The island micro-nation of Montserrat is set back in a dusty corner of the Caribbean that the Queen never quite let go of. A UK protectorate to this day, the capital city Plymouth was built to suit England’s decadent, pampered Georgian-era aristocracy. The lands around Plymouth were once filled with chattel slaves, worked to the bone to fill the empire’s coffers.
But the colonial 17th century settlers overlooked one small fact when they set up shop on the island: They were building their paradise on the fringes of an unsettlingly massive volcano, with a bad case of gastroenteritis. The Montserrat volcano lay dormant for centuries, but finally exploded in 1995, decimating the island. Subsequent eruptions have left two-thirds of the country uninhabitable. The areas affected have been turned into a security-controlled exclusion zone by the local government, with the remaining population either leaving the country or re-settling on the currently unaffected northern tip. But with the most recent eruption in 2010, and a 70 percent chance of another one next year, it seems Montserrat’s zit is determined to slowly cover everything with its molten magma effluence.
To see the ghostly wreckage of Montserrat for myself, I chartered a helicopter from nearby Antigua, the bustling tourist island that’s a convenient tax haven and rehab hotspot for overstuffed celebrities. Approaching from the east, the once-bustling coastline of Montserrat was now a lunar volcanic plain, with great channels and craters meandering across its surface. The pilot informed me that, just under the thin layer of topsoil, Montserrat is still burning hot, killing my dream of an afternoon ramble across the ash fields.
The plumes of smoke billowing out from the mouth of the volcano took on weighted form as we flew closer. At the last minute, before being completely subsumed by fog and ash, the pilot swung around the lip and down over some abandoned, overgrown shacks on the hillside where we saw the matchstick-like remains of burnt out forests.
These pictures are of Plymouth's Pompeiian landscape. There’s the submerged steeple of a cathedral; there’s an entertainment complex; the Governor’s former residence; and the island’s main branch of Barclay’s bank.
When we flew in close to what used to be Plymouth’s high school, I saw rows of blue school chairs lined up for class. The pilot told me students had returned to school only days after the initial eruption, anticipating the damage to be swept up quickly and for things to get back to normal. The next day, the volcano erupted again.
After the 2010 disaster, most Montserratians were granted full British citizenship and flew off to start new lives in the UK. The couple of thousand residents who remain are confined to the northern tip of the island, with much of the local economy based around the extraction of rare minerals from the volcanic ash. They are occasionally allowed to return to the exclusion zone, escorted by security. They visit the remains of their houses and gather abandoned belongings, or pay tribute to those who lost their lives.
As we flew over the ruins of the town of Harris, my pilot told me how things looked here eight years ago, pointing out Montserrat’s international airport and its bustling industrial complexes, now vanquished beneath the cooling lava plains.
But even at its height, Montserrat was still a Caribbean underdog, and locals seem to have adapted surprisingly well to their substantial downsizing. Life on the emerald isle still carries on, with the local newspapers still reporting the latest news and scandals alongside job vacancies, scholarships and real estate opportunities much like any small community anywhere else, with no sense of perpetual emergency. After my quick, close up tour of the exclusion zone, we headed back across the Caribbean Sea to the picture-perfect dullness and safety of Antigua.