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Our paradise lost: A volcano that changed Montserrat forever

ERUPTION: Soufriere Hills (Pic: PA)

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.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Cabey (left) and O'Garo

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. After the eruption many chose to take advantage of Montserrat’s status as a British Overseas Territory and headed to the UK where they were offered an ‘assisted evacuation package’ consisting of housing, the right to claim benefits and a free plane ticket.

Yet Montserratians had to wait until the Labour Government of 1997 swept into power, before anything was offered.

The package, says Professor Skelton, “was put into place much more slowly than it should have been something which really added to the trauma people experienced.”

O’Garo left for London in 1997, while Cabey headed to America before finally settling in London in 2003.

Yet Allen was reluctant to leave right away and only arrived in the UK in 2006. “I stayed in Montserrat because it’s my home and I loved it – some of us didn’t have families abroad and didn’t know much about England,” he says.
Though he talks positively about the multiculturalism in London and that “your eyes are open to the world, you see what it’s really like” he becomes visibly emotional as he explains how difficult it has been to adapt to life in the UK.

“It’s a different way of life,” says Allen. “I’ve gone from being able to leave my car and my home wide open to a place where if you fall in the street, people don’t even look at you.”

He adds: “Even though you’re among many people – your friends and family – you feel alone sometimes. Your whole spirit isn’t here.”

O’Garo sees things differently. Though he experienced some racism while looking for housing, he says the interest in his art by sections of the public and the support offered by a local community group called the Claudia Jones Organisation in Hackney, made him “feel more appreciated by the British than he was in Montserrat.”

He also doesn’t have any plans to go back. “Everything I need and will get is in the UK,” he says. But O’Garo recognises that improvements to the island’s infrastructure means more and more Montserratians are going home for good.

The UK Foreign office says it is working with the government of Montserrat “to build the island’s prosperity and help it get back on its feet.”

A spokesperson told The Voice: “Since the eruption, the UK has provided over half the budget for essential public services in Montserrat — ensuring children have better schools, funding key medical staff, supporting construction of a new airport and improving the ferry service.

“We are supporting a package of investments in support of the Strategic Growth Plan to help fuel private-sector led growth and deliver a reduction of long-term dependence on aid.”

Though private investment might be flowing into the island, Professor Skelton says that ordinary people “are definitely struggling economically” and that there needs to be investments that “bring better standards of living to all rather than the few elites.”

Allen is torn between going back. While he “would go back in a heartbeat”, he concedes it would be difficult as he would have to uproot his family.

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.

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