Montserratians - History and Cultural Relations

Montserrat's history can be organized into five periods: that of Amerindian habitation; the early colonial period, 1632-1705; the sugarand slave-plantation period, 1705—1834; post-Emancipation, 1834-1895; and the period from 1895 to the present. Before 2,000 years ago, small groups of archaic peoples with pottery and ground-stone tools were scattered in the Lesser Antilles. They were followed by Saladoid people, entering from South America with a new ceramic style and represented in Montserrat by sites dating from 1,800 years ago. Montserratian post-Saladolid sites, identified by a thick, rough-surfaced pottery without polychrome decoration and situated near streams, the coast, and cultivatable land, are less than 1,000 years old. After 1492, the people whom Europeans called Caribs were almost wiped out by invasion, slavery, disease, and demoralization. Nevertheless, Caribs raided Montserrat well into the seventeenth century.

European settlement of Montserrat began in 1632 with Irish indentured servants from nearby Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts), who raised tobacco on smallholdings. By 1670 their economy and culture were overwhelmed by large capitalized landholdings, a developing sugar economy, and slaves imported from Africa, all under the control of a dominant British oligarchy of merchants and planters. By 1705 Montserrats plantation society was fully developed, and the island, like others in the region, had become a social and physical arrangement for the production of sugar. An important cultural process that accompanied the plantation was the fusing of Amerindian, African, and European elements into a regional, creolized Afro-Caribbean culture.

Expanding slavery and environmental degradation subsidized Montserrat's thriving sugar economy in the eighteenth century, but shortly after 1800 the island underwent a period of instability and change. The White plantocracy was threatened by a faltering economy, the end of the slave trade in 1807, a growing class of free persons of color demanding rights, and the mandated amelioration of slave conditions. The governing minority grew corrupt, inept, and recalcitrant. By Emancipation in 1834, the island was in financial and sociopolitical disarray.

After 1834, the newly freed people struggled to find land and establish livelihoods in the face of depressed wages and continued economic exploitation in a dying sugar economy. By 1895 their descendants had managed to gain land and work out a peasant productive economy that finally received recognition by and assistance from the colonial authorities.

After 1905 commercial cotton production surged briefly, but the nineteenth-century legacy of unemployment, poverty, and an inadequate economy, educational system, and infrastructure persist to this day. Peasant production and emigration cushion these problems in a colonial economy that still suffers from its history of monocrop plantations and provides neither land nor wage work to everyone. Necessity has become culture, making emigration a desired experience. Émigrés send back money that is important both to household and island economies.

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