The town of Plymouth was once the capital of the Caribbean island of Montserrat but in 1995, the Soufrière Hills volcano erupted, causing a mass evacuation. Although residents returned to the town, a further eruption in August 1997 destroyed approximately 80% of Plymouth and burying it under 1.4 metres (4.6 ft) of ash. It has led to it being called the Pompeii of the Caribbean.
The island of Montserrat was first discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493 although he didn’t land on the island. The first settlers came from Ireland in 1632 after being exiled by Oliver Cromwell. At the time, the Kingdom of Ireland was under the the rule of the King of England. In the following years, many Irish people emigrated to the Caribbean to escape the brutal suffering imposed on them by Cromwell and the English crown. Merchant families from towns like Waterford and Galway created trading networks with the Caribbean. By the mid-seventeenth century, Irish Catholic families accounted for the majority of the island’s population. A further 10,000 Irish people emigrated to Montserrat when Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector. Many of them as indentured labourers to work on the sugar plantations.
Montserrat has been referred to as the Emerald Isle of The Caribbean, due to its large number of Irish settlers. It is, along with Labrador and Newfoundland in Canada, the only place where St Patrick’s Day is a public holiday outside Ireland. The local dialect even contains some Irish words.
The Irish invited the French, their traditional allies against the English, to capture the island in 1666. It was then taken by the English and their control of the island was confirmed by the Treaty of Breda the following year. It has remained a British territory for most of its subsequent history.
As sugar production on the island grew, so did the population. Slaves were brought from Africa to work on the plantations. Rum, arrowroot and sea island cotton were other common crops on the island but sugar remained dominant.
Slavery was abolished on Montserrat in August 1834 in the midst of a declining sugar industry. The island became part of the federal crown colony of the British Leeward Islands in 1871. It was administered by the Governor of Antigua. In 1958, Montserrat was absorbed by the short-lived West Indies Federation before become a separate colony on 31 May 1962. The town of Plymouth became the capital of the newly created British Overseas Territory.
On 18 July 1995, the Soufrière Hills volcano began to erupt, sending pyroclastic flows and ash falls across much of southern Montserrat including Plymouth. Volcanologists warned of the potential damage to the capital 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) away. On 21 August, a volcanic explosion covered the town in a thick layer of ash and darkened the sky almost completely. By December, the entire population of Plymouth, approximately 4,000 people, had been evacuated.
Residents returned a few months later but there stay was to be short lived. On 25 June 1997, a massive eruption killed nineteen people and the resulting pyroclastic flow destroyed the island’s airport. Plymouth was evacuated again. A series of eruptions between 4 and 8 of August 1997 destroyed the town, with about 80% of it covered in 1.4 metres (4.6 ft) of ash.
The British Navy assisted in evacuating the entire southern part of the island. Over 8,000 refugees never returned with many finding new homes in the other British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean or in the United Kingdom itself.
The entire southern part of the island was abandoned and an exclusion zone was created around the volcano meaning travel to the south was restricted. Although completely abandoned, Plymouth is still classified as the capital and therefore, is the world’s only ghost town capital of any political territory.
The government was moved to Brades in the northern part of the island however a large amount of shops and official buildings were left behind buried in the ash in Plymouth. A new airport opened in 2005 at Gerald’s with flights to Antigua and other nearby islands. A new port and government building are being constructed at Little Bay. It is intended to become the new capital once complete.
While the island of Montserrat has begun to recover, its former capital Plymouth lies abandoned.