• close family • small boat • big world •

The Emerald Island of the Caribbean

May 29, 2016

by Paula
At anchor, Matthew Town, Great Inagua, The Bahamas

I hate it when the bathtub gets filled with volcanic ash.
The Irish don't normally spring to mind when thinking of the Caribbean, but in Montserrat, the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, they are a major part of its history.

In 1493 Columbus passed by this tiny island, naming it after the Montserrat Abby in Spain, and the first settlement of Europeans didn't happen until 1632. A group of persecuted Irish Catholics were forced to leave nearby Nevis, and they settled in Montserrat where they could freely practice their religion. In 1651 an Irish trader brought African slaves to the island, though they did not become the largest group until the early 1700s when sugar plantations began to thrive. The Irish continued to constitute the largest portion of the white population well into the 18th century, many of whom were brought to the country as indentured laborers. Evidence indicates the Irish language was spoken by both white and black residents well into the nineteenth century. To honor an unsuccessful slave revolt that occurred on March 17, 1768, as well as the Irish heritage of much of the population, the people of Montserrat celebrate St. Patrick's Day as a public holiday. Crowds from all over the Caribbean come to celebrate this major celebration that is unique among these islands.

We didn't manage to be here for St. Patrick's day, so these photos were found on the internet.

The Police recording "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic"
In 1979 George Martin (most famed for producing the Beatles albums) built the AIR Studios Montserrat recording studio here, offering state-of-the-art technical facilities in an exotic location. Montserrat became a very exclusive and private holiday destination. Those of us of a certain age might remember The Police's video of their song "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," which starred some adorable kids and steel drum musicians along with the band - it was recorded in Montserrat. Other stars who came to relax and record included Dire Straits, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton.

After a decade of recording, AIR Studios was reduced to rubble when, in 1989, Hurricane Hugo hit Montserrat. Devastating 165 mph winds damaged or destroyed 95% of all buildings on the island, 20-foot waves demolished the
180-foot stone jetty in the island's only harbor in Plymouth, and heavy
rains created destructive mudslides. Ten people were killed in the storm, 89 injured, and 3,000 left homeless, and it took weeks to restore power, water, and phone service to the island. Massive relief efforts by the US and British governments helped to rebuild this island community over the next five years.
The Soufriere Hills Volcano looks so peaceful now...
The single most notable event in Montserrat's history, however, is the eruption of the Soufrière Hills Volcano. After 300 years of dormancy, the volcano came to life in July 1995 with tell-tale signs of an upcoming eruption. Steam vents became active, mild explosions generated ash in the nearby capital of Plymouth, and a new lava dome emerged.

These rumblings gave sufficient warning so that volcanologists prompted the safe evacuation of Plymouth and nearby towns before the large explosion on June 25, 1997 that produced pyroclastic flows. Seventy five additional explosions occurred between September 22 and October 21, and a massive lateral blast on December 26 caused pyroclastic flow and debris avalanches comprised of 60 million cubic meters of material from the dome and crater wall.

The steeple of this Plymouth church is all that remains above ground.
Nineteen people died in the first blast, though it was due to their reckless ignoring of the evacuation orders. Grey mud and lava, as thick as toothpaste, flowed down the mountainside. Where the lava met the ocean the seawater boiled for days, and fishes and lobsters were plucked out already cooked. The capital city of Plymouth was buried by 39 feet of mud and ash, with complete destruction of the island's airport and docking facilities. Massive amounts of ash covered the entire island, and the wind carried it as far away as St. Kitts, Antigua, Guadeloupe, and Puerto Rico. Rain, as far as 2 km away from the volcano, registered a pH level of 2 (very acidic).

The small map on the left shows the Exclusion Zone in brown.
Most of the Montserrat's population lived in or near the capital, and their evacuation significantly reduced the population on the island. Many left for Antigua or Guadeloupe, but the majority — about 4,000 — moved to the UK. In all about 7,000 people, or two thirds of the population, left Montserrat.

Like the Turks & Caicos Islands, Anguilla, and Tortola, Montserrat is still under British rule. Some other former British colonies like Antigua are now fully independent. Since the Soufrière Hills disaster, England has granted the citizens of Montserrat full British citizenship.

The most recent volcanic activity occurred in February of 2010, with another series of explosions. These produced more pyroclastic flows and the collapse of the lava dome left a crater on the north flank of the volcano. Since that time, only ash venting and fumaroles have occurred. Plymouth and St. George's are still within the restricted zone, but a lowering of the hazard level in 2014 has opened up access to the towns of Cork Hill, Delvins, Weekes, Foxes Bay, and Richmond Hill.

The new harbor at Little Bay
Rebuilding has been difficult. A new town and port are being developed at Little Bay on the northwest coast of the island. The harbor, totally open to the west, is far less protected than Plymouth's had been, and yachts best come only in settled weather. Often the sea is too rough on the port even for cargo boats, with water breaking over the harbor. Sometimes the ferry that travels from Montserrat to Antigua can't go out for days.

Little Bay is not well protected and should be visited only in settled weather.

This breakwater can be submerged in rough weather.

The new airport was built in such a way that it cannot be expanded. It can accommodate only 9-seater planes or smaller.

A view of Plymouth (photographed through a monocular) in 2016.
When Greg and I sailed past Montserrat in 1999 the view of Plymouth was surreal. The land looked like a black-and-white photograph, as every structure or surface was covered in grey ash. The stark contrast against the deep blue sea was striking. As we sailed past Plymouth this time around, we were amazed to see the difference. Years of rain have washed away much of the ash so that buildings show much of their original color. Plant life, initially devastated by the ash and sulfur, is now abundant, growing verdantly in the rich volcanic soil.

The plants are now growing like crazy in the abandoned towns.

Cruising this time around, we had a very small weather window, but managed a stay in Montserrat. We enjoyed a fantastic tour with our guide, Cecil Wade. Montserrat did not disappoint; it was well worth our time on this gem of an island.

Here are some more photos of our time in Montserrat:

Wade's Tour was great, and we highly recommend him. Call him on 664-491-5214 or email wadececil@hotmail.com.

We explored the devastated Montserrat Springs Hotel, just at the edge of the exclusion zone.
You can see many more photos of these ruins here.

It appears that only 2/3 of this house is above the ground. However, this is the third story of this house!

New land was formed by the lava, ash, and mud flows. It is estimated that the island, previously 39 sq. mi. in area, is now between 50 and 60 sq. mi. The area of land in the above right photo jutting into the sea is new.

We drank from this small stream with hopes that it will guarantee that we will one day return to this wonderful island!

The country is looking to rebuild its devastated economy. Sand is collected and sold to other countries for cement production. Investigation into geothermal energy is in the initial stages.

There aren't too many cultural activities on Montserrat.
This museum was simply an empty building remaining since sugar plantation days.

You know it's a small country when the license plate numbers are in the hundreds.

Not much soft-serve in the Caribbean! Mr. Wilson was so nice, just like all the people we met here.