Today, the second Saturday in June, is National Day in Montserrat, a Caribbean island in the Leeward Islands, which is part of the chain known as the Lesser Antilles, in the British West Indies. It is a British Overseas Territory. Montserrat is approximately 16 km (10 mi) long and 11 km (7 mi) wide, with approximately 40 km (25 mi) of coastline. In 1493, Christopher Columbus named the island Santa Maria de Montserrate, after the Virgin of Montserrat in the Monastery of Montserrat, near Barcelona in Spain.
Archaeological field work in 2012, in Montserrat’s Centre Hills indicated there was an Archaic (pre-Arawak) occupation between 4000 and 2500 BP but the island was uninhabited when Columbus sailed by. A number of Irish settled in Montserrat in 1642, and the Irish population expanded due to the arrival of exiles after Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland (1653). The island was captured by the French in 1666, and shortly afterwards by the English. English control of the island was confirmed under the Treaty of Breda in 1667.
The Irish and English colonists began to transport African slaves for labor, as was common to most Caribbean islands in the 18th century. The colonists built an economy based on the production of sugar, rum, arrowroot and sea island cotton, cultivated on large plantations using slave labor. By the late 18th century numerous plantations had developed on the island, and many Irish continued to be transported to the island, to work as indentured servants.
On 17 March 1768, slaves rebelled but failed to achieve freedom, but the people of Montserrat celebrate St Patrick’s Day as a public holiday due to the slave revolt. In 1782, during the American Revolutionary War, France briefly captured Montserrat after supporting the American cause. The French returned the island to Great Britain under the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended that conflict.
The Irish constituted a significant proportion of the population from the founding of the colony in 1628. Many were indentured laborers; others were merchants or plantation owners. The geographer Thomas Jeffrey claimed in The West India Atlas (1780) that the majority of those on Montserrat were either Irish or of Irish descent, “so that the use of the Irish language is preserved on the island, even among the Negroes.” There is indirect evidence that the use of the Irish language continued in Montserrat until at least the middle of the 19th century. The Kilkenny diarist and Irish scholar Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin noted in 1831 that he had heard that Irish was still spoken in Montserrat by both black and white inhabitants. A letter by W.F. Butler in The Atheneum (15 July 1905) quotes an account by a Cork civil servant, C. Cremen, of what he had heard from a retired sailor called John O’Donovan, a fluent Irish speaker:
He frequently told me that in the year 1852, when mate of the brig Kaloolah, he went ashore on the island of Montserrat which was then out of the usual track of shipping. He said he was much surprised to hear the negroes actually talking Irish among themselves, and that he joined in the conversation.
There is no evidence for the survival of the Irish language in Montserrat into the 20th century.
Britain abolished slavery in Montserrat and its other Caribbean territories effective August 1834. During the 19th century, falling sugar-prices had an adverse effect on the island’s economy. In 1857, the British philanthropist Joseph Sturge bought a sugar estate on the island to prove it was economically viable to employ paid labor rather than slaves. Numerous members of the Sturge family bought additional land. In 1869 the family established the Montserrat Company Limited and planted lime trees, started the commercial production of lime juice, set up a school, and sold parcels of land to the inhabitants of the island. Much of Montserrat came to be owned by smallholders.
From 1871 to 1958, Montserrat was administered as part of the federal crown colony of the British Leeward Islands, becoming a province of the short-lived West Indies Federation from 1958 to 1962. In 1979, The Beatles’ producer, George Martin, opened AIR Studios Montserrat to provide a haven for harried musicians. The studios attracted numerous world-famous musicians, who came to record in the peaceful and lush tropical surroundings of Montserrat.
The last decade of the 20th century brought two events that devastated the island. In the early hours of 17 September 1989, Hurricane Hugo, a Category 4 storm, struck Montserrat with full force, producing sustained winds of 140 kilometers per hour (87 mph). It damaged more than 90% of the structures on the island. AIR Studios closed, and the tourist economy was virtually wiped out. Within a few years, the island had recovered considerably, only to be damaged again, and even more severely, six years later by volcanic activity that started in 1995.
The island now has a population estimated at around 6,000. Approximately 8,000 refugees left the island (primarily to the UK) following the resumption of volcanic activity in July 1995. Now, two-thirds of the population are between the ages of 15 and 64, the vast majority being of mixed Irish and African descent. It is not known with certainty how many African slaves and indentured Irish laborers were brought to the West Indies, though according to one estimate some 60,000 Irish were “Barbadosed” by Oliver Cromwell, some of whom would have arrived in Montserrat.
Today is also the first day of National Dairy Goat Awareness Week in the U.S. which runs from the first to the second Saturday in June. It was proclaimed in the Reagan era to promote dairy products from goats. Ronnie praised goats as hardy, productive animals that were intrinsically linked to the history of the United States. I expect he had a good speech writer; this is the man who thought ketchup was a vegetable.
By coincidence, goat stew, known locally as goat water or kiddy stew, is the national dish of Montserrat. So you have a choice: cheese or meat. I buy goat cheese quite often when I can. I like its tang, especially in sandwiches and salads. I’m also a fan of goat meat which is harder to find, but is very common in Mantua, where I live now. There are numerous goat farms scattered around the countryside. Goats are common in the rockier regions of Montserrat, where they thrive. Milk-fed kid is as tender as young lamb, but mature goat requires lengthy cooking to be tender. It is more flavorful than kid, though.
Goat water is prepared using goat meat, breadfruit, vegetables, onion, tomato, spices and herbs, and flour. Additional ingredients may also be used, such as rum, whiskey and various tubers. Not surprisingly, there is no canonical recipe; it’s all down to what’s available and cook’s choice. Here’s a reasonable recipe which you can vary as you like. The bouquet garni can have in it various herbs. Mine is normally sprigs of thyme, rosemary, and sage. Maggi cubes are made in Nigeria and are the ubiquitous flavoring in West African and Caribbean soups and stews. You can buy them online or in specialty markets. I’m not a big fan, so I use stock. Red chile peppers and tomato paste are also common ingredients, but I have omitted them here. Your choice.
10 lb goat meat
2 lb/1kg green pawpaw, peeled and diced
2 lb/1kg breadfruit, peeled and diced
1 lb/500g flour
1 lb/500g onions, peeled and diced
2 tbsp gravy browning
salt & black pepper
stock (or Maggi cubes)
Cut the meat into serving pieces and season with salt and pepper. Heat cooking oil over high heat in a heavy pot and lightly brown the meat on all sides. Cover with stock (or water with Maggi cubes) and simmer for at least 2 hours (longer if the meat is still tough.
Gently sauté the pawpaw, breadfruit and onions and sauté in a little cooking oil, then add them to the meat along with a bouquet garni. Continue simmering.
Mix 3 tbsp (45ml) of flour to a smooth paste with water and add 2 tbsp (30ml) gravy browning. Add this mix to the stew.
With the remaining flour, make tiny dumpling (droppers) by making a dough of flour and water that is stiff. Mix the flour and water, a little at a time, until you have a firm ball. Knead the dough for about 20 minutes, then break off small pieces to form the dumplings. Add them to the stew and simmer until they are cooked, about 20 minutes.
Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread (or white rice).