Montserratians ( like most Caribbean islanders )are hybrid. A mixture of of Africans - Caribs - Arawaks - and Irish, although by the 1800's the Islands population were majority African.
In case you'd like to visit - this is a pretty good guide video!
So who do we think we are?
There are many reasons why I say this, but I think it's important for black Africans to visit the Caribbean and for Caribbeans to visit Africa.
Africans that I speak to tend to know very little about the Caribbean which initially used to surprise me.
I noticed over the years, through both observation and articles, that for a long time Africans tended to look down their noses at Caribbeans, and visa versa. Those divisions were aided in places like Britain with the pathologizing and discrimination of and towards Caribbean people and families. (which became more subtle over time)
Many Africans depicted Caribbeans as slaves or children of slaves, and Caribbeans depicted Africans as weak spineless sell-outs.
Those depictions although perhaps subjectively founded in perceived truths, miss the point entirely.
.. and thankfully.. slowly , those perceptions appear to be changing.
Of course differences exist, but equally, there is a shared and fascinating history.
[disclaimer - The radio host, Rose, is very close to my mum, as she's my cousin]
Emergence of the Nation.
Very little is known of the early history of Montserrat. The indigenous population probably was made up of Arawak Indians who were killed off by Carib Indians by the time of Columbus's voyage in 1494. The Caribs left the island by the middle of the seventeenth century but continued to raid it. They named the island Alliouagana ("Land of the Prickly Bush"), perhaps after the aloe plant.
Most of Montserrat’s population are descendants of people who arrived on the island against their will. These include not only the African slaves brought to the Caribbean, but also Irish indentured servants who first came to Montserrat during the 16th century.
Montserrat is often referred to as "the Emerald Isle of the Carribbean" because the Irish figured prominently in its early history. Montserrat was first settled in 1632 by a British contingent from the mother colony of Saint Kitts. Although the original colonists were English and Irish, Montserrat quickly became a haven for Irish Catholics escaping from religious persecution. The Irish first came as indentured servants and later as slaves to work in the plantation system.
Later, Catholic refugees from Virginia came to escape from religious persecution. By 1648, there were one thousand Irish families on the island. The French occupied the country between 1644 and 1782 but ceded it to Britain in 1783. [click]
In the 1600s, African slaves were transported from Senegambia (consistent supply throughout)
1650's Kongo and Angola
1670's Bight of Benin
1800's Gold Coast sharp rise until Britain abolished slavery in 1808 (anti-slavery patrols began along the coast).
1740s The Bight of Biafra, centered on the Niger Delta and the Cross River (significant exporter dominating the Trans-Atlantic slave trade until its effective end in the mid-nineteenth century.
To fulfill the demand for slaves, the significant tribes in the region (such as the Luba, Lunda, and Kazanje) turned on each other using the Cokwe (hunters from further inland) as mercenaries. Slaves were created as a result of raids. The Cokwe, however, became dependent on this new form of employment and turned on their employers when the coastal slave trade evaporated.
Montserrat's population grew rapidly in the 1800's, so it would be a calculated guess that many of those African slaves at that time were from the Gold Coast region.
Located among the small series of volcanic cones that make up the Leeward Islands, Montserrat became An English colony about 1633 when her governor, Anthony Brisket, a Wexford man, opened it as a place for Irish Catholics who had served out their time as indentured servants in the British West Indian islands and who had discovered that while the English welcomed them as laborers they were unwanted as neighbors. The Irish flocked to Montserrat and by 1680 outnumbered the English by two to one. There is evidence of a Catholic church on the island by about 1650 and a succession of Irish Catholic governors, most notably Sir William Stapleton, continued to favor their countrymen. By 1689, when the Catholic king of England, James II, was deposed by the Protestant, William III, it seemed that Montserrat would be given by her Irish majority to the French. As it turned out, the English fought heroically in the West Indies to preserve their colonies there.
In the middle of the seventeenth century, sugar began to replace tobacco as the island's cash crop. Tobacco could be profitably cultivated on small farms but sugar required an initial heavy investment. Some Irishmen had the necessary means such as John Blake of Galway, but most of the sugar plantations belonged to Englishmen and most of the Irish were relegated to the steep, jungle covered slopes, where they practiced a subsistence agriculture. Sugar also meant slaves. Africans began to arrive in large numbers through the next century. There were about 1,000 slaves on the island in 1678, 3,500 in 1708 and nearly 9,000 in 1755. By 1800, they were the majority.
Montserrat, however, never became a typical English West Indian island, where African slaves vastly out numbered a handful of Whites and racial mixture hardly ever took place.
In the eighteenth century, Montserrat had two oppressed races. The Penal Laws, intended to crush Catholic, Celtic Ireland, applied also to Montserrat. The Irish, already reduced to poverty, suffered political disenfranchisement and religious persecution. Many of the young men emigrated but enough remained to constitute a peasant class eking out a bare living on marginal land. It was perhaps natural that the Irish and Africans at the bottom of the social structure worked, drank and made love together.
An Afro-Irish population came into existence, its growth disguised by the tendency of English officials to count people as "Negro" if they had the slightest trace of African ancestry. We can glimpse the hidden reality when we find slaves named Bridget or Tom Kerwin and increasing reference to free "mulattos." In the eighteenth century, the sugar boom ended and fresh imports of Africans ceased to arrive in Montserrat. The process of Afro-Irish mixing therefore accelerated and each generation was more racially mixed than the one-before.
In the 1830's, slavery was abolished and the laws against Catholics repealed but Montserrat's racial harmony, born of oppression, continued into a better, more democratic era. Unlike most other West Indian islands, where racial animosity is thick, questions of race and color are considered rude on Montserrat. Dressed in a darker skin than their cousins in the old country, the Montserratians are yet Irish. Their names are Irish, they speak with a brogue, they have a solid reputation for hospitality and in times of adversity the rely first on "ourselves alone." It is with good reason that they stamp the sign of a shamrock into a new arrival's passport.
Hugo was not the first hurricane to devastate Montserrat. She has suffered many similar catastrophes but Hugo was perhaps the most heartbreaking of all. A poor country at the best of times, Montserrat had finally begun to make measurable progress in raising her standard of living. As one of the island's officials put it, they had just about gotten into the age of electricity and are now back into the age of kerosene. What, if anything, their cousins in the rest of the world can or will do for them remains to be seen.
[partial source by James P. Walsh & originally printed in 1989]
The Arawak and Carib were Montserrat’s first residents before Christopher Columbus discovered the island and named it after Catalonia’s Monastery of Montserrat in 1493. Many of the first European settlers were indentured Irish servants transported to the New World against their will, much like the African slaves who followed after Montserrat became an English territory in 1632.
Sugar and Sea Island cotton plantations, along with rum, formed the backbone of Montserrat’s economy for several decades. France briefly captured the island in 1782, but became a British territory under the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolutionary War. This dramatic period in island history is displayed at the Montserrat National Trust headquarters (P. O. Box 393, Olveston).
St Patrick’s Day became an official public holiday after a failed March 17, 1768 slave uprising, but the island did not abolish slavery until 1834. When Montserrat’s economy suffered after sugar prices plummeted in the 19th century, a British philanthropist named Joseph Sturge purchased his own sugar estate in 1857 to prove that hiring paid workers was more beneficial than using slave labor. The Sturges became Montserrat’s most powerful family. They started a school, began Montserrat’s commercial lime juice industry and founded the Montserrat Company Limited. After the Sturges began selling land to the local population, most of the island was owned by shareholders.
Between 1871 and 1958, Montserrat was part of the British Leeward Islands colony, becoming part of the West Indies Federation during the following four years. After Sir George Martin opened his AIR recording studio in 1979, many of the world’s top musicians flocked to the island to record their albums in Montserrat’s private and tranquil surroundings.
Hurricane Hugo, however, brought an abrupt end to Montserrat’s growth when the Category 4 storm destroyed 90 percent of the island’s buildings, including AIR Studios. Once Montserrat recovered from that natural disaster, the long-dormant Soufrière Hills volcano buried Plymouth, the island’s capital, in over 39 feet of mud. The Soufrière Hills volcano also destroyed Montserrat’s airport and forced over half the population to relocate.
I tend to take Montserrat'ness' for granted.
To be honest I find it slightly frustrating trying to get to grips with tracing my own lineage. Whilst I haven't given up entirely, at present I don't have the time. I think I've mentioned before that I don't have that much information on certain things. I have visited the island, and had the opportunity to see where my parents grew up, went to school, hung out, how they lived etc, which I guess has sustained me, and quenched my thirst enough.
So who am I?.
I cannot answer that easily.
Definitely hybridic, with a long story.
Where did my story begin?
Here? in Britain?
Literally speaking, I guess so, although it doesn't feel that way. I feel as though I've been an observer of my life.. and I have felt that way for some time.
I guess, it's what I do.
It's sometimes said that we are all born with a clean slate. But at this moment in time I don't agree with that anymore.
I believe we are are all born with histories and expectations attached, which we either fulfill, or don't.
for better, or worse
Anything after that, is window dressing.
Happy Sunday x