History & Culture of Montserrat
Montserrat is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. It is a pear-shaped island, part of the Lesser Antilles chain, and also known as the “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean,” in part because of its formerly large population of people who originated from Ireland. Montserrat is located about 27 miles (43 km) southwest of Antigua and about 30 miles (50 km) northwest of Guadeloupe.
Plymouth, on the southwestern coast, was the capital and only port of entry until 1997, when the Soufriére Hills volcano destroyed much of the town and the island’s spectacular vegetation. Government’s activities were subsequently relocated to Brades Estate (usually called Brades) and neighbouring areas, in the northwestern part of the island. The de facto capital is now in and around Brades.
Sighted and named by Christopher Columbus in 1493, Montserrat is a rich mixture of African, North American, and European influences. Its physical and human landscapes have been battered but not obliterated by the series of natural disasters that have hit the island. Area 40 square miles (103 square km). Pop. (2001) 4,491; (2011) 4,922.
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“A people of excellence, molded by nature, nurtured by God.”
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Montserrat is 11 miles (18 km) long and 7 miles (11 km) wide. The island’s rugged volcanic landscape is molded by three mountainous areas—the Silver Hills, the Centre Hills, and the Soufrière Hills—which are in turn cut by narrow valleys and gorges known locally as ghauts. The Silver Hills, in the north, and the Centre Hills are forested at higher elevations but have secondary scrub on their gentler lower contours. Chances Peak, in the Soufrière Hills, was, at 3,000 feet (915 metres), the highest point on the island until the mid-1990s, when the first volcanic eruptions in Montserratian history dramatically changed the landscape. In July 1995 a series of eruptions began in which volcanic domes in the Soufrière Hills alternately grew and collapsed. In June 1997, 19 people were killed, and in late December of that year, nearly 2.7 square miles (7 square km) of forests, agricultural land, and villages were flattened by debris and pyroclastic flow after a volcanic explosion.
Montserrat has a narrow coastal plain. Its few beaches have mainly gray or brown sand because of their volcanic origins. The single white-sand beach is at Rendezvous Bay in the north. Coral reefs line parts of the northern shore. Approximately one-fifth of the island is forested.
Though Montserrat’s most-lush vegetation, in the southern highlands, was destroyed in the eruptions, the Centre Hills remained largely unaffected. Among the island’s rare and endangered animals are Montserrat orioles (Icterus oberi), Montserrat galliwasps (Diploglossus montisserrati, a type of lizard), and “mountain chickens” (Leptodactylus fallax), large frogs found in the lowlands that were a traditional delicacy but were near extinction in the early 21st century because of habitat loss, overexploitation, and an introduced fungal disease.
The climate is tropical and mild, and there is little seasonal variation in temperature or precipitation. Average temperatures range from lows of 70–76 °F (21–24 °C) to highs of 80–86 °F (27–30 °C). The warmest period is from June to November, which is also the hurricane season. Annual precipitation averages about 57 inches (1,448 mm). The island is often in the path of hurricanes; Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was particularly devastating.
The population is largely of African ancestry (black), with small numbers of people of European descent (white) and of mixed descent. The official language is English, but most Montserratians also speak a Creole language similar to that spoken in Jamaica. The main religious denominations are Christian: Anglicanism, Methodism, Pentecostalism, Roman Catholicism, and Seventh-day Adventism.
Prior to the mid-1990s, Montserrat’s population was relatively stable because of emigration and a low birth rate. Plymouth and its environs were the main centres of settlement. The island’s population exceeded 10,000 in the early 1990s, but during the volcano crisis more than two-thirds of Montserratians departed for the United Kingdom, neighbouring Antigua, and other parts of the Caribbean region. Some had returned by the late 1990s; however, renewed eruptions discouraged resettlement, and access to the southern two-thirds of the island has since been restricted. There are about a dozen small settlements in the western and northern coastal regions, including Look Out, Brades, St. John’s, St. Peter’s, and Davy Hill.
Tourism and agriculture were formerly the main economic activities. The damage caused by Hurricane Hugo and the volcanic activity of the 1990s devastated the economy, which virtually collapsed when Plymouth, the main commercial centre, was abandoned in 1995–96. Montserrat has since relied heavily on British and Canadian aid to build a new transportation infrastructure and provide services. The largest sources of employment in the early 21st century were public services and construction. Montserrat’s currency, the Eastern Caribbean dollar, is issued by the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (headquartered in Saint Kitts and Nevis), which also regulates rates of credit and foreign exchange.
The eruptions damaged or made inaccessible most of the island’s agricultural land, but some potatoes, onions, and other vegetables are still produced for the domestic market. (A further significant eruption in 2003 destroyed additional land then under cultivation.) In the early 20th century Sea Island cotton was Montserrat’s major export; however, production subsequently declined, and from the 1970s the government’s attempts to revive the industry largely failed. Until the 1990s most workers in the Plymouth area were employed in services (notably tourism) and trade, light manufacturing (food processing, plastic bags, textiles, automotive and electronic components), and construction (mainly building tourist facilities and retirement housing). Most of the island’s tourists were long-term visitors such as North American retirees intent on escaping cold winters.
After the closure of the port at Plymouth in 1997, a new facility was constructed at Little Bay, on the northwest coast of the island. W.H. Bramble Airport, on the east coast, was destroyed by the volcanic activity and also closed in 1997; John A. Osborne Airport, which opened in 2005 in the north-central part of the island, provides air service to regional destinations. The nearest international airport is in Antigua, to which Montserrat is linked via helicopter service and a ferry terminal at Little Bay. Since the disastrous period of volcanic activity, the road network has been restricted to the northern third of the island. Montserrat is a member of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
Montserrat is an internally self-governing overseas territory within the Commonwealth. The British monarch is the head of state, represented by an appointed governor. The most-recent constitution was promulgated on September 1, 2011, and came into force later that month, on September 27. It provides for an executive branch, consisting of a premier and an Executive Council, and a unicameral legislature called the Legislative Assembly. The governor appoints the premier, who is an elected member of the nine-seat Legislative Assembly and is usually the head of the majority party. The Executive Council includes four official members—the governor, the premier, and three ministers—and members of the Legislative Assembly are popularly elected at large for five-year terms. In addition, the attorney general and the finance secretary serve as ex officio members of both the Executive Council and the Legislative Assembly. The superior court of record is the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, based in Saint Lucia. Notable political parties in Montserrat have included the New People’s Liberation Movement, the National Progressive Party, the Movement for Change and Prosperity, and the Montserrat Democratic Party.
Primary education is free and compulsory for children aged 5 to 16. Nearly all Montserratians are literate. Montserrat Community College (2004) provides courses in trades and in business and liberal arts disciplines. Higher education is available elsewhere in the region at the various campuses of the University of the West Indies.
Montserratian society is a mixture of African, Irish, and British traditions, although North American culture has become a major influence. Traditional rites, such as the jumbie dance, a manifestation of folk religion, had nearly disappeared by the late 20th century. The dance once took place following Christian rituals (e.g., baptisms or weddings) or in times of crisis. Jumbie music helped produce a trancelike state in the worshipers who sought cures for ills or the lifting of an obeah (obia) spell, a traditional form of witchcraft. Folk instruments included flutes, triangles, and flat goatskin-covered drums. Folk music has declined partly because of imported musical styles such as calypso, reggae, soca, and pop. Carnival, which was brought to Montserrat in 1962, is held between Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year’s (Jump-up) Day (January 1). St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) is an official holiday; locally, it commemorates a slave revolt and Montserratian heroes, and festivities surrounding it generally continue for a week.
The original Native American inhabitants of Montserrat began to arrive in the Lesser Antilles about 3000 BCE. Carib Indians, who arrived later, are said to have named the island Alliouagana (“Land of the Prickly Bush”). However, Montserrat was uninhabited by the time Christopher Columbus sighted it in November 1493, during his second voyage to the Americas. Columbus named the island for the abbey of Montserrat in Spain. It was colonized in 1632 by Irish Catholics from nearby Saint Kitts (Saint Christopher), who were sent there by Sir Thomas Warner, the first Britishgovernor of Saint Kitts. More Irish immigrants subsequently arrived from Virginia. Plantations were set up to grow tobacco and indigo, followed eventually by cotton and sugar. The early settlers were repeatedly attacked by French forces and Carib Indians. The French took possession of the island in 1664 and again in 1667, but it was restored to England by the Treaty of Breda. French forces sacked the island in 1712 and captured it for the last time in 1782, but the Treaty of Paris (1783) again returned it to Britain.
Slaves from Africa were probably first taken to Montserrat in large numbers in the 1660s. Their population grew to some 1,000 in 1678 and 7,000 in 1810, when they greatly outnumbered white settlers. Montserrat’s plantation system declined after slavery was abolished in 1834 and the price of sugar fell on world markets. The Montserrat Company, formed in 1857 under the direction of Joseph Sturge, bought abandoned estates, encouraged the cultivation of limes, and sold plots of land to settlers. Because of those efforts, smallholdings still cover much of the inhabited part of the island. A series of devastating earthquakes and hurricanes occurred between 1890 and 1936.
Between 1871 and 1956 Montserrat was part of the (British) Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands, which included the British Virgin Islands, Saint Kitts–Nevis–Anguilla, and Dominica. In 1951 universal suffrage was declared, and the following year Montserratian women voted for the first time. The federation was abolished on July 1, 1956, when Montserrat became a colony in its own right. During 1958–62 Montserrat was part of the short-lived Federation of the West Indies. Montserratians—unlike their counterparts in most other British Caribbean colonies—did not seek associated statehood, which would have been a step toward independence.
In the general election of November 1978, the People’s Liberation Movement (PLM) won all seven seats to the Legislative Council. The party retained its control in 1983, but the opposition gained strength in the 1987 election. The PLM leadership favoured eventual independence after first achieving greater economic self-sufficiency. However, many merchants and other Montserratians opposed independence, because they saw greater benefits in maintaining ties with Britain. Indeed, after Hurricane Hugo devastated the island in 1989, the British helped construct a new legislative building, a new wing to the hospital in Plymouth, housing, and roads.
The newly formed National Progressive Party (NPP) took the reins of government in 1991. In July 1995 volcanic domes in the Soufrière Hills began erupting after centuries of dormancy, spewing ash and lava across large areas of the island. A major eruption in June 1997 killed 19 people, and the southern two-thirds of Montserrat, including the capital, became an uninhabited exclusion zone. Against the backdrop of the ongoing emergency, the NPP won only one seat in the legislative elections of 1996. A weak coalition was then formed, headed by an independent member, Bertrand Osborne, as chief minister. Osborne resigned in 1997 amid criticism of his handling of the volcano crisis, and he was replaced by David Brandt. The British government was also widely criticized for its handling of the crisis, although it helped evacuate and relocate the population and repair the transportation infrastructure, and in 1998 allowed Montserratians to apply for permanent resident status in the United Kingdom. After the PLM decisively won the elections of April 2001, John Osborne became chief minister. Volcanic activity continued into the early 21st century, including a major eruption in July 2003 that caused a huge pyroclastic flow to course into the sea and generated a tsunami.
Osborne’s term ended in 2006, and he was succeeded by Lowell Lewis of the Montserrat Democratic Party. In 2009 Reuben Meade of the Movement for Change and Prosperity became chief minister.
During his administration, on September 27, 2011, a new constitution came into force that gave Montserrat a greater degree of self-government and strengthened human rights through expanded antidiscrimination provisions. It also changed the title of chief minister to premier. Meade remained as premier until 2014, when Donaldson Romeo of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) took office.
In the 2019 election Donaldson Romeo was replaced by Easton Taylor-Farrel when the Movement for Change And Prosperity (MCAP) came into power.