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What Should I Know About Montserrat?

A portrait of Christopher Columbus, who claimed Montserrat for Spain in 1493.
Montserrat is a produce of cotton.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 July 2014
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Montserrat is a small territory in the Caribbean. It covers 39 square miles (102 sq. km). The island is located in the Lesser Antilles island chain, just southwest of the island of Antigua.

Montserrat was likely first inhabited around the 4th century by the Saladoid-Barrancoid group, who were later joined by Arawaks in the 9th century. Caribs arrived sometime in the 13th century, by which point the Saladoid-Barrancoid group had vanished. The Caribs and Arawaks both inhabited the island for the next few hundred years.

In 1493, Columbus landed on Montserrat and claimed the island for Spain. No permanent settlements were formed by the Spanish, however, and the island lay mostly dormant for the next century or so. In the mid-17th century a number of Irish Catholics emigrated from Saint Kitts and Nevis in the face of persecution, and arrived at Montserrat. These Irish formed a colony on Montserrat with the support of the British crown. A few decades later, Irish prisoners captured when the British conquered Ireland were also sent to the island, increasing the Irish population substantially.

Montserrat eventually developed an economy built around sugar, cotton, and rum, like most of the islands in the Lesser Antilles. African slaves were brought in during the late 17th and early 18th centuries to work these crops, eventually becoming freed when Britain abolished slavery in 1834.

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Montserrat was briefly a part of the West Indies Federation, from 1958 to 1962, until the federation dissolved under internal pressures. When the federation dissolved many of its constituent territories began moving towards independence, but Montserrat reverted to being a British territory, which it remains to this day.

Montserrat underwent a brief renaissance in the 1980s, in large part a result of George Martin’s AIR Studios, which attracted world-famous recording artists from all across the globe to record their records on the island. In 1989, however, most of the infrastructure of the island was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo, and the newly-burgeoning tourist industry was essentially eliminated. Six years later, in 1995, the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted, covering the capital city of Plymouth in 40 ft (12m) of mud, chasing away more than half of the population, and destroying much of the island.

Since the volcanic eruption, the volcanic activity has subsided somewhat, although great amounts of ash are still regularly vented. The island is now divided into three regions, with the southern half of the island around the volcano and the old capital falling in the Exclusion Zone, which is closed to people, a small area on the west side of the island making up the Daytime Entry Zone, which is open during certain periods, and the rest of the island making up the Northern Zone, which is open to people.

After the volcano, the island’s tourist infrastructure is all but non-existent. There are two hotels left on the island, and a small number of guest houses. The roads are covered in rocks spewed from the volcano, and much of the island is under a thin sprinkling of ash. It is truly an otherworldly experience, but for those willing to accept its shortcomings, it remains a beautiful jewel, perhaps made even more exotic by the rumbling volcano in the south.

An airport was finally reopened in Montserrat in 2005, and flights now arrive daily from nearby Antigua. A ferry is also in operation from Antigua.

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