Montserrat – North and East Coast – and History

Montserrat, 23 September 2016

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Archaeology, Architecture, History, Landscape, Montserrat, Nature, Photography, seascape, Slavery, Travel, Volcano

This is Montserrat.  The blue lines show where we went on the island.  Above the grey line is the part of the island that is still inhabited.  Below the line is the two thirds of the island that was abandoned after volcanic eruptions from 1995 to 2010 and to which access is largely prohibited due to the continuing risk of eruptions and sudden pyroclastic flows.  The grey areas are the areas covered by ash, lahars (mud) or other volcanic debris.

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This is a view from where we were staying, with the headland at Little Bay in the distance.

The earliest archaeological evidence of human presence is from around 2800 to 2700BC, in the form of a number of stone blades at Upper Blakes, in the north interior of the island.  The blades are made of chert or flint and come from Long Island, just off the north coast of Antigua.  This is the primary source of chert in the region because the rock there includes uplifted limestone as well as volcanic.  The makers of these blades appear to have probably been visitors because there is no further evidence of human activity for thousands of years afterwards.

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This is the wharf at Little Bay, now the main wharf on the island, well the only wharf on the island, following the abandonment of the former capital of Plymouth.

Settlement appears to have commenced around 500BC and the main origin of these people was the Orinoco basin in what is now Venezuela.  The two main early sites were Trants on the mid-east coast and Radio Antilles on the far south coast.  Most of the archaeological sites though were wiped out by the volcanic eruptions from 1995 to 2010.  Fragments have been found of fine thin-walled pottery from this early ceramic period (500BC to 600 AD), decorated in red on white, black on red or black and white on red.  There are more sites from the late ceramic period (600AD to European contact) but the pottery is coarser and usually not decorated.  In all eras there is evidence of trade with other islands.

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Brades Fire Station.

Allioüágana is the Amerindian name for the island.   Columbus saw it and named the island as Montserrat in 1493 but did not land.

The conventional view has been that Montserrat was uninhabited at the time of European arrival and an Amerindian woman from Guadeloupe told Columbus the inhabitants were driven out, probably in relatively recent times, by Carib raiders.  It appears that there were no large villages on Montserrat at this time but there were inhabitants, as attested by early Dutch and French reports.  Some middens from a site in the north-west of the island also contain European trade goods.

Amerindians appear to have been living in Montserrat until at least the early eighteenth though most of the references to Amerindians in the late seventeenth century were to raids by Caribs from elsewhere.

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Lookout Yard Sugar Mill, built in 1921.

A group of English appear to have settled in Montserrat for three months in 1629 following a Spanish invasion of St Kitts but only stayed for three months.   Permanent settlement started in 1632 with a group of Irish Catholics who were joined after a few years by English Protestants.  Initially the economy was based on the cultivation of tobacco and indigo and there were no slaves.  Slavery was increasingly adopted along with a shift to a plantation cotton economy after 1650.   Black slaves came to be the great majority of the population.

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Inside of the mill.  It was destroyed by a hurricane in 1928 and rebuilt.

In the 1650s, the population was 600 or 700 and predominantly Irish.  Due to slavery, the black proportion increased over the years.  Overall population and proportion of black slaves increased as follows:  1671: 1,700  (31%); 1678:  3,700  (27%);  1707:  5,115 (70%).  The white population nearly halved from 1678 to 1707 due to white indentured servants leaving and being replaced by black slaves.  It then became:  1729: 7,000 (84%);  1788:  11,600 (89%) (peak population); 1805: 10,800 (91%); 1828:  7,400 (96%);  1834:  6,200 (95%);  1851:  7,100 (98%).  Slavery was abolished in 1834 and by 1851 the white population had fallen by more than 50% to 150.  The population in 1994 was 13,000 of whom 8,000 left the island following the eruption.  Current population is 5,400 and in 2011 the ethnic distribution was Black 88%, mixed 4%, Hispanic 3%, Caucasian 3%, East Indian 2%, other 1%.

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Looks like a steam boiler, out the back of the mill.

In the 1678 census nearly 69% of the population self-identified as Irish and since there were 27% black slaves, only 4% were English or other.  There were three groups of Irish.  There was the Anglo-Irish elite and then there was the poor farmers, labourers and indentured servants.  There were two sections of the Anglo-Irish elite as well.  There were the older group, dating back to Norman settlement of Ireland, Catholic and with much in common with the Irish workers.  The younger group derived from Elizabethan or Stuart settlement of Ireland, were Protestant and had more in common with the English.  None of the Irish were slaves but they nonetheless could be treated brutally.  The treatment of black slaves though could be worse.  For example, in 1771 a black slave was found not guilty of stealing a board and whipped through town anyway.

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Another corner of the mill’s back yard.

From 1750, the proportion of mixed race people and freed slaves gradually increased.  For example, in 1828, six years before the abolition of slavery, while 96% of the population was black, that comprised 85% slaves and 11% free.

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Looking north across Marguerita Bay on the east coast of the island.

Montserrat was attacked fifteen times between 1650 and 1712 by French, Dutch, Caribs and pirates – specifically 1650, 1665, 1666/67, 1672, 1674, 1676, 1682, 1693, 1697, 1702, 1707, 1710, 1711, 1711 and 1712.

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Some of the houses built for people displaced from the south of the island, largely financed by British money.

The French and their Carib allies captured Montserrat from February 1666 to July 1667 during the Second Anglo-Dutch War.  They took the Governor and 200 settlers prisoner and burned English dwellings, warehouses and sugar mills.  They also removed from the island slaves, cannon, horses and cattle.  The only group not targeted were those Irish who took an oath of loyalty to the French.

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We are driving as far south as we can go on the east coast of the island, towards Trant’s in the distance.

Sugar had come to be the main industry and by the time of the 1666 invasion, there were 40 sugar mills on the island, increasingly relying on African slaves.

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There was a settlement here at Trant’s but it was covered by the eruption in 2010 and the coastline extended by 650 metres.

Following the deposal of James II in England in 1688, Montserrat was often neglected by England due to the large Irish Catholic element in the population.

Montserrat was invaded and sacked again by the French for a few months in 1712 during the War of the Spanish Succession.  Again they burned properties and sugar estates and removed slaves, equipment, livestock and provisions.  Stapletown, one of the first settlements, was never rebuilt.  The eighteenth century after 1712 was the peak period for the dominant sugar industry, dependent on black slaves.

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Perhaps the only local resident.

Montserrat is also susceptible to hurricanes which on occasion have damaged or destroyed almost all buildings on the island.    There were for example such severe hurricanes in 1737, 1747, 1766 and 1772.

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The edge of the new coastline.

In 1782, during the War of American independence, the French invaded again and stayed for two years.  Initially they burned buildings and crops on sugar estates but there were some benefits for the locals since while the British had generally neglected their colony, the French Governor was relatively liberal, paved the roads of the main streets, improved public buildings and allowed trade with North America.

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The boiling house smoke stack at Trant’s sugar mill and the top of the windmill tower.  It had been fertile, flat land and there was an Indian village here for thousands of years until European settlement.

Montserrat is the only country outside Ireland to celebrate St Patrick’s Day, although this also commemorates an unsuccessful slave revolt on that day in 1768.  Slavery was abolished in 1834 and cotton became uneconomic, creating problems for the economy in general but not necessarily for former slaves.  Irish Gaelic was spoken by descendants of slaves as recently as the early 20th century.

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Some buildings on a ridge, not completely buried.

The years after emancipation were years of particular hardship.  The sugar industry had been declining for many years and had collapsed, most of the white population left, only 1.5% of the population was literate, and the government was incompetent and repressive, continuing to try to implement slavery-era laws that were now illegal in the British Empire.  Attempts to find substitutes for sugar were not successful until 1850 with the introduction of citrus lime production.  The late 19th century became a time of prosperity and Montserrat lime juice gained an international reputation.  The British Navy adopted Montserrat lime as an additive to grog (watered-down rum) and thereby earned British sailors then name of “limeys”.  The lime industry was wiped out by blight and the hurricane of 1899 though.  It was replaced by cotton from 1903.  These days most economic activity is in tourism and services.

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And in the distance, the volcano.

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(Main source for the history:  An Archaeological History of Montserrat, West Indies, Cherry and Ryzewski, Google Books download).