Posted by: tflana | December 11, 2017

Montserrat – History is a funny thing



Agnes Lempriere overlooking her former neighborhood

History is one of those funny subjects where we learn in different ways along our life experiences. As a young child in school we learn history based on dates, names, and events but necessarily how the events effect our future. Then as we enter our college years we focus mainly on one event and all the intricacies of this event and how all parties involved are affected but it is still a broad overview of history. But as you get older and you learn to ask questions of individuals and listen to their responses, this is when you get a taste of living history not usually mentioned in books anywhere.



Our summer home, Seguin Island Light Station

Brian and I have had the great fortune in the past 6 months to have living history lessons from the people who lived and breathed the events we learned dates from the books we have read. On Sequin Island in Maine, we met Dorothy Hart and Tom Chapman. These two-people lived on Sequin Island year-round during the more rugged days of the island without internet or television, they lived with food and energy shortages on the island, lived through freezing cold temperatures, great storms, and interpersonal relationships on a tiny island. We could have listened to them for hours and with hindsight realized we should have recorded their conversations for future generations.



A view from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory



An informational brochure from the MVO

When we decided to travel to Montserrat, we checked Wikipedia for information on Hurricane Hugo (1989) and Soufriere Hills volcano eruption. What we read appeared to report there were 2 eruptions from 1995-97 which left Plymouth buried and more than half of the island uninhabitable. Very clear cut and dry history. But this history does not tell the whole story, in doesn’t tell about the people affected, or the loss of citizens to other British holdings or the economic impact the eruptions had on the island. When we hiked to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) and watched a 20-minute documentary about the volcanic activity, we learned it was years of continuous eruptions starting in 1995 through 2010. We learned of 5 dome collapses during this time and pyroclastic flows of rock, ash and gasses slowly changing the communities of the island. This still did not completely tell the stories of the people involved but it did give us glimpses on video of how truly beautiful Plymouth was before 1995.



Overlooking where the old Bramble Airport was located.  Most of the ash flow to the left of the picture is new land mass created from the eruption.  Picture taken from the Jack Boy Hill viewing area


Another view of where the Bramble Airport once stood


A view from Silver Hills, the highest northern point of the island looking down over Lookout and the area where Bramble Airport was


Agnes and Brian at the Jack Boy Hill viewing area


The Soufriere Hills Volcano, the dome is almost always incased in a steam cloud

We have had the pleasure of meeting a long-term resident of Montserrat, Agnes Lempriere. Her family lived in Spanish Pointe, an area on the southeastern portion of the island. Agnes, her mother and sister all had homes in this area. This is an area between the old Bramble Airport and the capital city of Plymouth. It is now part of the exclusion zone where no one is permitted. If I were to believe the history from Wikipedia, one day the houses and neighborhood stood and the next day it was covered with more than 30 feet of ash. But listening to Agnes as she showed us her old neighborhood from the top of Jack Boy Hill, this was not the case at all. There were many smaller eruptions and flows that slowly destroyed this area.



In the middle of this picture you can see the remnants of a sugar mill in the Spanish Pointe neighborhood.  The green area is where Agnes’ mother and sister’s houses once stood.  Also, look at the size of the rocks strewn over the landscape, these either rolled down the side of the volcano or were thrown there during an eruption



Her mother and sister’s houses were near a sugar mill and there were two roads surrounding this area, which somewhat left this area as an island, as the flow came down the volcano, it followed the paths of the road and left the houses and sugar mill only slightly damaged but uninhabitable. They were able to go back to the homes many times to retrieve their belongings but in most instances, theses items needed to be carried out by hand as the eruptions continued. One story she recounted was about her mom’s car, the car was in good condition in the garage but there was no way to drive it out of the exclusion zone, but the tires were in great condition. The guys helping took the tires off the car and added it to the load being removed. As they finally got to the road leading to Jack Boy Hill, one of the tires rolled off the truck and forever more is somewhere down in the valley. Other stories included having a friend take out a suitcase full of toilet paper because it is a valuable commodity on the island!



The chimney in the foreground of this picture is in an area where Agnes’ mom and dad would go to dine and dance!

I think one of the most remarkable stories is when Agnes went back to her home to retrieve a few more items, she hiked in with a backpack and her dog. As she was hiking out, there was an area where a pond once stood. She saw some white things in the middle of the area but assumed like everywhere else, the ash was safe to walk on and it was until she sunk up to her waist in muck, almost like quicksand. No one knew she was out there and she wasn’t having a very successful attempt in extricating herself from this muck until she figured out to crawl out instead of trying to walking her way out of the pond area. As she looked back at the white things she saw originally, she realized they were bones from cattle who most likely were stuck in there and the only thing left were their skeletons.


The house we are staying at is on the edge of the exclusion zone and stood vacant since 1997’s eruption of the volcano. It has been a long road for the present owners to make it livable again and it is hard to visualize who much ash landed everywhere until Brian was working on a small project in an outside storage area. He thought the floor was dirt until he went to clean it up a little to find 6 inches of ash on top of the concrete floor. This is just one of the many examples of the power this volcano has.



The Soufriere Hills Volcano seen from the backyard of the house we are staying in.  This was just minutes before sunset.

During the day we can see the steam escape from the now growing dome of the volcano but at night it is dark. However, during the time frame from 1995-2010, people would go to sleep at night with the volcano glowing orange and watch rocks and ash flow rain down on the island. How anyone decided to stay on island with this uncertainty every day shows how truly remarkable and resilient the residents of this island are. There are so many other stories to be told, and I will try over the next few months to record them so at least I can help tell the history of our temporary home on Montserrat!




Taking as many pictures as possible, it is hard to capture the beauty of this island digitally but I will keep trying


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