June 25, 1997 began as a normal day in the Caribbean, and the people in the villages on the southern part of Montserrat went about their routine activities, aware of the smoking Soufriere Hills but not overly concerned. It had been smoking and fussing for months and this Wednesday was no exception. Then shortly after noon, the earth that held it back collapsed, and hot lava and gas flowed into the unsuspecting valleys below. Before the ash and lava settled, 19 people lay dead, and ten villages were either obliterated or rendered uninhabitable. Subsequent volcanic activity wiped Montserrat’s capital, Plymouth, off the map.
Three years later, less than 1,200 people remained on the island. Over 7,000 were evacuated, more than half of them fleeing to Britain where they received citizenship in 2002.
More than 20 years later, the southern part of the island lies in an exclusion zone, deemed uninhabitable and severely restricted to both the island’s inhabitants and tourists. The northern half of the island remains postcard perfect. Lush hills and valleys with the blue-green Caribbean as a scenic backdrop continues to be home to natives and expatriates alike.
A lot of Irish are surprised to find that this British-controlled isle, that lies about 300 miles from Puerto Rico, is nicknamed the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. Settlers arrived there in 1642 from Ireland. Over the years, European nations shuffled it back and forth amongst themselves, but even with a slave rebellion, the settlers of Montserrat adapted. Blacks and whites intermarried, and harmonious relationships punctuated island life, though with an Irish twist. A testament to that is the National Holiday celebrated March 17 commemorating not Saint Patrick’s Day as much as a slave revolt.
Volcanoes aren’t unique to the Caribbean. Hundreds of Islands throughout the world were sired by volcanoes. Hawaii is, perhaps, the most famous. James Michener’s Hawaii provides an absorbing account of the islands. He not only traces the history of its people but the formation of the island itself.
It’s interesting to note that volcanoes are equal opportunity purveyors of death and misery. You can find them in Italy, Iceland, Japan, and the United States. Think Mauna Loa, Hawaii and Mount St. Helens in Washington. Mount Pelee in Martinique, Mexico, and Columbia are also home to the volcano gods as is Indonesia which is blessed with at least three. These volcanoes are worrisome at best and should be feared when they awaken. Most will bring a terrifying and deadly side effect: tsunamis capable of wiping out civilization on hundreds of islands and killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Jimmy Buffett recorded a song called Volcano on an album by the same name in November 1979. It recounts the dangers of living on a Caribbean island where volcanoes, like hurricanes, are nothing to be trifled with. Ironically, he recorded it in a studio on Montserrat which was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Volcano is so popular with his parrothead followers that he wouldn’t dare not play it at a concert. I suspect fans would blow their tops.
The lyrics capture the uncertainty of living on an island with a volcano that is misbehaving. Implied is the overriding question, “When is it going to blow?” And he seeks answers to questions such as where do you go to get away from the damn thing? Though volcanoes are destructive, Buffett captures the resilient spirit of the islanders who eventually must overcome the tragedy and put their lives back together.
I hope the natives caught up in the next volcanic event find a safe place to go, and I hope they are able to rebuild their lives stronger and better than ever. The people of Montserrat are a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.
Whether you live in the Caribbean or on the far side of the world, tragedy comes to visit us all. It may not take the shape of a volcano, but it can be just as devastating. When the next volcano blows in your life, I pray you find the strength and resources not only to overcome it but, like the phoenix, rise from the ashes stronger than ever.
If you see me out there on the High Seas of Life, don’t forget to wave that pirate sword of yours in my direction and yell, “Aarrrgh!” I’ll be looking for you and those volcanoes.
The Uncommon Mariner