Identification. Before 1995, this pear-shaped island had a population of about ten thousand and was lush, green, mountainous, isolated, and unspoiled. There are three green-clad mountain ranges and the island is edged by largely black sand beaches. Much of the land is fertile with a healthy tropical climate.
Location and Geography. Montserrat, covering 39.5 square miles (63.7 square kilometers), is a British Crown colony between Nevis and Guadeloupe. Christopher Columbus gave this Caribbean island its name. On his second voyage, Columbus noticed that the island resembled the land around the Spanish abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrati.
Montserrat occupies a region of the earth's crust that is geologically unstable, with volcanic activity and earthquakes an ever present reality. Hurricanes and other natural disasters have long plagued this otherwise idyllic "Emerald Isle" of the Caribbean. Economic issues and ecological necessity remain persistent features of the national culture and values. Although many people are impressed with the individuality of the island, Montserrat is a country looking for a national identity.
Demography. Montserrat has for some time been considering independence from Great Britain. It has a unique blend of Anglo-Irish and African cultures and thus is an example of a fairly successful blend of two very different cultures and races. Until recently, national self-image was a hot topic as a result of extensive outmigration. After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the population dropped from 11,500 to slightly less than 10,000 people. After 1995, volcanic eruptions halved that number.
Linguistic Affiliation. The official language is English, but a dialect is widely spoken on informal occasions. Monserratians tend to use standard English in formal contexts and creole English in informal contexts.
Symbolism. The national emblem is a carved Irish shamrock adorning Government House, and the island's flag and crest show a woman with a cross and harp. Other cultural survivals, such as a value systems, codes of etiquette, musical styles, and an Irish recipe for the national dish called "goat water" stew, are considerably more problematic as cultural legacies.
Emergence of the Nation. Very little is known of the early history of Montserrat. The aboriginal population probably was made up of Arawak Indians who were killed off by Carib Indians by the time of Columbus's voyage in 1494. The Caribs left the island by the middle of the seventeenth century but continued to raid it. They named the island Alliouagana ("Land of the Prickly Bush"), perhaps after the aloe plant.
Montserrat is often referred to as "the Emerald Isle of the West" because the Irish figured prominently in its early history. Montserrat was first settled in 1632 by a British contingent from the mother colony of Saint Kitts. Although the original colonists were English and Irish, Montserrat quickly became a haven for Irish Catholics escaping from religious persecution. The Irish first came as indentured servants and later as slaves to work in the plantation system.
Later, Catholic refugees from Virginia came to escape from religious persecution. By 1648, there were one thousand Irish families on the island. The French occupied the country between 1644 and 1782 but ceded it to Britain in 1783.
In 1649, Cromwell sent political prisoners to Montserrat, increasing the population and helping to preserve its Irish character.
National Identity. Irish cultural retentions are largely symbolic. Some claim that modern-day Montserratians have an Irish brogue, but linguistic evidence is not conclusive. Irish names abound, and the phenotype of the inhabitants seems "lighter" than it is in other Afro-Caribbean countries. Most of the inhabitants appear to be of an African heritage.
The national emblem is a carved Irish shamrock adorning Government House, and the island's flag and crest show a woman with a cross and harp. Other cultural survivals, such as a value systems, codes of etiquette, musical styles, and an Irish recipe for the national dish called "goat water" stew, are considerably more problematic as cultural legacies.
Montserrat's luxuriant vegetation, emerald hills, and fern-covered ravines have given it a striking resemblance to Ireland, and its history has left ruins of the plantation period as well as colorful houses in the capital city of Plymouth. However, the contemporary culture is pan-Caribbean with a heavy overlay of African and Anglo-Irish elements.
Sugar and slaves eventually changed both the economy and the culture. In the seventeenth century, after tobacco production waned, Montserrat developed into a typical plantation colony. The date of the arrival of the first slaves (1651) corresponded roughly with the start of the sugar industry. Slaves quickly outnumbered Irish indentured servants, and eventually there were more blacks than whites.
By 1705, a planter class, based on slave labor and sugar, was fully established. The planter class attempted to control and coerce the blacks, leading to several rebellions, including the Saint Patrick's Day rebellion of 17 March 1768.
Sugar fortunes began to disappear toward the end of the eighteenth century. Earthquakes, droughts, hurricanes, French raids, and the loss of slave labor after emancipation (1834) combined to end the "plantocracy." Cotton supported the economy until the 1960s, when tourism and an elaborate real estate construction scheme were instituted.
Montserrat has become an emigration society, with remittances being important sources of revenue. The recent volcanic eruptions have made Montserrat dependent on Britain for its survival.
Some islanders are sensitive about the size of Montserrat. Its size of 30,000 acres, of which almost two-thirds are mountainous and barren, coupled with the recent economic and ecological crises, has created an "economics of scale." The industrial and commercial potential has been hampered by low population growth, mountainous terrain, poor air access, the high cost of energy, and a limited infrastructure. Choked by conditions of underdevelopment and poverty, nationalism is a sentiment held by a relatively small segment of the population. Lacking in this national self-image are emotionally charged symbols such as flag waving. Rather than chauvinistic political rhetoric, one is more likely to hear references to an unspoiled landscape, satisfaction with the customs and lifestyle, and sentiments of security derived from the safety of a home isolated from the rapidly changing world.
Food in Daily Life. Native-grown breadfruit, mango, soursop, pawpaw, and cashews are regarded by some locals as less desirable food.
Basic Economy. Agriculture has not supported the population. To foster tourism, the government decided to avoid high-rise hotels and noisy nightclubs; instead, Montserrat was to be a model of "the way
Another economic factor was the establishment of an offshore medical school that catered to North Americans, mostly from the United States. Montserrat was a regional media center, broadcasting to the entire Antillean region. The most famous of the foreign studios, however, pulled out after the last hurricane.
Montserrat's agricultural history has been marked with repeated failures; the island has been plagued with charges of international banking frauds; and the trade deficit has been balanced only by overseas remittances and capital from foreign expatriates. When Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989, aid for reconstruction was provided by the United Kingdom.
Major Industries. The economy is based mainly on agriculture, real estate, building construction, tourism, and assembling industries. There is little manufacturing activity. There was, until the volcanic eruptions, an expanding tourist trade; and the island was beginning to build an integrated cotton industry (sea island cotton), although the island lacks the technology to handle large volumes of cotton. The off-shore medical school had to move to another island after the recent natural disaster.
Trade. The government had plans of reviving farming, creating a tourist industry, and supporting a real estate-and-home-construction scheme; but Montserrat has been for many years marginal in relation to overseas markets, compounded by a series of natural disasters to the island.
Classes and Castes. The pattern of social stratification that emerged after the slavery period remains relatively unaltered. Lower classes predominate in this society.
The upper class includes resident owners and managers of the larger estates, expatriate colonial officials, professionals, religious leaders, bank managers, and larger merchants. Most are white or light-skinned. There are no poor whites. The upper classes generally live and work in the capital city of Plymouth, speak English, and adhere to legal forms
The middle class consists of salaried employees or civil servants who work for the post office, hospitals, courts, or the police department. This is the class that aims for secondary schooling. With increased educational opportunities, there is a growing middle class, which tends to use "standard" English in formal contexts, and creole English in others. Many of these households employ at least one domestic servant. Mostly Anglican, Methodist, or Roman Catholic, this is the class most anxious about appropriate behavior. There is an emerging professional class.
The lower classes are primarily black and are characterized by sporadic employment, with many people dependent on remittances. Virtually all live outside Plymouth. Migration was predominantly a lower-class phenomenon before the 1995 evacuations. Most of the members of this class follow Pentecostal faiths. Relationship patterns perhaps represent the greatest institutional variation between classes.
Government. Representative government was introduced in 1936; Montserrat got a new constitution in 1952, and Britain introduced a bicameral system of government in 1960. Virtually all effective political power has been in the hands of the few who control production (the monopoly of the wealthy). Montserrat has elected to remain a colony, although some have argued for a discontinuation of colonial status. There is almost total dependence on Great Britain.
Leadership and Political Officials. Montserrat has a representative government with a ministerial system, practicing parliamentary democracy rooted in the Westminster model. The head of state is represented by a governor, who exercises executive authority. Britain is still responsible for the island's external affairs, defense, and law and order, although Montserrat has a fairly autonomous local government. The chief minister is John Osborne, who has always favored independence for the country. The recent natural disasters effectively put this question to rest for now.
Social Problems and Control. A nation of emigration, with severe loss of population, Montserrat has choking conditions of underdevelopment, poverty, unemployment, declining productivity of abused space, unavailable markets, land problems, and insecure subsistence production, as well as fear, suspicion, and mistrust, especially since the natural disasters of Hugo and the volcanic eruptions. It is a nation suffering from a colonial past, a Caribbean laboratory with "infinitely limited alternatives." There have been various schemes proposed to eliminate some of the social problems, but to date all have failed, e.g., the geothermal project that did not take into account popular superstition about disturbing the dormant volcanoes. The present socioeconomic crises cannot be separated from the recent natural disasters. Great Britain has had to bail out the Montserratians once more.
In a typical parish, there might be three rum shops, four small provision shops, a sub-post office, the Methodist church and smaller Holiness church, and a school. However, Rotary and Jaycees are both active on the island. Montserrat has a theater with plays that address Caribbean issues and at least two dance groups. Choral music groups and sports are also popular.
Gender roles vary by class, with more rigidity in the lower strata. Homosexuality is feared. Marriage is valued, being associated with socioeconomic standing and as a demonstration of ambition and the attainment of social adulthood.
Marriage. Once a proposed marriage union is recognized, the couple are referred to as being "friendly" or as being "sweethearts." The migration of either party in such a union is regarded as terminating that union. Most lower-class Montserratians eventually legally marry, because marriage is associated with a higher socioeconomic standing. Legal divorce is fairly rare.
Domestic Unit. The major domestic unit is the household, which encompasses kinship, mating, land tenure, and inheritance. Migration has caused some unique problems for maintenance of the domestic unit in Montserrat.
Inheritance. About half the children born are technically illegitimate, but no stigma is attached to this fact. All children are entitled to an equal share of the parents' fixed property regardless of birth order or sex.
Kin Groups. Standard English kin terms apply in Montserrat, except for "niece" and "nephew," which are rarely used. Children are typically given the name of their genitors regardless of the type of mating arrangement.
Child Rearing and Education. Children are cared for within the domestic unit of family, which tends to be matrifocal. Children are given the name of their genitor. Pre-primary education is provided in nursery schools for 3-5 year-olds, while primary education for children of 7-11 years is provided in 15 primary schools. Religion has had a strong influence on education. Anglicans and Methodists broadened the base, and Quakers also played a vital role in education. Education, however, tended to render the educated unfit for life on the island.
Higher Education. Secondary education is fairly well developed throughout the island, but access to tertiary education is only through a school of continuing education sponsored by the University the West Indies.
Religious Beliefs. Protestant sects have multiplied in recent times. Catholics were a strong religious group in the 1800s, but today the largest religious denomination is Anglican Protestant. The first church, built by Governor Anthony Brisket, was probably Anglican. Pentecostal churches are growing.
Medical services are reasonably adequate on the island, with a number of private medical practitioners available as well as doctors in the government health service. Health centers are scattered throughout the island. Free medical attention and medication are provided for children and the aged.
Saint Patrick's Day, March 17, is celebrated with feasts and festivities by the island's Irish inhabitants, and local scholars made it a national day on which to celebrate the freedom fighters of the abortive 1768 slave uprising. August 1 is Emancipation Day, and August Monday a national holiday, with picnics, bazaars, and dances. Many parishes have village days, beauty contests, and Calypso contests.
The arts and humanities are largely confined to folk representations. The trappings of black power, Afro clothing, and plaited hair have appeared and disappeared. However, there has been a new appreciation of self and a search for national identity. The new consciousness has found expression in research into local folk music, folktales, proverbs, riddles, and dialects. There has been an attempt to recognize and reconcile the African contributions to Montserrat's cultural mosaic.
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—T HOMAS K. F ITZGERALD