(For Justin Hero Cassell)
I heard a foolish man say the other day that everything of interest on the island of Montserrat can be seen in two days. I kept my own counsel and did not talk of either his mother or his lineage. But the truth is this, friend: It takes a week at least to penetrate one individual person on Montserrat, never mind all its pathways.
Richard Samuel alone is worthy of study. A modest rum shop owner and farmer. Now I have to say, in the interest of transparency, that there have been many occasions when I wanted to cut Richard Samuel’s throat, and the only reason that I haven’t done so is because he was a dear friend of my father (Toomer Dyer of Kinsale). This, coupled with the fact that he is the best baker of bread on island, has made me forbear. Richard Samuel is a complex character who in his very being encompasses the many facets of Montserrat life. It’s often said that those on Montserrat who are not cunning are sly. Richard Samuel, in addition to being an entrepreneur, is also a vast historian of Montserrat Masquerade. This alone should qualify him for sainthood.
Richard is one of the few people on island who you can turn to if you are about to be imprisoned. You can leave your musical instruments with him and be secure in the knowledge that whenever you emerge your property will be secure. (So therefore you see why he can’t be killed.)
Then there are other colorful characters like Murphy “Root’s Man” of Carr’s Bay. You can ask Murphy anything about the fauna and flora of Montserrat, and if you catch him at a time of sun and not moon, he may even answer you.
Then there is Jackie Fire, a genius who has long had a mad love affair with Montserrat stone and is the greatest sculptor on island. He has, in fact, carved a five-storey house which he lives in. His entire life is a work of art.
Then there is Pupa, another sculptor, but he tends to favor wood, especially Bitter Ash which is medicinal and from which he makes cups to cleanse the body.
Then when it comes to the visual arts and music we have Pops Morris who together with Bigs Fergus can give you the whole history of Masquerade in Montserrat. Bigs started off as a “Mischief” which is what they call the small boys who apprentice in a Masquerade troupe. Bigs says that something happens when drum and fife meet in the sun. What that something is he doesn’t know but he knows it’s mystical. And then there’s Lord Cecil Lake (Cepeke) who arranges all Montserrat’s music by sun and by moon. These men and others are your priceless resources but they require more than two days on island.
In order to comprehend Montserrat you must first understand the complex network of family connections. In Montserrat everything begins and ends with family. Not that we necessarily love each other (“Go find family, find famine instead”). But we do acknowledge family and this complex network of cousins, godparents, half brothers and sisters is how we have survived the dehumanization which was slavery. Somehow a plate of food would always arrive mysteriously and usually wrapped in a towel. This breaking of bread, together with emigration and deliverance into other family hands, more than government, is the reason Montserratians survive and will continue to. This complex network of family and affiliations is as mystifying as fiber-optic cable placed underground and crisscrossing the island and certainly more binding. You never quite know who is related to who until you make the fatal error of voicing an opinion about someone. It is only then you find out who they are related to.
Montserratians have a very philosophical approach to life and usually apply the “yes but . . .” clause. For example, listen to any conversation and it will go something like:
“Isn’t that Delroy, the one they say try cut he father throat?”
“Yes but . . . he very good to he mother.”
“They say that Euston molesting that young girl.”
“Yes but he stop beat he wife now. So you see things not so bad after all.”
Now you can pretty much bet your life that this is a cousin speaking.
I’ve often said that in Montserrat all wounds are fresh and never forgotten. Along with the network of family there is also the fact that everyone has two names. Many are given names by friends and enemies that haunt them a lifetime, the majority trying to outlive their nicknames. Names like “Bossy” (Bassy), “Twisty,” and “Gas-bag” are given from grade school on and are more binding than the circumcision rituals of African tribes. The reason that they are given these nicknames is that obviously as early as childhood these individuals have already developed their strategies for living. One would certainly need more than two days to fully appreciate them.
It should be clear to even the dimmest among us that Montserrat can not attempt to surpass Antigua, Nassau, or even Montego Bay in terms of nightlife. We can’t possibly. We have neither the Casino Culture of these Babylonian islands nor their resources. We don’t have 365 beaches to play with at the moment. The question then should be: What are Montserrat’s resources?
The answer should be: its people.
The Tourist Board which has for so long been ably led by our Premier, who like the Holy Trinity wears three separate hats, has somehow missed this fact.
Montserrat’s asset is that we do not have the grueling schedules of most resort locales which almost ensure that at the end of a holiday you need a next holiday just to recover. Here you do not feel like you’re on treadmill. The pace is relaxed because the people are.
It must be refreshing for tourists to at last come somewhere where they can walk anywhere on island by night or by day without having either their throat slit, jewels snatched, or their wife raped. This is the main reason that those who visit the island once tend to return again and again.
One of the greatest resources of Montserrat is its children. Children not street gangs. Children who actually make eye contact with you and say good morning and their faces aren’t taut and tense like urban youth. Children minus the madness. That alone is worth a visit to the island.
This doesn’t mean that the children here should be exploited and made to don madras costumes and prance around like dolls. Simply be themselves. And on St. Patrick’s Day, the performers should not have to appear as black leprechauns in some minstrel show.
Now I know that the marketing strategy of the past has been to sell Montserrat and its colorful history. This goes along with native costumes and national bird (the Oriole) etc. and the poor tired Mountain Chicken who just wants to rest. He is as tired of these unimaginative marketing strategies as we are.
Since as I say, Montserrat doesn’t have 365 beaches to play with, we have to make do with what we have and turn hardship into virtue. Don’t forget that we are the same people who for centuries have, by emigration, saved Montserrat from sinking into the sea. We’ve learned well from Ireland, that other Emerald Isle. Another form of emigration is madness. Classic example is the calypsonian, Rhaydio who penned “Swordman.” They left their minds behind. This is called emigration of the soul and is a difficult exile.
The Long and Cheerful Road to Slavery Tour
Experience the Caribbean the way it used to be
What is necessary is a bold new approach. We must learn to think outside the box. What Montserrat has in abundance is rough terrain. Whereas Antigua is flat much like Barbados, Montserrat on the other hand is steep and goes up forever. The terrain is ideal for extreme sports. Montserrat should champion long-distance racing. Its hills welcome challenge. For those who are in search of such obstacles, Montserrat presents a novel opportunity to truly test themselves. It offers all the difficulties of Kenya and Somalia without the added hassle of armed pirates and guerrilla gangs.
Next I think that we should put on offer extreme holiday packages to be called: The Long and Cheerful Road to Slavery Tour. Ten-day holidays which would be intensive workshops in slavery. How this works is that immediately upon arrival the tourists are stripped of their clothing and given work clothes made of burlap from crocus-sacks. This is very different than enjoying the locals in our period pieces.
This is a labor-intensive, hands-on course which allows the guest to take full advantage of the Montserrat sun which is especially spectacular at noontime. The object of this exercise is to get a full understanding of just what life on an estate was like for the young up-and-coming slave. Loads carried on the head, machete in hand, the participant will be asked “to clear bush,” a very invigorating enterprise, and then to climb one of our more challenging roads like Baker Hill. Slave shacks will be provided complete with outside privy. Some leeway will be given, however, in that shoes will be provided, sandals made from discarded truck tires.
In the spirit of authenticity, whipping will be liberally administered. Again, in the spirit of authenticity, rapes will be available in the Davy Hill area for a modest fee. And for any offense such as back talking, arrogance, or suspicion of theft or sabotage, the stocks will be set up by the Cannon Artillery Battery at Carr’s Bay. This is the fourteen-day package and will include escape attempts at Runaway Ghaut. The participant will be given a fifteen-minute window of opportunity to escape before being pursued by plantation dogs. This tends to focus the mind.
This Slavery Tour can be set up in collaboration with the University of the West Indies and will culminate with a certificate in slavery. A genuine manumission document permitting freedom. An exchange student program in concert with the History Department of the City College of New York and the University of Manchester in England is a distinct possibility. And of course, it is absolutely crucial that we have the Slavery Tour in conjunction with Her Majesty’s Jubilee Year. A Royal Visit in which Her Majesty confers the certificates. Who would know more about the long and cheerful road to slavery than Her Majesty and Her Government?
A second and more moderate package which is sure to be a crowd pleaser and is sure to be popular for parents of the Diaspora and their offspring: The Welcome to Reality Tour. A number of us have children that are totally spoiled rotten having been the recipients of either American, British, or Canadian education. Parents who find that their college-age youths use their homes as convenient hotel rest stops. Still the only contact they have with them really is through credit card collection agencies. To top it all off, any mention which you make of Montserrat results in yawns and hasty exits. What is especially heart warming is when the son looks you in the eye and says boldly: “There’s not a snow ball’s chance in hell of me even visiting Montserrat, never mind living there.”
Or when your Dorchester-raised daughter who has been taught from childhood that all men are to be used (she no doubt read this in Essence Magazine). So she sits there, this Princess, on her abundant ass (gift of your wife, her mother) and says:
“Daddy, why can’t you send me on a real holiday to Jamaica or the Virgin Islands?”
This is not the time to remind her of the $50,000 dollars owed for her school student loans which has somehow miraculously landed in your lap. Instead take a deep breath and offer the Ten Day Reality Tour to Montserrat.
You can get them to bite especially if you offer to send them later to the dream holiday they really wanted in the first place. But they have to sign a contract to complete the course.
Immediately upon arrival on Montserrat all credit cards and cell phones and iPads are confiscated. They are allowed EC$10 a day for spending. They are provided with a coal pot and provisions. No transport. They are made to wear a tee shirt which states clearly: Children of Diaspora (Do Not Feed). Now Montserrat people are notoriously giving when it comes to visitors and will probably offer a fish or a breadfruit or green banana. This will be allowed with the proviso that they are uncooked.
This tour is especially good for the obese youth. The Kentucky Fried generation. On the 7th day of the tour the youth will be taken by “Scriber” the Montserrat Forestry specialist. He will then take them on a trip to the Mountain at Blakes Estate and abandon them there over night thus giving them the opportunity to appreciate the difference between sun and moon. The knowledge of which they will be forever grateful.
There (at Blakes) they’ll be able to communicate with the spirit of Bodo Allen (James Towesland Allen), father of W.H. Bramble, our first Chief Minister. Bodo Allen was the first black to own an estate in Montserrat. No easy task. He also started his own newspaper the Montserrat Herald (another first for blacks in Montserrat). For his troubles, he was sued for libel and lost the case which was an extremely effective device by the British government to make certain that ideas like strikes and labor unions did not circulate. And that Montserrat remains the safe un-seditious colony it always was and will forever remain. God bless Montserrat. And to ensure that God continued to bless her, the Antigua government sent police to arrest and shoot him dead. Question: why Antigua police and not Montserrat? Answer: they have better guns there. Bodo Allen was a good man, though, and he loved two sisters equally and at the same time. Also not an easy task.
After completion of the ten-day tour without the use of credit cards or electronic devices I think a marked change will be noticed in attitude.
I sincerely believe that this more imaginative approach to tourism will reap great benefits for Montserrat’s 50th. I think that the perfect person to be the Voice of Extreme Tours is Radio JZB morning host Basil Chambers. He projects the sincerity and caring attitude which Montserrat wants to foster. Basil, together with the Diva Rose Willock, will have special appeal for family. As I said, in Montserrat everything begins and ends with family.
We in Montserrat are more than conquerors with no fear in us because we have experienced and survived every natural and economic disaster, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and even our governments. We survive not because of government or parties. We survive because in Montserrat who not cunning, sly.
The Caribbean, the way it used to be.
Edgar Nkosi White
Edgar Nkosi White is a playwright and novelist. He is Writer in Residence at the Library of the City College of New York. He is presently publishing a volume of poetry, The Cusha Poems of Montserrat.