Montserrat: The Emerald Isle Of The Caribbean, And A Modern-Day Pompeii

We left Dominica and headed back to Iles des Saintes for a few days, until the winds calmed a bit more for us to continue on. Once again, we took a mooring ball off of Ile Cabrit.

After a quick trip into town, to stock up on veggies and baguettes (for Le Capitaine), we headed back to Sea Life to relax.

While unloading our groceries, we noticed a young goat along the waterline of Ile Cabrit, playing with a coconut; quite an amusing site.

We spent our St. Patrick’s Day moored off of Ile Cabrit, sulking on board. Our frustration at not being able to make Montserrat’s celebration was amplified even more, when we spied these cruisers going by on their dinghy. Arrggh!!

A day later, we left the mooring field, and Iles des Saintes. We were headed for Anguilla…by way of a Montserrat drive-by.

If you’re unfamiliar, pear-shaped Montserrat is quite an interesting little island. It’s is known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, both for its resemblance to coastal Ireland, and the Irish ancestry of many of its people. The island is also referred to as a modern-day Pompeii, after a massive volcano eruption in 1997.

First…St.Patrick’s Day: Montserrat is the only country outside of Ireland where St. Patrick’s Day is a public holiday (come on, U.S.A., join in!). When clearing in, your passport is stamped with a shamrock! If that doesn’t say come visit for St. Patricks’ Day, I don’t know what does!

Ireland and Montserrat go way back. Ireland was invaded and defeated by the forces of the English Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, which caused many of the Irish people to be expelled from their homeland.

Catholics knew they would be murdered if they stayed in Ireland, and were desperate to escape. Many who could not afford the fare across the Atlantic made a deal to work as indentured servants in the Caribbean, and worked among the African slaves. By 1678, a census showed that nearly 60% of the island’s people were Irish.

In the 1630s, Irish Catholics sailed to Montserrat from St. Kitts and Nevis, to escape religious tensions there, bringing their own slaves with them, and by 1768, African slaves outnumbered the Irish Catholics (including the indentured) by three to one.

On March 17, 1768, a slave rebellion was planned, to coincide with the annual Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. While the British governed the island, Saint Patrick’s Day was observed, due to the large Irish population, and it was anticipated that the British and Irish would be distracted by the Saint Patrick’s Day feast and festivities (I sure would be). It is said that an Irish woman overhead a planning session, and the rebellion was discovered and squashed. Nine slaves were executed, and more than thirty were imprisoned, and eventually banished from the island.

Today, the people of Montserrat are a mix of African slaves, Irish indentured workers and a bit of English Protestant blood, and the celebration of St Patrick’s Day has a different meaning than in Ireland: “It is both sad and happy, and there is a lot of eating going on.”

March 17th became an officially designated national holiday in 1985, and since 1995 has become a week-long festival that includes a parade in national dress, a road race called “the slave run”, dinners, fashion shows, beauty contests, dancing and pub crawls. While in Antigua, we could pick up Montserrat radio stations, and there was much talk of the upcoming celebration. 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of the slave uprising…..Dammit!, this is what we missed! (obviously online photos, since we weren’t there.):

Next, the volcano: I’d never heard of Montserrat, until my sister spent six weeks on the island in 1997, helping them build a website. Sally had never heard of the island either, and was unaware that the massive eruption had occurred just a year before. Needless to say, “island” life during her stay on Montserrat was much different than she expected.

Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills is an active volcano, with many lava domes forming its summit (I’ve learned that many volcanoes in the Caribbean are named Soufrière, which is French, for “sulphur outlet”). After being dormant for 350, the volcano came back into life in 1995, and started to build a new lava dome. When pyroclastic and mudflows began occurring regularly, the capital city of Plymouth was evacuated.

A few weeks later, on July 18th, 1997, a massive pyroclastic flow buried Plymouth in more than 39 ft of mud, destroying the city, causing widespread evacuations and rendering more than half of the island uninhabitable. Here are some amazing, online images:

Between 1995 and 2000, two-thirds of the island’s population was forced to flee, primarily to the United Kingdom, leaving fewer than 1,200 people on the island as of 1997. Because of the size of the existing volcanic dome, and the resulting potential for pyroclastic activity, an exclusion zone was established, extending from the south coast to north parts of the island.

Since the devastating event in 1995, the volcano has continued to erupt, and is one of the most active and closely monitored volcanoes in the world. It’s activity includes periods of lava dome growth, followed by brief episodes of dome collapse, causing pyroclastic flows, ash venting, and explosive eruption. As recently as February 2010, a partial collapse of the lava dome sent large ash clouds over sections of several nearby islands, including Guadeloupe and Antigua.

Before its lower two thirds became devastated, Montserrat was a carefree, island paradise (also the birthplace of Alphonsus Cassell, creator of the soca hit “Hot, Hot, Hot”). In 1979, Beatles producer, Sir George Martin, built AIR Studios Montserrat, and for more than a decade, it played host to recording sessions by musicians including Dire Straits, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Sting and The Rolling Stones.

For my Buffett fans, Jimmy recorded the album, Volcano, and hit song by the same name, in May of 1979 at Air Studios. The album and song were named for the then-dormant Soufriere Hills volcano. Sadly, Hurricane Hugo destroyed the studios in 1989.

Two decades later, this modern-day “Pompeii” is slowly recovering. The population is growing, and sand mining and geothermal energy provide new sources of income. The northern part of Montserrat remains lush and green, largely unaffected by volcanic activity, and a new town, port and government center have developed on the northwest coast.

Tourists are slowly trickling back to the island, mostly for volcano-related day trips. The volcano is always a wild card, but all in all, Montserrat is a safe place to visit, offering great hiking, bird watching, and a slow pace of life.

We may have missed the St. Patrick’s Day festivities, but didn’t want to pass up a chance to see the island, and the volcano’s effects, up close. It was a beautiful day, with clear visibility as we approached from the south.

And Lady Soufriere was smokin’ away.

As we got closer, the wide avenues of hardened lava flow extended all the way down to, an into, the water, creating new sections of coastline.

We followed along the island’s west side, where vegetation had again taken hold, and the still-active volcano smoldered in the distance.



Further along, at Plymouth, what was once the island’s capital city, the views were more creepy and ominous. Abandoned homes, ravaged by the eruption, had been encroached by twenty years of vegetation growth.

A photo of houses after the eruption:

And what we saw twenty years later:

In other areas, only shells of buildings remained, virtually buried in hardened mud and sand, from the massive pyroclastic flow.



We moved away from the coast, and continued on our course to Anguilla. Despite the catastrophe of Soufriere’s eruption, the Emerald Isle of Montserrat is still intriging, and its St. Patrick’s Day celebration is still on our bucket list….we will be back!

Here are many more photos from our drive-by of Montserrat.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”