Montserrat Stories

by wjw on June 26, 2007

Before I continue with tales of the Baron and Francoise, I thought I’d relate some tales of the island that I picked up during my brief visit.

Approaching Plymouth, the capital, one couldn’t help but notice the large and very modern pier that was incongruously attached to the old Georgian town. And, having got onto the pier, one couldn’t help but notice the pile of twisted girders that lay in the water next to the pier.

There was also a very large concrete mooring buoy— or maybe not a buoy, but a stanchion— set in the water a short distance away. It looked like a sort of pimple in the water. This was originally one of a pair.

The story of the pier and the pile of girders and the pimple is this:

The government of Montserrat had lobbied for the pier and a large crane to be placed atop it, theorizing that this was exactly what was needed to modernize the island. Once the pier was built, they thought, large container vessels would magically appear and offload Toyotas and refrigerators and air conditioners and food processors and all the wonderful stuff of modern civilization, and the good citizens of Montserrat would be even happier citizens of the British Empire. (The British Empire, by the way, had been trying to get rid of these happy citizens for years; but the islanders stubbornly refused to throw off the last remaining shackles of imperialism. Or the oppressive burden of collecting welfare and unemployment checks in a hopeless economic environment, which is perhaps more to the point.)

In due time, H.M.G. was persuaded to vote the funds to construct this pier, and build an enormous crane on top of it. And one of the Royal Navy’s finest, fastest destroyers was sent to the inaugural ceremonies.

So the dignitaries were gathered, the citizens were enjoying their holiday, the flags were flying, the band was playing “Rule Brittannia” or maybe “Ah Feel to Party Tonight,” and the destroyer hove over the horizon and headed straight for the pier. A beautiful ship, racing in at flank speed, the white bow wave in its teeth, the beautiful wake spread out behind . . . .

And gradually it dawned on the crowd that the destroyer just wasn’t stopping.

What the captain apparently had in mind was this: he would race in at flank speed, then at the last second throw the rudder hard over, throw one engine into reverse while the other continued at full speed forward, and then gentle up to the pier “easy as kiss my hand,” as Captain Jack Aubrey might say.

But the captain was no Jack Aubrey. He mistimed his maneuver, and he rammed the pier at flank speed. Before the stunned eyes of the islanders, the giant crane wavered, teetered, and fell in a great ruin into the ocean.

And while the band played “Rule Britannia” or maybe “Hold Up Yuh Foot & Jump,” all the dreams of the Toyotas, and the refrigerators, and the air conditioners, and the food processors, all vanished like so much smoke.

And as for the concrete pimple? It was once part of a pair, where boats could moor temporarily if the pier was occupied by giant container vessels delivering Toyotas.

One day the mail boat moored at one of the pimples. After delivering the mail, the skipper went to one of the local bars and got totally drunk. When he got back into the boat, he drove off without bothering to unmoor, and dragged the heavy concrete object behind him as he went. He was in mid-channel before the cause of his slow progress dawned on him, and in a drunken panic he cut the mooring line, thus dropping the mooring buoy, or pimple, into deep water where it remains to this day.

Montserrat was not a place where good luck gathered.

And less than twenty years later, the Soufriere volcano blew and buried Plymouth, and its pier, and the wrecked crane, and the remaining pimple, under tons of volcanic debris. The Toyotas got buried too, assuming they ever showed up.

This was my first exposure to the Third World, where these sorts of things are normal (except maybe the volcano).

Montserrat didn’t surprise me, though, because I’d already been to Nevis, the island where Alexander Hamilton was born, and which he had the good sense to leave as soon as he was physically able.

On independence, Nevis was made part of the government of St. Kitts, Nevis, and Anguilla. This made a degree of sense for St. Kitts and Nevis, which are separated by a strait, but not any sense at all for Anguilla, which is a considerable distance to the north, and which considered itself slighted by its larger, more populous brethren. After a couple of rebellions, the British sent the paratroopers into Anguilla and re-annexed the place to the British Empire, where it resides to this day. This happened in 1969.

When I was on Nevis in 1979, ten years afterward, the island was still in a high state of alert. There were rumors of Anguillan Separatist Guerillas said to be living on Nevis’s volcano. The St. Kitts-Nevis ferry, which was felt to be under threat, was placed under armed guard. (I chatted with the guard, who with his beret, battle dress, and FN assault rifle resembled a somewhat more genial version of Idi Amin.) The customs people on the pier were ordered to hassle visitors, who might after all be Anguillan sympathizers taking supplies to those guerillas hiding on the volcano.

(Captain Greene bribed the customs guards with an exotic American beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon, to leave us alone, and we wandered on and off at will.)

All the security hassles over a rebellion that had ended ten years earlier, and fear of an invasion that never happened and never would happen, more than prepared me for Montserrat and its pier, its crane, its pimples, and the Cafe le Cabotin, which after all that seemed not so much a haven of sanity, but a reflection of its surroundings in a fun-house mirror, and with good food.

As our own country begins more and more to resemble a banana republic, we should look to places like Montserrat and Nevis, where we can see what awaits us in our future. Pointless security hassles, wanton destruction of infrastructure, important decisions left to the inebriated, the mindless, and the insane. That’s life in the banana republic, and soon it will be our life.

Jennifer Walther May 2, 2016 at 3:10 am

I had the great pleasure of visiting the Cafe le cabotin on a weekly basis when i was chief purser on a 4 masted barquentine . The Baron and Francoise were wonderful. I have very fond memories of my visits to Montserrat and The Cafe le cabotin.

John Childs March 28, 2023 at 8:48 pm

Very happy to read your memories of Montserrat.
I too enjoyed the days of the café le Cabotin 1977,78 as I was working with tourism development on Montserrat,idle hours at Moose’s bar just nearby at another destroyed pier.
Tales of the Barron ejecting MPs from the restaurant, the chief minister surviving an assassination attempt by his own father.
What a glorious island

wjw March 28, 2023 at 11:42 pm

Welcome to the Montserrat Bar, John! Help yourself to a chair, and let me pour you a rum.

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