‘Yesterday’ and Tomorrow:
Driving Around Montserrat
by Frank Pearce
Before 1995, when the Soufriere Hills Volcano in Montserrat began its current cycle of eruptions, I used to visit Montserrat every two weeks or so, skippering my friend Russ’s supply boat, Skutter. At the deep-water harbour in Antigua’s capital, St. John’s, a large refrigerated lorry would be driven onto the aft deck of Skutter, loaded with 15 tons of frozen chicken destined for the Montserrat capital of Plymouth. Plymouth was a delightful Caribbean town back then, picturesque, always clean and tidy. Seven tons of chicken a week they ate!
After serious eruptions in 1995 and again in 1997, the town of Plymouth was obliterated by volcanic ash and debris, with only the upper floors of some buildings showing above the mudflow.
Recently I was planning to leave Antigua and sail down to the Grenadines aboard my 50-foot Sciareli-designed schooner, Samadhi. My crew, friends Jenny from Grenada and Patsy from Antigua, had an idea to visit Montserrat on the way. Well, it’s not exactly on the way as it is some 35 miles southwest of Antigua. Prevalent winds at the time were southerly, so it seemed that we would have a broad reach to Montserrat and later, hopefully, have a close beat to Deshaies in Guadeloupe.
Setting off in the early morning we had a light-weather sail to Little Bay, now the only anchorage in Montserrat with some shelter that is outside the “Exclusion Zone” that is restricted owing to possible danger from the volcano. With the wind southerly, I was concerned as to whether there would be any shelter behind the headland. It was early June and the beginning of hurricane season. Tropical Waves could be expected every four days or so, and being somewhere with little shelter had me a tad nervous. Anyway, the anchorage was fairly smooth if a little swelly.
An evening on board, then off to clear in at Customs & Immigration in the morning. Meeting the officials came as a slight surprise as their uniforms are all British, the Police uniforms also British… well, Montserrat British. Of course they would be, as Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory, previously known as a Crown Colony. We felt very welcome; the lady Customs officer has a hire car business with her husband, so in no time at all we had wheels.
There’s a slight contradiction to the Britishness of the island as it is even more Irish. So many surnames are Irish that the inhabitants call it The Emerald Isle. Although the national flag is a blue ensign, it is defaced with the “Lady Erin”, a waif-like lady in a green (of course) flowing robe, carrying a harp (of course again). The villages have many Irish names: Kinsale, St. Patrick’s and so on.
It seems that in the 1600s, when the Warner family colonized St. Kitts, they “imported” immigrants from an impoverished Ireland to work the land, only to persecute them for their Catholic faith in a Cromwellian Protestant English colony. Escaping from St. Kitts, the Irish found the lush unpopulated island of Montserrat. Later, slaves were brought from Africa to replace the rebellious Irish in St. Kitts and Montserrat itself became a “sugar Island”.
Shortly after the catastrophic eruptions in 1995 and 1997, the British Government awarded the island some 12,000 pounds as assistance. The island of course needed much more and on being petitioned the then British Government Minister, Clare Short, apparently made the scornful comment “Next they’ll be asking for golden elephants,” which caused outrage, compensated for and remembered by the trinkets in the shape of elephants that are for sale here and there.
The residents were awarded British citizenship in 2002, and many moved to the UK.
The island is roughly divided in two, the northern half being relatively untouched by the results of the volcano, the southern end being devastated and in what is known as the Exclusion Zone where entry is restricted. The centre of the island north to south is a mountainous ridge, part of which is the volcano and so the debris of lava, mud and ash from the eruptions spreads both westerly, encompassing the old capital Plymouth, and easterly, completely covering the former airport and fanning out seaward. We drove down the eastern coast as far as we could and overlooked what had been a relatively modern airport; completely obliterated under debris, just the top of what may have been a conning tower sticks forlornly up out of the mudflow.
The northern half of the island is beautiful, very lush and green, with scattered shops, rum shops and small businesses by the roadside. En route to the largest village, Salem, a large elegant building comes as a surprise. It is a new Cultural and Community Centre with a stage, music facilities, games rooms and so on. This was funded through the efforts of the famous English record producer George Martin and a number of musicians, and mainly through the sale of lithographs of the original score of the Beatles’ song “Yesterday”.
George Martin, who had a recording studio in London, visited Montserrat in 1979 and apparently loved the island so much he set up a recording studio near Richmond Hill called AIS or Associated Independent Recording Studios. He is best known for his association with the Beatles, but recorded Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and more musical stars — all in Montserrat.
When we drove down the east coast, we went as far as the Exclusion Zone boundary, but a mile or so before that, looking for somewhere to eat, we were directed to a lovely colonial single-storey house with deep verandas and a park-like surrounding. Yes we could eat there; we did and it was lovely. Jenny, going into the house came back to us, “There are original black-and-white photos of Paul signed by Linda McCartney on the walls!” A very young Paul. We were in George Martin’s villa just adjacent to his now unused studio. Who had trodden those boards before us?
We headed farther southward towards the Exclusion Zone limit. The exact location of the boundary limit does move depending upon the predicted volcanic activity. At the time we were there, the boundary gate was open and we were able to drive over the hardened mud and volcanic rock debris that has filled the Belham riverbed. We stopped to pick up some pumice stones.
Where the south bank of the river would have been, the roof and upper-storey windows of a house were all that was showing, the lower story being completely covered in 15 feet of debris.
Having crossed the riverbed we now drove upwards. This hillside overlooking the old river and the sea had clearly been where the wealthier Montserratians lived, or maybe ex-pats. There were some truly beautiful villas, but they were all boarded up. Some were clearly being maintained, the gardens lush with flowers and color; others seemed to be abandoned. While we could drive there on that day, had there been a risk of volcanic activity, the exclusion zone gates would have been closed and no one able to go there, so living in any of the villas was not practical. Presumably, some owners were hopeful that the volcano would subside and they could move back. Other homes sported optimistic “For Sale” signs.
Up and up we drove, four-wheel drive needed, until on the summit of that hill we were overlooking what had been Plymouth. Such desolation; so much loss. But no loss of life I believe, unlike St. Pierre, the main town of Martinique in 1902 when the mayor assured the citizens of the town that there was no danger from their Mont Pelée volcano, only to get it tragically wrong with the result being that the entire population was killed, except for the one prisoner in a stone jail cell who survived.
Up we continued to the Volcano Observatory (www.mvo.ms) where a team of geoscientists constantly monitors the state of the volcano. In a small theatre there, a film shows the volcano in action, and also the emergency evacuation of Plymouth — trucks being loaded with possessions, businesses being barred up, forever.
I’m not clear how many people live in Montserrat now, somewhere between 3,000 and 6,000. The habitable half of the island is still bigger than all of Bequia (population somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000), for example, so there is plenty of space, it’s not overcrowded and surely there is an opportunity to re-start businesses — the land is there, the willing workforce is there.
Turning a bad situation to one’s advantage has always seemed to me to be a good philosophy if one can see how to do so. One company is doing just that and is excavating material from the bed of the Belham River and grading it for use in manufacturing concrete, as has been done in Guadeloupe using Soufriere ash in the same way. The result is good, lightweight concrete with no salt content.
Talking of willing workforce, this visit just reinforced my admiration for the stoicism of Montserrat’s population, as can be said of other island populations that periodically suffer natural disasters, hurricanes and earthquakes, who somehow pick themselves up, dust themselves off (literally) and get on rebuilding their lives from scratch, again and again.
There is a daily ferry to and from Antigua and a new small airport with daily flights again to and from Antigua, and a reasonable anchorage at Little Bay. By ferry, plane or yacht, it’s a worthwhile visit to make.
For more information on Montserrat visit www.visitmontserrat.com.
Frank Pearce is a marine surveyor, yachtsman, tugboat captain and past Vice-Commodore of the Antigua Yacht Club.
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