On 18 July 1995, the previously dormant Soufrière Hills volcano, in the southern part of the island, became active. Eruptions destroyed Montserrat's Georgian era capital city of Plymouth. 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. The volcanic activity continues, mostly affecting the vicinity of Plymouth, including its docking facilities, and the eastern side of the island around the former W. H. Bramble Airport, the remnants of which were buried by flows from volcanic activity on 11 February 2010.
An exclusion zone that extends from the south coast of the island north to parts of the Belham Valley was imposed because of the size of the existing volcanic dome and the resulting potential for pyroclastic activity. Visitors are generally not permitted entry into the exclusion zone, but an impressive view of the destruction of Plymouth can be seen from the top of Garibaldi Hill in Isles Bay. Relatively quiet since early 2010, the volcano continues to be closely monitored by the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. It is the most studied volcano in the world and Montserrat has been regarded as a "Modern Day Pompeii" in the Caribbean.
A new town and port are being developed at Little Bay, which is on the northwest coast of the island. While this construction proceeds, the centre of government and businesses is at Brades.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus named the island Santa María de Montserrate, after the Virgin of Montserrat in the Monastery of Montserrat, on Montserrat mountain, near Barcelona in Catalonia, Spain. "Montserrat" means "serrated mountain" in Catalan.
Archaeological field work in 2012, in Montserrat's Centre Hills indicated there was an Archaic (pre-Arawak) occupation between 4000 and 2500 BP. Later coastal sites show the presence of the Saladoid culture.
In November 1493, Christopher Columbus passed Montserrat in his second voyage, after being told that the island was unoccupied due to raids by the Caribs.
A number of Irishmen settled in Montserrat in 1632. The preponderance of Irish in the first wave of European settlers led a leading legal scholar to remark that a "nice question" is whether the original settlers took with them the law of the Kingdom of Ireland insofar as it differed from the law of the Kingdom of England.
The Irish being historical allies of the French, especially in their dislike of the English, invited the French to claim the island in 1666. Although no troops were sent by France to maintain control. It was captured shortly afterwards by the English and English control of the island was confirmed under the Treaty of Breda the following year. Despite the seizing by force of the island by the English, the island's legal status is that of a "colony acquired by settlement".
A neo-feudal colony developed amongst the "redlegs". The colonists began to transport Sub-Saharan African slaves for labour, as was common to most Caribbean islands. The colonists built an economy based on the production of sugar, rum, arrowroot and sea island cotton, cultivated on large plantations manned by slave labour. By the late 18th century, numerous plantations had been developed on the island. Many Irish continued to be transported to the island, to work as indentured servants; some were exiled during the English Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.
On 17 March 1768, slaves rebelled but failed to achieve freedom. The people of Montserrat celebrate St Patrick's Day as a public holiday due to the slave revolt. Festivities held that week commemorate the culture of Montserrat in song, dance, food and traditional costumes.
In 1782, during the American Revolutionary War, as America's first ally, France captured Montserrat in their war of support of the Americans. The French, not intending on truly colonizing the island, then agreed to return the island to the Great Britain under the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
The Irish constituted the largest proportion of the white population from the founding of the colony in 1628. Many were indentured labourers; others were merchants or plantation owners. The geographer Thomas Jeffrey claimed in The West India Atlas (1780) that the majority of those on Montserrat were either Irish or of Irish descent, “so that the use of the Irish language is preserved on the island, even among the Negroes”.
African slaves and Irish colonists of all classes were in constant contact, with sexual relationships being common and a population of mixed descent appearing as a consequence. The Irish were also prominent in Caribbean commerce, with their merchants importing Irish goods such as beef, pork, butter and herring, and also importing slaves.
There is indirect evidence that the use of the Irish language continued in Montserrat until at least the middle of the nineteenth century. The Kilkenny diarist and Irish scholar Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin noted in 1831 that he had heard that Irish was still spoken in Montserrat by both black and white inhabitants. A letter by W.F. Butler in The Atheneum (15 July 1905) quotes an account by a Cork civil servant, C. Cremen, of what he had heard from a retired sailor called John O’Donovan, a fluent Irish speaker:
He frequently told me that in the year 1852, when mate of the brig Kaloolah, he went ashore on the island of Montserrat which was then out of the usual track of shipping. He said he was much surprised to hear the negroes actually talking Irish among themselves, and that he joined in the conversation…
The British phonetician John C. Wells conducted research into speech in Montserrat in 1977-78 (which included also Montserratians resident in London). He found media claims that Irish speech, whether Anglo-Irish or Irish Gaelic, influenced contemporary Montserratian speech were largely exaggerated. He found little in phonology, morphology or syntax that could be attributed to Irish influence, and only a small number of Irish words in use, with one case being minnseach [ˈmʲiɲʃəx] for goat.
Britain abolished slavery in Montserrat and its other Caribbean territories effective August 1834.
During the nineteenth century, falling sugar-prices had an adverse effect on the island's economy, as Brazil and other nations competed in the trade.
In 1857, the British philanthropist Joseph Sturge bought a sugar estate to prove it was economically viable to employ paid labour rather than slaves. Numerous members of the Sturge family bought additional land. In 1869 the family established the Montserrat Company Limited and planted Key lime trees, started the commercial production of lime juice, set up a school, and sold parcels of land to the inhabitants of the island. Much of Montserrat came to be owned by smallholders.
From 1871 to 1958, Montserrat was administered as part of the federal crown colony of the British Leeward Islands, becoming a province of the short-lived West Indies Federation from 1958 to 1962.
In 1979, The Beatles producer George Martin, opened AIR Studios Montserrat. The island attracted world-famous musicians, who came to record in the peaceful and lush tropical surroundings of Montserrat.
In the early hours of 17 September 1989, Hurricane Hugo, passed the island as a Category 4 hurricane. It damaged more than 90% of the structures on the island. AIR Studios Montserrat closed, and the tourist economy was virtually wiped out.
The island of Montserrat is approximately 480 km (300 mi) east-southeast of Puerto Rico and 48 km (30 mi) southwest of Antigua. The island lies north-northwest of Suriname and French Guiana (France). It comprises 104 km2 (40 sq mi) and is gradually increasing owing to the buildup of volcanic deposits on the southeast coast. The island is 16 km (9.9 mi) long and 11 km (6.8 mi) wide, with rock cliffs rising 15 to 30 m (49 to 98 ft) above the sea and a number of smooth bottomed sandy beaches scattered among coves on the western (Caribbean) side of the island.
Montserrat has two islets, Virgin and Statue Rock.
In July 1995, Montserrat's Soufrière Hills volcano, dormant for centuries, erupted and soon buried the island's capital, Plymouth, in more than 12 metres (39 ft) of mud, destroyed its airport and docking facilities, and rendered the southern part of the island, now termed the exclusion zone, uninhabitable and not safe for travel. The southern part of the island was evacuated and visits are severely restricted. The exclusion zone also includes two sea areas adjacent to the land areas of most volcanic activity.
After the destruction of Plymouth and disruption of the economy, more than half of the population left the island, which also lacked housing. During the late 1990s, additional eruptions occurred. On 25 June 1997, a pyroclastic flow travelled down Mosquito Ghaut. This pyroclastic surge could not be restrained by the ghaut and spilled out of it, killing 19 people who were in the (officially evacuated) Streatham village area. Several others in the area suffered severe burns.
For a number of years in the early 2000s, the volcano's activity consisted mostly of infrequent ventings of ash into the uninhabited areas in the south. The ash falls occasionally extended into the northern and western parts of the island. In the most recent period of increased activity at the Soufrière Hills volcano, from November 2009 through February 2010, ash vented and there was a vulcanian explosion that sent pyroclastic flows down several sides of the mountain. Travel into parts of the exclusion zone is occasionally allowed, though only by a licence from the Royal Montserrat Police Force.
The northern part of Montserrat has largely been unaffected by volcanic activity, and remains lush and green. In February 2005, The Princess Royal officially opened what is now called the John A. Osborne Airport in the north. Since 2011, it handles several flights daily operated by Fly Montserrat Airways. Docking facilities are in place at Little Bay, where the new capital town is being constructed; the new government centre is at Brades, a short distance away.
In recognition of the disaster, in 1998, the people of Montserrat were granted full residency rights in the United Kingdom, allowing them to migrate if they chose. British citizenship was granted in 2002.
Montserrat, like many isolated islands, is home to rare, endemic plant and animal species. Work undertaken by the Montserrat National Trust in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has centred on the conservation of pribby (Rondeletia buxifolia) in the Centre Hills region. Until 2006, this species was known only from one book about the vegetation of Montserrat. In 2006, conservationists also rescued several plants of the endangered Montserrat orchid (Epidendrum montserratense) from dead trees on the island and installed them in the security of the island's botanic garden.
Montserrat is also home to the critically endangered Giant Ditch Frog (Leptodactylus fallax), known locally as the Mountain Chicken, found only in Montserrat and Dominica. The species has undergone catastrophic declines due to the amphibian disease Chytridiomycosis and the volcanic eruption in 1997. Experts from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust have been working with the Montserrat Department of Environment to conserve the frog in-situ in a project called "Saving the Mountain Chicken", and an ex-situ captive breeding population has been set up in partnership with Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Zoological Society of London, North of England Zoological Society, Parken Zoo and the Governments of Montserrat and Dominica. Releases from this programme have already taken place in a hope to increase the numbers of the frog and reduce extinction risk from Chytridiomycosis.
The national bird is the endemic Montserrat oriole (Icterus oberi). The IUCN Red List classifies it as Critically Endangered. Captive populations are held in several zoos in the UK including: Chester Zoo, Zoological Society of London, Jersey Zoo and Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
The Montserrat galliwasp (Diploglossus montisserrati), a type of lizard, is endemic to Montserrat and is listed on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered. A species action plan has been developed for this species.
In 2005, a biodiversity assessment for the Centre Hills was conducted. To support the work of local conservationists, a team of international partners, including Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Montana State University, carried out extensive surveys and collected biological data. Researchers from Montana State University found that the invertebrate fauna was particularly rich on the island. The report found that the number of invertebrate species known to occur in Montserrat is 1,241. The number of known beetle species is 718 species from 63 families. It is estimated that 120 invertebrates are endemic to Montserrat.
Montserrat is known for its coral reefs and its caves along the shore. These caves house many species of bats, and efforts are underway to monitor and protect the ten species of bats from extinction.
A species of tarantula simply called the Montserrat Tarantula is native to the island. It was first bred in captivity at the Chester Zoo in August 2016.
Montserrat is an internally self-governing overseas territory of the United Kingdom. The United Nations Committee on Decolonization includes Montserrat on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. Executive power is exercised by the government, whereby the Premier is the head of government. The Premier is appointed by the Governor from among the members of the Legislative Assembly which consists of nine elected members. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the Legislative Assembly. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature. Military defence is the responsibility of the United Kingdom.
From 1979 to 1989, Montserrat was home to a branch of George Martin's AIR Studios, making the island popular with musicians who often went there to record while taking advantage of the island's climate and beautiful surroundings; the studio closed as a result of Hurricane Hugo.
Since the devastations of Hurricane Hugo and the eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano, the Montserratian economy has been effectively halted. Export businesses based in Montserrat deal primarily in the selling and shipping of aggregate for construction. Imports include virtually everything available for sale on the island.
The island's operating budget is largely supplied by the British government and administered through the Department for International Development (DFID) amounting to approximately £25 million per year. Additional amounts are secured through income and property taxes, licence and other fees as well as customs duties levied on imported goods.
The limited economy of Montserrat, coupled with a population under 5,000, many living in shelters and shacks without utilities, only consumes 1.7 MW of electric power, produced by five diesel generators. Two exploratory geothermal wells have found good resources and the pad for a third geothermal well was prepared in 2016. Together the geothermal wells are expected to produce more power than the island requires.
As a British Overseas Territory (BOT), defence of Montserrat remains the responsibility of the United Kingdom. Montserrat is one of the fourteen BOTs that maintains its own military unit, the Royal Montserrat Defence Force. There is also a cadet corps for secondary school students.
The island had a population of 5,879 (according to a 2008 estimate). An estimated 8,000 refugees left the island (primarily to the UK) following the resumption of volcanic activity in July 1995; the population was 13,000 in 1994. The 2011 Montserrat census indicated a population of 4,922. In early 2016, the estimated population had reached nearly 5000 primarily due to immigration from other islands.
The median age of the population was 28.1 as of 2002 and the sex ratio was 0.96 males/female as of 2000.
The population growth rate is 6.9% (2008 est.), with a birth rate of 17.57 births/1,000 population, death rate of 7.34 deaths/1,000 population (2003 est.), and net migration rate of 195.35/1,000 population (2000 est.) There is an infant mortality rate of 7.77 deaths/1,000 live births (2003 est.). The life expectancy at birth is 78.36 years: 76.24 for males and 80.59 for females (2003 est.). The total fertility rate is 1.8 children born/woman (2003 est.).
Residents of Montserrat are known as Montserratians. The population consists of a number of ethnic groups, including Black (88.4%), White, Dual Heritage and Creole. The island's population is mainly a mix of Irish and Africans with other minorities.
The population is predominantly, but not exclusively, of mixed African-Irish descent. It is not known with certainty how many African slaves and indentured Irish labourers were brought to the West Indies, though according to one estimate some 60,000 Irish were "Barbadosed" by Oliver Cromwell, some of whom would have arrived in Montserrat.
Education in Montserrat is compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 14, and free up to the age of 17. The only secondary school on the island is the Montserrat Secondary School.
In 1979, George Martin, an English record producer, build a recording studio on the island called AIR Studios Montserrat. For more than a decade, AIR Montserrat played host to recording sessions by many well known rock musicians, including Dire Straits, Elton John, Michael Jackson and The Rolling Stones. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo destroyed the studios.
After the volcanic eruptions of 1995 through 1997, and until his death in 2016, George Martin raised funds to help the victims and families on the island. The first event was a star-studded event at London's Royal Albert Hall in September 1997 (Music for Montserrat) featuring many artists who had previously recorded on the island including Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler, Elton John, Sting, Eric Clapton and Midge Ure. All the proceeds from the show went towards short-term relief for the islanders.
Martin's second major initiative was to release five hundred limited edition lithographs of his score for the Beatles song "Yesterday". Complete with mistakes and tea stains, the lithographs are numbered and signed by Paul McCartney and Martin. The lithograph sale raised more than US$1.4 million which helped fund the building of a new cultural and community centre for Montserrat and provided a much needed focal point to help the re-generation of the island.
Many albums of note were recorded at AIR Studios, including Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms; Duran Duran's Seven and the Ragged Tiger, the Police's Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity (the video for "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" was filmed in Montserrat, but the song ironically was the only one on Ghost in the Machine not recorded there), and Jimmy Buffett's Volcano (named for Soufrière Hills). After sustaining severe damage from Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the studio is now a ruin. Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull) recorded the song "Montserrat" off The Secret Language of Birds in tribute to the volcanic difficulties and feeling among residents of being abandoned by the UK government.
Montserrat has one national radio station, ZJB. The station offers a wide selection of music and news within the island and also on the internet for Montserratians living overseas.
Notable shows include the Morning Show with Basil Chambers and Rose Willock's Cultural Show.
Montserrat's national dish is goat water, a thick goat meat stew served with crusty bread rolls. Montserrat cuisine resembles the general British and Caribbean cuisines, as it is situated in the Caribbean zone and it is a British territory. The cuisine includes a wide range of light meats, like fish, seafood and chicken, which are mostly grilled or roasted. Being a fusion of numerous cultures, such as Spanish, French, African, Indian and Amerindian, the Caribbean cuisine is unique and complex. More sophisticated meals include the Montserrat jerk shrimp, with rum, cinnamon bananas and cranberry. In other more rural areas, people prefer to eat homemade food, like the traditional mahi mahi and local breads.
Montserrat is home to the Montserrat Yachting Association.
Montserrat has competed in every Commonwealth Games since 1994.
Basketball is growing in popularity in Montserrat with the country now setting up their own basketball league. The league contains six teams, which are the Look-Out Shooters, Davy Hill Ras Valley, Cudjoe Head Renegades, St. Peters Hilltop, Salem Jammers and MSS School Warriors. They have also built a new 800 seater complex which cost $1.5 million.
Cricket is a popular sport in Montserrat. Players from Montserrat are eligible to play for the West Indies cricket team. Jim Allen was the first to play for the West Indies and he represented the World Series Cricket West Indians. No other player from Montserrat had gone on to represent the West Indies until Lionel Baker made his One Day International debut against Pakistan in November 2008.
The Montserrat cricket team forms a part of the Leeward Islands cricket team in regional domestic cricket, however it plays as a separate entity in minor regional matches, as well having previously played Twenty20 cricket in the Stanford 20/20. Two grounds on the island have held first-class matches for the Leeward Islands, the first and most historic was Sturge Park in Plymouth, which had been in use since the 1920s. This was destroyed in 1997, by the volcanic eruption. A new ground, the Salem Oval, was constructed and opened in 2000. This has also held first-class cricket. A second ground has been constructed at Little Bay.
Montserrat has its own FIFA affiliated football team, and has competed in the World Cup qualifiers five times but failed to advance to the finals from 2002 to 2018. A field for the team was built near the airport by FIFA. In 2002, the team competed in a friendly match with the second-lowest-ranked team in FIFA at that time, Bhutan, in The Other Final, the same day as the final of the 2002 World Cup. Bhutan won 4–0. Montserrat has failed to qualify for any FIFA World Cup. They have also failed to ever qualify for the Gold Cup and Caribbean Cup. The current national team relies mostly on the diaspora in England and in the last WCQ against Curaçao nearly all their squad played and lived in England.
Surfing was introduced by two American brothers in 1980, Carrll and Gary Robilotta. They were also responsible for naming the surfing spots on the island. Carrll wrote for the surfing newsletter The Surf Report, which was used by surfers around the globe. They both made Montserrat their home for 12 years.
Montserrat is divided into three parishes:
The locations of settlements on the island have been vastly changed since the volcanic activity began. Only Saint Peter Parish in the northwest of the island is now inhabited, with a population of between 4,000 and 6,000. The other two parishes are still too dangerous to inhabit; the volcano is still active in 2013.
Settlements known to be within the exclusion cannot be accessed and are no longer habitable. See also List of settlements abandoned after the 1997 Soufrière Hills eruption.
Settlements in italic have been destroyed by pyroclastic flows since the 1997 eruption. Others have been evacuated or destroyed since 1995.