Commerce, Industry, and Trade. From the end of the small-plot tobacco economy in 1670 to the official colonial encouragement of peasant production in the 1890s, Montserrat's was a plantation economy, dependent on large-scale production of a single tropical commodity for a world market. Attempts at diversification failed in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth, commercial cotton production had some success through the 1950s. Montserratian cotton was a superior long staple sea-island variety for which the world market collapsed in the 1960s. Since 1968, Montserrat has had no staple export commodity. Montserrat joined a cooperative cotton-production scheme in 1990, with a central ginnery in Barbados, but its success is not yet clear.
Montserrat has now developed its tourist industry, which accounts for a quarter of the gross domestic product. In the 1960s the island was successfully promoted as an ideal place for retired and vacationing foreign residents. New communities for foreign residents were built under restrictive zoning laws that prevented land prices from rising throughout the island. Many of the prosperous North American and British residents have a genuine interest in the island but, with those who cater to them, constitute a core of resistance to independence from the United Kingdom. An offshore medical school, again catering to foreigners, has been boosting the economy since the early 1980s. Montserrat also began to lure short-term tourists, even though it is not clear that the one-tenth of each short-term tourist dollar that remains in the local economy compensates for the added cost of infrastructure, the environmental and resource burden, or the resentment of the local people.
In addition to tourism, some light industry, Radio Antilles, and recording studios enhance the economy. Nevertheless, large trade deficits are normal. Remittances sent by emigrants mitigate them, as does the economic activity of the expatriate segment on the island.
Subsistence Activities. The other side of the economy—the side that could benefit from bottom-up development—is small-plot production of food and market crops, known to have been practiced by slaves since at least 1690. There is also a small amount of charcoal production, mainly for home use, and livestock production. This subsistence complex was the foundation of the postslavery peasant adaptation. A lively market persists in Montserrat to supply food internally, and an interisland trade on small vessels carries market crops to neighboring islands. The volume, value, and functions of food production, marketing, and food trade are still important research questions.
Division of Labor and Land Tenure. Land tenure and gender-determined labor are important aspects of subsistence and small cash production in rural Montserrat. Women are the principal producers and internal marketers of food, whereas men predominate in interisland trade, cash cropping, and the raising of livestock, including cattle, sheep, and goats. Small plots may be freeholds, leaseholds, or squattage; cash-crop small farming may involve métayér, or sharecropping. Some freeholds are family land, a Caribbean form of customary tenure in which undivided parcels are inherited by a group of siblings in common ownership, although not all of them cultivate it.