By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
I recently had the awesome experience of making my first visit to a Caribbean island. Although I have read about and seen photographs of almost all the Caribbean islands, I was not sure what to expect.
I was born in Guyana, South America, which shares the culture of Caribbean islands that were colonised by the British. There is a similar culture, food, music, a history of enslaved African ancestors with the accompanying stories of their resistance to enslavement.
I left from Pearson International Airport after passing through customs and immigration. I discovered that I was entering the USA right here in Toronto as soon as I checked in. I usually travel by bus to New York City where it seems half of Guyana is living nowadays. On those occasions I am in the USA only when I cross the border into Buffalo, New York.
At the airport I faced a machine which requested that I remove my “hat and glasses” before it would take a photograph that had to be presented to the customs officers. I respectfully declined since my passport photograph has me wearing my glasses and head wrap. Those machines need to be updated to recognize that head wraps, turbans, hijabs, etc., are worn for various reasons, including cultural and religious. After a bit of a faceoff “woman to machine”, woman won and the machine took the photograph.
I had packed carefully paying attention to sizes (3.4 ounces or 100 millilitres) of liquids because of the rules now in place for air travel. I did not realize that carrying an aerosol spray deodorant of 113 grams was against the rules. The woman who was examining the bags as they rolled through the scanner took my deodorant and threw it in the garbage. I was aghast because it was brand new, bought on a whim because of the pretty package. Thankfully I had my regular roll-on deodorant. At the check in area I also did not appreciate having to take off my shoes, good thing I was prepared and was wearing socks.
The recommendation while travelling by air is to arrive three hours before your flight is scheduled for takeoff. I was there five hours before so I had to sit and wait and wait and wait after clearing the hurdles. At last we were boarding and my excitement was tempered with some degree of nervousness since my flight plan called for a “connection” before arriving in Antigua. My last experience with “connecting flights” in New York was a bit of a nightmare (returning to Canada from Guyana in January 2012). This time was not as bad but it was definitely not a smooth transition. The members of staff I encountered at the airport were very helpful and I was on the final leg of my journey to Antigua and then Montserrat.
I admired Antigua from the air and took photographs as we were approaching the airport.
Arriving in Antigua I was greeted by a former neighbour from Amelia’s Ward in McKenzie, Demerara who now lives and works in Antigua. She graciously (the plane was late and she had been waiting for a while) accommodated me at her home where I spent a few hours before the drive to the ferry dock. I discovered that there were hot and cold water taps in Antigua. I was surprised since it is hot in the Caribbean all year round and then I remembered that when I stayed at Diamond on the East Bank, Demerara in 2012, there was hot and cold water available at the house.
My cousin, who now lives in New York but had lived in Montserrat for many years, was there in Antigua to ensure I made it safely to Montserrat. Getting aboard that ferry, Caribe Sun, was another adventure and a lesson in patience as it took four hours to clear customs and immigration in Antigua before boarding the ferry for Montserrat. Travelling from Antigua to Montserrat is like travelling from Canada to the USA, where you must have a passport and pass through customs and immigration. It slowly dawned on me that it was not like boarding the ferry in Georgetown to travel to Vreed-en-hoop or from Rosignol to New Amsterdam, which are all places in the same country, Guyana.
The ferry ride from Antigua to Montserrat took two hours and I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally cleared customs and immigration to enter Montserrat. I had flown thousands of miles, travelled through two countries (the USA and Antigua) to get to Montserrat, where I would spend seven days. It was worth the hours of travel, the anxiety, the hunger pangs (food is not served during the plane ride unless you are travelling first class) to finally arrive in beautiful Montserrat. That first day I met relatives (including my cousin’s two grandchildren), admired the blue water of the Caribbean Sea and took many, many photographs.
The next day I set out to learn as much as I could about the history of Montserrat by visiting the Montserrat Public Library in the town of Brades. Travelling with my cousin who willingly served as tour guide I was impressed by the brilliantly coloured houses built on the sides of hills and the steeply winding roads. A younger relative (who was our host) living in an area called “Lookout” gave us a ride from Lookout to Brades, which now serves as the capital of Montserrat since the devastating volcanic eruption of 1997. Montserrat is a small island, approximately 10 miles long, 7 miles wide and covers approximately (102 km²) 40 square miles.
In July 1995 the previously dormant “Soufrière Hills” volcano (after 500 years) erupted. In 1996 and 1997 eruptions continued with overflowing lava and ash covering 2/3 of the island, making the capital, Plymouth, and surrounding areas uninhabitable. Farmland, businesses, houses, hospitals and schools were destroyed as a result of the volcanic eruption. Montserratians who lived in Plymouth were forced to flee and abandon their homes and livelihood. Today Montserrat and Montserratians are recovering and in spite of the destruction of more than half of their land they are friendly, gracious and welcoming.
With the cooperation of helpful staff from the Montserrat Public Library and the Montserrat National Trust, I learned that the original name of the island was Alliouagana before the arrival of Europeans. Alliouagana is a Carib (the original inhabitants of the island) word which means “land of the prickly bush”. In November 1493, Christopher Columbus renamed the island “Santa Maria de Montserrat” when he “sighted” it as he sailed by during his second voyage to the area. The first European colonizers were Irish Catholics from nearby St. Kitts who were sent there in 1632 by Thomas Warner, the first British governor of St. Kitts. Irish immigrants from Virginia followed. Plantations were established to grow tobacco and indigo, followed eventually by cotton and sugar.
The early settlers were repeatedly attacked by the French and Caribs. The French took possession of the island in 1664 and again in 1667, but it was restored to England by the Treaty of Breda. The Treaty of Breda was signed on July 31, 1667 and the English received the New Netherland (New York, New Jersey) from the Dutch, and recovered Antigua, Montserrat and St. Kitts from France. The Dutch retained Suriname in South America and France retained French Guiana and recovered Acadia (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) from England. The French attacked the island in 1712 and captured it in 1782, but the Treaty of Paris signed on September 3, 1783 finally returned Montserrat to Britain possession.
While the Europeans were fighting, losing and reclaiming the island, the enslaved Africans on the island could not be sure what language they had to know to endure their enslavement.
African Montserratian historian, Howard Archibald Fergus, writes in his 2004 book Montserrat: History of a Caribbean Colony, that it is “reasonable to infer” that enslaved Africans were first taken to Montserrat in the 1640s although the first record of enslaved Africans in Montserrat is from 1651 when: “In 1651 an Irish trader of the English Guinea Company called at Montserrat, having buried 23 men at sea, including Mr. Dobes who was a factor. This is the first actual mention of slaves in Montserrat.”
According to Fergus, “Slave labour was in demand, not just for plantation but for public works.” He also writes: “Slaves were unevenly distributed across the island and among households. In the heyday of the plantation economy and right down to emancipation, more than half of the slaves were located in St. Peter’s and St. Anthony’s.”
The history of Montserrat includes some intriguing names that survive today, like Runaway Ghaut and Cudjoe Head Village. There was so much to discover in just seven days but I was ready for the challenge. Next week, more about my exciting visit to Montserrat and the history of that beautiful Caribbean island and its people.