Did you know that the Caribbean island of Montserrat is one of the few places outside of Ireland where St. Patrick’s Day is a national holiday? There is actually a week-long festival leading up to St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17th, with troupes from Montserrat and neighboring islands like Antigua and Guadeloupe. Also, during the Montserrat St Patrick’s Festival, there is a range of educational, heritage, and cultural events. There are also straight-up entertainment/party events, including an island-wide rum shop/pub crawl.
But the main reason for this week-long St Patrick’s Day Festival in Montserrat is not to celebrate the history of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, but to commemorate the nine or more enslaved West Africans who lost their lives after the slave uprising planned for March 17th, 1768 was uncovered.
Montserrat St Patrick’s Day Slave Rebellion
Christopher Columbus first sighted the Caribbean island of Montserrat in November 1493 during his second voyage to the Americas. He named the pear-shaped island Santa María de Montserrate, after the Virgin of Montserrat in the Monastery of Montserrat, on Montserrat mountain, near Barcelona in Catalonia, Spain. The Italian explorer never actually set foot or established a colony on Montserrat. In fact, Europeans didn’t live on the island of Montserrat until the 17th century.
Most of Montserrat’s early European settlers, starting in 1632, were predominantly Irish Catholics. They came initially from neighboring St. Kitts, considered the mother colony of the British West Indies and later Virginia and Ireland. Some were indentured servants and political prisoners; others were tobacco and sugar plantation owners with a sizeable population of enslaved West Africans that started arriving on Montserrat during the 1650s.
1768 Slave Rebellion in Montserrat
The 1768 slave rebellion in Montserrat was slated to coincide with the annual St Patrick’s Day celebration, as while the British governed the island, Saint Patrick’s Day was observed due to the large Irish population. And it was anticipated that the British and Irish would be distracted by the St Patrick’s Day feast, drink, and festivities at Government House.
However, the slave rebellion didn’t happen as the freedom fighters were betrayed by an Irish woman who worked as a seamstress and overheard one of their planning sessions. As detailed by historian Sir Howard Fergus in his 1994 book: Montserrat: History of a Caribbean Colony (p75),
The slaves working within Government House were to seize the swords of the gentlemen while those outside were to fire into the house using whatever missles were at their disposal. They evidently had some arms because the plan was revealed when a white seamtress, noted for drunkenness, heard two of the leaders discussing the disposition of their arms. Her report was at first greeted with disbelief.
Alternative theories are that the plot was uncovered and reported on by a house slave or by routine infiltration by the white masters. However, I lean towards the drunken white woman/seamstress, as Fergus, the preeminent Montserratian historian, was referencing page 32 of the Handbook of the Leeward Islands compiled by Frederick Henry Watkins, an English Anglican clergyman. Either way, reports of the planned rebellion led to an investigation and suppression, with the nine organizers brutally executed and more than thirty imprisoned and eventually banished from Montserrat.
While the planned St Patrick’s Day slave rebellion in Montserrat was not successful, as Hon. Claude E. S. Hogan pointed out in his 2018 St Patrick’s Day Lecture Montserrat: Still Masquerading? it was important on a regional and international stage as it was the first in a series across the Caribbean that helped to bring about the end to slavery in the region. This ultimately happened via the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (3 & 4 Will. IV c. 73), signed in August 1833 by the Parliament of the United Kingdom and came into force on August 1st, 1834.
Montserrat St Patrick’s Day FestivalThe origins of the modern-day celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day in Montserrat started not in St Patrick’s village but at the Montserrat Secondary School in 1972 with a Know Your Past project. With participation from teachers and students, it featured an exhibition on March 17th, 1972, that highlighted Montserrat’s historical events through art, music, and drama. The event helped educate the public about the planned slave rebellion. Furthermore, as noted by historian Sir Howard Fergus in his 2022 book: St Patrick’s Day Celebration In Montserrat A History,
The tone and tenor of this first celebration is clear. There was no greenness or Irishness about it. The aim was to make us feel Montserratian, to make you appreciate and cherish the culture that was created by our fearless forefathers.Essentially, the island’s Irish history was acknowledged in the Know Your Past project, but it was not the center of the celebrations. It was more about Montserrat’s African culture and heritage, with a spotlight on our brave ancestors who planned the rebellion. This project and subsequent celebrations of our African ancestors who died due to the failed slave rebellion are the main reason Saint Patrick’s Day became a national holiday in 1985. It is not Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, or leprechauns and the general luck of the Irish!
Today, the 50+ events throughout the week-long Montserrat St Patrick’s Day Festival (with the parade held in Salem and not the Village of St Patrick’s now buried in the exclusion zone under volcanic ash post-Soufrière Hills volcano eruption) reflect Montserrat’s current population who are mainly descendants of the enslaved West Africans.
As the festival gets bigger and better, popular events include the Annual St. Patrick’s Lecture, Heritage Hike, Junior Calypso Competition, Miss Saint Patrick’s Cultural Pageant, Afro Madras Fashion Show, Regional Arrow Soca Monarch Competition, Heritage Bus Tour of Cultural & Historical Sites, Freedom Run & Walk and the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade & Heritage Feast with traditional food including the national dish goat water. Many events occur in Salem or north of the island at Little Bay, which has many bars and restaurants.
This year, there was also a fantastic National Trust Flower Show & Garden Party with Fire Up A Mountain theme which was the signal for the 1768 slave rebellion. There was also an excellent exhibition at the National Museum of Montserrat titled Trials, Tragedy & Resilience, designed to recognize and celebrate Montserrat’s rich cultural heritage on the 250th anniversary of the St Patrick’s Day slave rebellion on 17 March 1768.
Cultural Influence of the Irish in Montserrat
Considering the history of the Irish in Montserrat, one may wonder how Irish traditions and influences are incorporated into the vibrant celebrations of the Montserrat St. Patrick’s Festival. Well, honestly, it is somewhat limited. In years past, there has been an Irish Trad Band from Ireland, but not in 2018. The fact is that during the 1640s, there were over 1,000 white families (mostly Irish) living on Montserrat, but those numbers were significantly reduced after slavery ended in 1834 and then in 1843 after a destructive earthquake. Thus while there are some Black people on Montserrat with DNA ancestry links to Ireland, that percentage is small. Therefore, culturally, the Irish legacy in Montserrat is limited.
However, you will find Montserrat villages, estates, mountains, and even shorelines with Irish names like Blakes, Kinsale, Sweeney’s, etc. Also, many families have Irish surnames, as after emancipation, they adopted the names of their former masters. The Montserrat flag also has a British blue ensign with Irish goddess Ériú in green bearing a black crucifix and golden harp. And an Irish shamrock is the official passport stamp. Finally, Montserrat is known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean for its lush green landscape, similar to coastal Ireland and for the early Irish settlers.
These, while significant, have not had a major impact on Montserrat’s modern-day culture – i.e., its language, cuisine, social habits, entertainment, music, arts, etc. Perhaps this is because most of the population has African roots. Also, Montserrat has more or less always been a British colony. Even today, it remains part of the United Kingdom as a British Overseas Territory.
Whatever the case, the Montserrat St Patrick’s Festival, with deep historical links to the 1768 slave rebellion, is still a good reason to visit the island. In addition to the lush green landscape, which you can explore through numerous hiking trails, you’ll also see a lot of green, as represented in the Montserrat national dress with Madras fabric. Plus, the range of events showcases Montserrat’s best, and there is something for all ages.
It should be noted that a large percentage of people who currently attend the Montserrat St Patrick’s Festival are members of the Montserrat diaspora, many dispersed after the volcanic eruptions during the 1990s. They return to Montserrat from other Caribbean islands, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It is like a big family reunion, where all are welcome!
But as the Montserrat St Patrick’s Festival gets bigger, it’s evolving, and for some, the real meaning may not be known or even lost. So you have this mix of African, Caribbean, and Irish stories that show up on the day. Despite this, the Montserrat St Patrick’s Festival is one of the top things to do in Montserrat as it is a showcase of its people’s ability to commemorate its freedom fighter ancestors and to move beyond the legacy of slavery and even in modern times, the Soufriere Hills volcanic eruption which has drastically reshaped the island and its people.