Columbus sighted Montserrat on 11 November 1493, naming it after an abbey of the same name in Spain, where the founder of the Jesuits, Ignacio de Loyola, experienced the vision which led to his forming that famous order of monks. At that time, a few Carib Indians lived on the island but by the middle of the 17th century they had disappeared. The Caribs named the island Alliouagana, which means “land of the prickly bush”. Montserrat was eventually settled by the British Thomas Warner, who brought English and Irish Catholics from their uneasy base in the Protestant island of St Kitts.
Once established as an Irish-Catholic colony, the only one in the Caribbean, Catholic refugees fled there from persecution in Virginia and, following his victory at Drogheda in 1649, Cromwell sent some of his Irish political prisoners to Montserrat. By 1648 there were 1,000 Irish families on the island. An Irishman brought some of the first slaves to the island in 1651 and the economy became based on sugar. Slaves quickly outnumbered the original British indentured servants. A slave rebellion in 1768, appropriately enough on St Patrick’s Day, led to all the rebels being executed and today they are celebrated as freedom fighters. Montserrat was invaded several times by the French during the 17th and 18th centuries, sometimes with assistance from the resident Irish, but the island returned to British control under the Treaty of Versailles (1783) and has remained a colony to this day.
There are several small political parties, including the People’s Liberation Movement (PLM), the National Development Party (NDP), the National Progressive Party (NPP), the Movement for National Reconstruction (MNR) and the People’s Progressive Alliance (PPA), although the current Chief Minister, David Brandt, is an independent. At the last elections, in 1996, there were 4,206 votes cast, out of 7,238 registered electors, many of whom had left the island. Four of the constituencies are in areas fully or partially evacuated.
The main concern of the government since 1995 has been the relocation of the remaining population to the north of the island out of reach of the volcano. In August 1997, after the main explosion and the destruction of Plymouth there were still 1,400 people in shelters, of whom 800 were in churches and 600 in factory shells. There were controversial proposals from British authorities for a complete evacuation of the island, but Chief Minister Brandt campaigned for the release of funds already allocated by the UK for developing the north.
In June 1998, it was announced that Britain would allocate £75mn to Montserrat in the two financial years to April 2001, compared with £59.3mn in the previous three. The amount would comprise budgetary aid, development spending and emergency assistance. A plan for sustainable development of the north of the island was circulated for public consultation and signed in January 1999. Objectives of the plan included job creation, population growth and a greater role for the private sector. Houses were built at Judy Piece for the evacuated villagers of Long Ground and more were under construction at Lookout, Shinn and at Davy Hill, with the aim of reuniting communities. In August, residents and businesses were authorized to return to the central zone, between Lawyers River and Nantes River. South of Nantes River to the Belham River Valley (including Salem, Friths and Old Towne) was considered less dangerous than previously and a programme to clean the area of ash was started. Reoccupation of this area began on a limited basis at end-September.
By the end of 1999, the crisis appeared to have receded, Montserratians were beginning to trickle back to the island from the UK, Antigua or other Caribbean islands, and tourism was actively encouraged again to kick start the economy. It was estimated at the beginning of 2000 that the population had risen to 5,000, compared with a low of 3,400 two years previously, with 120 people remaining in shelters. Although many Caricom workers had been employed in the construction business, in April 2000 the Government announced that they would henceforth have to seek work permits, in order to give priority to returning Montserratians seeking employment. The Soufriere Hills volcano continues to be active, but it is hoped that the safe zone will remain safe and that the line of the exclusion will not have to be adjusted.