, Salem). The residents who chose to stay have worked hard to rebuild both their island and their tourism industry which is evident in their cheerful and welcoming hospitality.
Most of Montserrat’s population are descendants of people who arrived on the island against their will. These include not only the African slaves brought to the Caribbean, but also Irish indentured servants who first came to Montserrat during the 16th century. Irish influence remains strong in Montserrat, which has celebrated St Patrick’s Day as an official public holiday since 1768, the year a failed slave uprising broke out during Ireland’s national holiday.
Irish influence is also very much evident in Montserrat’s traditional music, especially the drumming and fife playing accompanying the standard Caribbean rhythms found elsewhere in the West Indies. Montserrat’s music contains several African influences such as shak-shak instruments made from calabash gourds. Cricket is Montserrat’s most popular sport and the British subjects are happy to welcome visitors to their casual and peaceful lifestyle.