Montserrat: The New World Emerald Isle
Montserrat is a rather small and unpretentious island of the eastern Caribbean Sea. It is one of a group of small islands known as the Leeward Islands, which are themselves a part of the Lesser Antilles. Montserrat lies toward the northern end of this archipelago, with Puerto Rico located about 480 km from its western shore and Antigua approximately 48 km to the northeast. Montserrat only measures 104 square km, and the island is generally a quieter sort of haven when compared to the more heavily developed and trafficked resorts which abound in the Caribbean region.
Like many of its neighbors, Montserrat was populated by indigenous Arawak and Carib tribes when it was brought to the attention of western civilization by Christopher Columbus. Columbus discovered and claimed the island for Spain in 1493, dubbing it Santa Maria de Montserrate after a Catalonian monastery of the same name.
The Spanish did not do a great deal with the island, however, and it came under British control in 1632. Unlike many of its neighbors, Montserrat never severed its ties with the Crown and remains a British territory to this day. Among its first settlers under the British regime were a substantial number of expatriate Irish, giving the island a strong Irish heritage that has melded quite interestingly with the tropical culture of the Caribbean. Montserrat even bears the nickname of “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” because of its Gaelic roots and its lush, green topography.
Montserrat functioned fairly well as a British territory. Its economy was based primarily on the usual colonial model of plantations producing the usual tropical staples of sugar, cotton, rum, and other crops. The island was held by France for a brief period during the American Revolutionary War but was soon returned to the British with the Treaty of Paris. When the nineteenth century brought a drop in sugar prices the Montserrat Company bought and switched many of the plantations over to lime production, set up a school, and sold much of the island's holdings to the inhabitants.
Montserrat is unusual in the fact that it has two capitals; this is due to a couple of events which brought about a temporary downturn in the island's fortunes. Hurricane Hugo, a category 5 storm, wrought extensive destruction on Montserrat in 1989. This caused the closing of George Martin's famous AIR Studios Montserrat and severely affected the island's lucrative tourist trade. Hurricanes, however, are a fairly common occurrence in the Caribbean, and the island undertook a swift recovery.
The second of these recent disasters had more profound effects on Montserrat. In 1995 the Soufriere Hills volcano on the island's southern side began erupting for the first time in recorded history, burying the original capital of Plymouth along with its airport and main docking facilities. This would eventually lead to the evacuation of large portions of the island and widespread emigration, shrinking an already small populace to the 2005 estimate of roughly 4,500. Of the three parishes of Montserrat, only the northern Saint Peter parish is inhabited by a substantial population. This is the location of the current de facto capital of Brades, which serves as Montserrat's seat of government until the new capital at Little Bay is fully constructed.