Today marked the 20-year anniversary of the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano of 18 July 1995. Amandla Thomas-Johnson writes about the migration that occurred because of the disaster (only 5,000 people now live on Montserrat). She says, “The Soufriere Hills which erupted 20 years ago today, claimed lives, destroyed neighbourhoods, and forced people to flee abroad, but there’s still no place like home.” She concludes her article by saying that “of the Montserratians who this weekend will return to commemorate the events of 20 years ago, a small handful will decide to stay. Those who decide to leave again will forever remember it a paradise lost.” Here are excerpts:
It is 10am and Paul ‘Dadz’ Cabey is standing in his front yard washing his sky-blue car. He hears a loud, roaring noise, but makes nothing of it; aircraft often rumble loudly as they fly over the Caribbean nation where he lives. But suddenly the bright morning sunlight begins to fade and the street lights flick on as the island is plunged into complete darkness. “There was something serious happening,” he reflects 20 years on. “To some it was amusing, to others it was scary because you didn’t know what was taking place.”
Cabey, was one of only 13,000 people who at that time lived on the tiny island of Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory. Since the Soufriere Hills volcano began to erupt on 18 July, 1995, under half that number remain.
It was only when, a few hours later, radio reports from Trinidad – where regional seismic activity was being monitored – reached the island that residents began to understand the significance of what was taking place. ‘Maxi-taxi’ cars soon began to ferry people to the north of the island, away from the volcano that lay to the south. This was to be the first of a number of evacuations which were to become part and parcel of Montserratian daily life.
Two years later, 78 per cent of the island’s population had been forced to permanently relocate to the north, while Plymouth, the island’s capital had become a ghost town with most of its homes buried under a thick layer of ash. Though some were able to stay with family members in the north, Cabey says he had no choice but to sleep in “schools, church or open-spaces” for more than two years. Others would be reduced to living inside converted shipping-containers crammed full with up to 22 people each sharing just one kitchen and two bathrooms between them.
But the loss of that sense of home “went beyond the dwelling place”, says Professor Tracey Skelton, an expert on Montserrat based at the National University of Singapore. “Villages and neighbourhoods were incredibly important socially and culturally too.”
William ‘Kinny’ O’Garo, a Montserratian dancer and drummer, who now resides in London explains “Montserrat was very cultural”, but admits only a part of its traditions will be preserved. He has sought to keep the island’s cultural heritage alive by performing across the UK and as far afield as Australia. Among his repertoire is the ‘Mask Parade’, so-called because of the masks slaves would wear to hide their faces as they danced and beat drums in the evenings, a punishable offence for most slave-masters. But the slave-master would come to see it as a form of entertainment as slaves began to mimic the Quadrille dances they would see at the slave-master’s lavish parties while wearing a bishop’s mitre and a sleeveless jacket adorned with colourful ribbons.
The dance is still performed today, typically on St. Patrick’s Day and the annual ‘Festival’ which is held in December where there is also steel-pan, a calypso show, and a queen pageant parade.
Some worry that such traditions are being diluted by the drastic demographics shifts the country has faced in recent years. “We tried to carry on the culture in the best way we possibly could,’ says Janyk Allen, a betting shop manager from north London who was 13 when the eruptions began. “Now Montserratians aren’t interested in culture – we’re so diversified now.”
Just 5,000 people now live on Montserrat, 30 per cent of whom are foreign-born. [. . .]