Montserrat, the smoulderingly beautiful island in the British West Indies, is
overshadowed by periodic sulphurous eruptions and rumblings from the
Soufrière Hills volcano. Jets of lava can shoot out of its crater to a great
height. During my visit to the island I attended a school poetry competition
on the theme "Volcano in Me Back Yard". The scientific vocabulary
used by the primary-school-aged contestants – "tectonic", "seismicity",
"pumice" – suggested an intimate relationship with the volcano.
Barely 11 miles long and seven miles wide, Montserrat was "discovered"
in the mid-Seventies by the Beatles producer Sir George Martin, who built a
recording studio on the edge of the Soufrière Hills for the use of, among
others, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Eric Clapton and Sting and
the Police. The fabled Air studio has long since been abandoned owing to
volcanic dust, yet much of Montserrat retains a discreet charm. Everyone
seems to know everyone else. It is impossible to walk anywhere without being
offered a friendly lift. "Man, you lookin' kinda tired – you wan' me to
Crime is almost unknown in this peaceful, underpopulated country, whose prison
seldom houses more than eight convicts. The convicts' chief manual labour,
apparently, is to mow His Excellency the Governor's lawn. Like the Bahamas
or the Turks and Caicos, Montserrat is one of the few remaining British
dependencies where lives are organised and given meaning by the Union Jack.
It has none of the gaudy, all-inclusive resort culture and packaged hedonism
of elsewhere in the Caribbean. Montserrat is the antithesis of Jamaica, for
example, where tourists have on occasion been threatened with a gun or
knife. While Montserrat may lack a dangerous edge and sense of excitement,
British travellers are increasingly drawn to its unhurried pace and drowsy
The island is a 15-minute flight from tourist-ridden Antigua. The only
passenger on the propeller plane (apart from me) was an English birdwatcher,
who hoped to catch a glimpse of the "critically endangered"
Montserrat oriole. Following the cataclysmic eruptions of 1997, the oriole
and other indigenous species lost their natural habitat in the south. The
island's historic capital of Plymouth was entombed in ash, and
Montserratians airfreighted in their hundreds to Gatwick. (There is now a
thriving Montserratian community in Stoke Newington and the Ridley Road
market area in London.)
Galeras is considered the most active volcano in Colombia, followed by Nevado del Ruiz. Its earliest activity during the Holocene has been dated at 7050 BC ± 1000 years through radiocarbon dating.
Other eruptions similar to this event include those in 3150 BC ± 200
years, 2580 BC ± 500 years, 1160 BC ± 300 years, 490 BC ± 100 years, and
in 890 AD ± 200 years. Typically these eruptions consist of a central vent explosion, conducive to an explosive eruption causing pyroclastic flows and/or lahars.
Eruptions in more recent times, which have been recorded consist of
those in 1535, December 1580, July 1616, 1641, 1670, 1754, November
1796, June 1823, October 1828, 1834, October 1865, July 1889, 1891,
December 1923, October 1924, October 1932, February 1936, July 1947,
January 1950, 1974, February 1989, January 1990, January 1993, March
2000, June 2002, July 2004, November 2005, and October 2007. Reported
incidents with no official proof occurred in 1836, 1930, 1933, and 1973.