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ETHNONYMS: Alliouagana (said to be the pre-Conquest aboriginal name)


Identification. Geographically, Montserrat is a small island of the Lesser Antilles; politically, it was part of the former British Leeward Islands colony and is now one of the few remaining British colonies and a Commonwealth member. It was and remains part of the historical, economic, and cultural sphere created by the slave plantations of the Americas.

Location. Montserrat lies in the eastern Caribbean at 17° N. Its 99 square kilometers include a variety of environments and plant communities correlated with rainfall and elevation. The terrain is dissected by streams that flow in deep guts created by volcanic activity. The south and central volcanic peaks bear tropical deciduous and evergreen forest, whereas the lower, drier region of the north bears grasses and cactus scrub encouraged by grazing. Erosion, deforestation, subsistence cultivation, plantation agriculture, and alien plants and animals from Europe, Africa, and Asia have transformed Montserrat, as they have all the Caribbean islands.

Demography. About 12,000 people inhabit Montserrat, a decline of 2,000 since 1960. This drop is a consequence of emigration, a significant demographic process that began in 1838, as freed slaves sought opportunity elsewhere. In 1850, for example, half the people were under the age of sixteen and the annual birthrate was about 36 per thousand, yet the population had dwindled from what it was in 1834. Emigration is a problem because youth and talent leave the island; it is a solution because the economy and available resources cannot sustain everyone born there, and many households are partly or wholly supported by money sent by family members living abroad, especially in England, the United States, and Canada.

The great majority of people are native-born Afro-Caribbeans, although there is a small foreign colony. Life expectancy at birth in 1992 was 74 years for males and 78 for females, but the morbidity rate is high. Skin and intestinal parasites are widespread, with schistosomiasis increasing alarmingly. Many pregnant women suffer from anemia, and about 25 percent of children younger than age 5 are underweight. As in other Caribbean islands, there is a high incidence of diabetes and hypertension, and AIDS is spreading.

Linguistic Affiliation. Montserratians are diglossic, speaking both Standard English learned in school and Montserrat Creole, the local variation on the Creole mother tongue spoken everywhere in the Commonwealth Caribbean. Montserrat Creole uses an English-based lexicon in a Creole structural framework. Although casual observers sometimes mistake it for an Irish brogue, linguistic research on native speakers has shown that there is nothing Irish in the Creole rhythm, intonation, or syntax, and only one word of Irish origin in the lexicon, although there are many Irish place-names. Creoles based on English do share a few phonological features with Southern Irish English, most likely artifacts of the common experience of British colonization.

History and Cultural Relations

Montserrat's history can be organized into five periods: that of Amerindian habitation; the early colonial period, 1632-1705; the sugarand slave-plantation period, 17051834; post-Emancipation, 1834-1895; and the period from 1895 to the present. Before 2,000 years ago, small groups of archaic peoples with pottery and ground-stone tools were scattered in the Lesser Antilles. They were followed by Saladoid people, entering from South America with a new ceramic style and represented in Montserrat by sites dating from 1,800 years ago. Montserratian post-Saladolid sites, identified by a thick, rough-surfaced pottery without polychrome decoration and situated near streams, the coast, and cultivatable land, are less than 1,000 years old. After 1492, the people whom Europeans called Caribs were almost wiped out by invasion, slavery, disease, and demoralization. Nevertheless, Caribs raided Montserrat well into the seventeenth century.

European settlement of Montserrat began in 1632 with Irish indentured servants from nearby Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts), who raised tobacco on smallholdings. By 1670 their economy and culture were overwhelmed by large capitalized landholdings, a developing sugar economy, and slaves imported from Africa, all under the control of a dominant British oligarchy of merchants and planters. By 1705 Montserrats plantation society was fully developed, and the island, like others in the region, had become a social and physical arrangement for the production of sugar. An important cultural process that accompanied the plantation was the fusing of Amerindian, African, and European elements into a regional, creolized Afro-Caribbean culture.

Expanding slavery and environmental degradation subsidized Montserrat's thriving sugar economy in the eighteenth century, but shortly after 1800 the island underwent a period of instability and change. The White plantocracy was threatened by a faltering economy, the end of the slave trade in 1807, a growing class of free persons of color demanding rights, and the mandated amelioration of slave conditions. The governing minority grew corrupt, inept, and recalcitrant. By Emancipation in 1834, the island was in financial and sociopolitical disarray.

After 1834, the newly freed people struggled to find land and establish livelihoods in the face of depressed wages and continued economic exploitation in a dying sugar economy. By 1895 their descendants had managed to gain land and work out a peasant productive economy that finally received recognition by and assistance from the colonial authorities.

After 1905 commercial cotton production surged briefly, but the nineteenth-century legacy of unemployment, poverty, and an inadequate economy, educational system, and infrastructure persist to this day. Peasant production and emigration cushion these problems in a colonial economy that still suffers from its history of monocrop plantations and provides neither land nor wage work to everyone. Necessity has become culture, making emigration a desired experience. Émigrés send back money that is important both to household and island economies.


Plymouth is the capital and port for the island, as it has been since the seventeenth century, rivaled then, but not now, by Kinsale. Otherwise, the first Europeans occupied dispersed small plots, later replaced by settlements conterminous with sugar estates, each with its plantation house, agricultural buildings, and slave quarters. After the end of slavery, free rural villages developed slowly even as settlements associated with estates persisted.

Today Montserrat is dotted with line and cluster villages, all with access to electricity, piped water, public education, and buses.


Commerce, Industry, and Trade. From the end of the small-plot tobacco economy in 1670 to the official colonial encouragement of peasant production in the 1890s, Montserrat's was a plantation economy, dependent on large-scale production of a single tropical commodity for a world market. Attempts at diversification failed in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth, commercial cotton production had some success through the 1950s. Montserratian cotton was a superior long staple sea-island variety for which the world market collapsed in the 1960s. Since 1968, Montserrat has had no staple export commodity. Montserrat joined a cooperative cotton-production scheme in 1990, with a central ginnery in Barbados, but its success is not yet clear.

Montserrat has now developed its tourist industry, which accounts for a quarter of the gross domestic product. In the 1960s the island was successfully promoted as an ideal place for retired and vacationing foreign residents. New communities for foreign residents were built under restrictive zoning laws that prevented land prices from rising throughout the island. Many of the prosperous North American and British residents have a genuine interest in the island but, with those who cater to them, constitute a core of resistance to independence from the United Kingdom. An offshore medical school, again catering to foreigners, has been boosting the economy since the early 1980s. Montserrat also began to lure short-term tourists, even though it is not clear that the one-tenth of each short-term tourist dollar that remains in the local economy compensates for the added cost of infrastructure, the environmental and resource burden, or the resentment of the local people.

In addition to tourism, some light industry, Radio Antilles, and recording studios enhance the economy. Nevertheless, large trade deficits are normal. Remittances sent by emigrants mitigate them, as does the economic activity of the expatriate segment on the island.

Subsistence Activities. The other side of the economythe side that could benefit from bottom-up developmentis small-plot production of food and market crops, known to have been practiced by slaves since at least 1690. There is also a small amount of charcoal production, mainly for home use, and livestock production. This subsistence complex was the foundation of the postslavery peasant adaptation. A lively market persists in Montserrat to supply food internally, and an interisland trade on small vessels carries market crops to neighboring islands. The volume, value, and functions of food production, marketing, and food trade are still important research questions.

Division of Labor and Land Tenure. Land tenure and gender-determined labor are important aspects of subsistence and small cash production in rural Montserrat. Women are the principal producers and internal marketers of food, whereas men predominate in interisland trade, cash cropping, and the raising of livestock, including cattle, sheep, and goats. Small plots may be freeholds, leaseholds, or squattage; cash-crop small farming may involve métayér, or sharecropping. Some freeholds are family land, a Caribbean form of customary tenure in which undivided parcels are inherited by a group of siblings in common ownership, although not all of them cultivate it.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship is bilateral and descent cognatic, even though such simple descriptions do not do justice to behavioral and ideological complexity. Since the Caribbean was the first part of the world to be modernized by a rigid industrial labor regime and a land and economic system dedicated wholly to capitalized commodity production, the development and morphology of kinship, family, and marriage are relevant to a general anthropological understanding of kin processes in the modern world. Kinship practices and ideologies in Montserrat and throughout the Caribbean are linked with labor and land systems, class, gender, and law, but these connections are yet to be investigated in Montserrat.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology separates the elementary family from other kin. Outside of the elementary family it is generational, without distinguishing matrilateral and patrilateral relatives. It would be a serious error, however, to draw any conclusions about family organization from the kinship terminology.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Montserratian mating follows the same patterns that prevail elsewhere in the Caribbean, although the incidence of different forms may vary. There are visiting relationships between partners who live in their mother's or parents' households, long-term neolocal cohabitation without legal marriage, legal marriage, and legal marriages in which husbands keep "outside" mates and children. Women often have incentives not to marry, especially if they have a house, rights to land, or a central role in a consanguineal matrifocal household. Nevertheless, the dominant ideology values legal marriage, even when many people by choice or necessity live in other arrangements.

Domestic Unit and Socialization. As elsewhere in the Caribbean, households are the locus of early socialization and may be elementary family units with or without legal marriage; woman- and couple-headed households of two or more generations; or single-person households. Except for the last, they may include short- or long-term foster children or may be augmented for a while by other temporary residents, for instance a sibling or child of a sibling. Although classes may differ in ideologies about household composition and behavior, research on middle-class women has shown that ideologies of male dominance prevail, even among educated, salaried women who contribute significantly to household income.

Inheritance. Houses, land, and chattels may all be bequeathed within the legal system. There is also customary transmission of undivided "family land" in common to all the owner's or owners' legitimate children.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Various informal networks integrate people and households into larger, loosely structured social complexes. There are networks that employ the ties of bilateral and affinal kinship, loose associations of women based on their residence around house yards and in villages, ties between women and the patrilateral kin of their children, clusters of men who socialize and work together, and reciprocal links focused on marketing and the market. Outside of these supportive networks, visible disparities in income, housing, skin color, employment, nationality, and access to resources stratify Montserratian society. These disparities, legacies of the colonial plantation past, are sharpened in Montserrat by the expatriate and tourist presence. Corporate groups include churches and religious societies and urban voluntary associations.

Political Organization. One of the principal issues that Montserratians struggle with today is their dependent status as a British colony. As a legislative colony, the island has long had a locally elected government, with a mainly decorative British-appointed governor in residence. Montserrat has received many benefits from its status as a colony: it is included in Britain's national health plan, it receives budget allocations, and emigrants to Britain have not had immigration problems. Understandably, then, many Montserratians prefer to remain a safely dependent territory. Others strongly advocate independence and autonomy despite the risks of small size and economic uncertainty. In February 1989 the island's political status declined when the United Kingdom suspended internal self-government and unilaterally revised the constitution to grant more genuine power to the resident governor. Local government and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States protested, but this step backward to colonial control was a consequence of fraud and money laundering in Montserrat's uncontrolled offshore banking industry, which is now defunct.

Both of Montserrat's effective political parties, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) and the Peoples' Liberation Movement (PLM), agree in their commitment to agricultural development, education, and infrastructural improvements that will, it is hoped, open the way for other forms of economic development, but only the PLM advocates independence. That issue suddenly lost salience, however, in September 1989, when Hurricane Hugo devastated the island and destroyed 98 percent of all buildings. Since then, the only issue has been recovery, for which assistance from the United Kingdom has been essential.

Social Control and Conflict. Officially, forms of social control are those of a British colony. The legal, court, police, and criminal-justice systems that operate islandwide are the heirs of the British legal system. Other, informal methods of social control function at village, social-network, household, and interpersonal levels. Peer pressure, obligations of reciprocity, kinship bonds, gossip, and pungent public harangues all exert control over individual behavior, containing conflict and contributing to social leveling.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices . Christian denominations have deep roots in postaboriginal Montserratian history, and most Montserratians claim some Christian identity. The Catholic church has been present since the first Europeans arrived, although its adherents suffered legal discrimination until the early nineteenth century. The Anglican church was the favored and established church of the English colonizers. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Methodist missionaries began to work assiduously in Montserrat, as they did elsewhere in the Caribbean. For a century they taught Christianity, literacy, and English middle-class morality, first to slaves and then to freed people and their descendants, wherever they were able to establish schools and congregations. These three denominations, along with the Pentecostal sects that began to penetrate Montserrat in the 1940s, are still strong.

Alongside and underneath Christianity, however, a strain of folk religion persists. The local variant on Afro-Caribbean obeah and possession religion is the Jombee or Jumbie religion, although this is said to be disappearing. Jumbies are spirits of the dead that influence and can help living persons. Montserrat's Jombee dance is (or was) the feast of food, music, and dance that reinforces bonds with living and ancestral kin, sets the scene for spirit possession, and often functions as a healing ritual. Folk spirit healers continue to practice, even without an institutionalized Jombee dance, and the practice of obeah today is an important research question. Another folk-religious movement that may be gaining in Montserrat is Rastafarianism.

Arts. The decline of folk music and dance forms and traditional festival arts parallels the decline of the Jombee religion. Most music and dance in Montserrat today are commoditized products, and indeed a major commercial recording studio is located on the island. There is a small but active cadre of poetry and fiction writers.

Medicine. Montserratians have access to national health care, a central hospital, contraceptive and family-planning services, village nursing services, and folk herbalists and healing practitioners.

Death and Afterlife. Conventional Christian beliefs coexist with folk beliefs in jumbies, or ancestral spirits, although not all individuals or classes hold either or both sets of beliefs.


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