Capital, Punished • Rattling Fascinating

Courthouse in Plymouth

Located 350 km (217 miles) southeast of Puerto Rico, the British island of Montserrat is sometimes referred to as “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean” because of its greenery and early Irish settlers. However, Montserrat is not a paradise, but also has an unfortunate history, not only because of the British slave trade that brutally ensnared many ancestors of today’s population. The island is a magnet for natural disasters. An earthquake in 1843 caused widespread devastation, then Montserrat was hit by major hurricanes in 1899 and 1989.

In mid-1995, the volcano in the heart of the island began releasing steam and gas. On June 25, 1997, it began to rumble ominously, throwing huge boulders into the air for miles. On August 4, the volcano erupted in a full blown eruption, and the government sent evacuation orders to hundreds of people who lived below it. Clouds of smoke, lava and ash shot from the volcano. The pyroclastic flow enveloped the capital, Plymouth, and 20 smaller towns, burying them in a stubborn stew of geological ingredients and killing at least 19 people. The southern two-thirds of Montserrat became uninhabitable and designated as a restricted area.

The outbreak destroyed the island’s capital, one airport, one seaport and most of the agricultural sector. The Montserrat government fled to the remote town of Brades in the north. The island’s population, which had reached around 12,000 in the mid-1990s, declined by more than half due to the displacement of locals, with many becoming permanent residents or citizens of the United Kingdom. Tourism was hit hard, both because the conditions were much more dangerous and the island was much less accessible with no airport or seaport. A few extreme adventurers were not deterred, but the volcano rumbled on; An eruption in 2003 triggered a tsunami.

A new airport in the north of Montserrat opened in 2005. With support from the British government (and Beatles producer George Martin, who owned an internationally renowned recording studio on the island), Montserrat built a replacement capital and seaport in Little Bay. The volcano has been calm since 2010. But even in 2021 the island will only have about 5,000 inhabitants. Most of the southern end of Montserrat remains closed or dangerous, or both. Plymouth cannot be saved, but the abandoned city is still the island’s legal capital despite having a population of zero.