14 November, 2003

Inter-Island Migration and Cultural Change: The Impact of Montserratians on Dominica.

Lennox Honychurch


Immediately after emancipation there was a movement of labour across the Caribbean as islanders took advantage of their newfound freedom to emigrate in search of new opportunities. Within the British islands of the Eastern Caribbean there was significant relocation as workers took advantage of the demand for labour elsewhere. These shifts of people brought with them contact and culture exchange between different groups of Caribbean Creoles who had previously existed independent of each other. This paper studies the impact of one such group: Montserratian emigrants who began arriving in Dominica from the 1870s, and who brought their African/Irish/British Creole traditions into a mainly African French culture with long lasting results.

Dominica was partially integrated into the federal colony of the Leeward Islands in 1832 with the governor based in Antigua in charge of its affairs. Later, in 1871, it became a full part of the Federation of the Leeward Islands. From the start it was a peculiar relationship for previously Dominica had played no part in the political or cultural traditions of the other more Anglophone islands of the federation. Now, as a Leeward Island, this much larger territory, with thousands of acres of forested unclaimed land, was open to the people of Montserrat, Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla.

The post-emancipation peasantry of Dominica was reluctant to continue working on estates. But new investors into Dominica, embarking on the cultivation of new crops such as cocoa and limes, actively encouraged Montserratian labour to Dominica to make up the shortfall. Montserratians brought with them their language, protestant faith and attitudes, their dances and masquerades, which had a marked effect on the French, Roman Catholic traditions in the areas where they settled and on Dominica as a whole.

Borders and Barriers

As the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) begins to initiate its programme of free movement of people between its member territories and nation states in 2002, the public and the media in the region appear to be reacting as if this is an unprecedented initiative. Concerns are being raised about the movement of labour and a possible surge of population from islands with severe economic problems to those that are perceived to have greater opportunities for employment. With this in mind, the government of Antigua and Barbuda has delayed its full ratification of the agreement, in spite of the fact that Antigua and Barbuda's economy shows very much the same signals of stagnation, as is evident elsewhere in the OECS.

This fear of being swamped by fellow Caribbean aliens is, ironically, a product of the nationalist era that came with the collapse of the Federation of the West Indies in 1962, although inter-colonial rivalries dating from the 17th century may have had an effect as well. And, though not wanting to be too hard on Antigua, it is interesting that it was Antigua's intransigence during the meetings to establish "The Little Eight" in 1962, which caused that possible forerunner to the OECS to be aborted prematurely. The irony can be taken further when one recalls that it was Antigua, and the colonial government stationed in St. John's, that was the headquarters of the government of the Leeward Islands. This was a federation, which included Montserrat, Antigua, St. Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla and Dominica as one unified colony of the British Empire. Within that colony there was the free movement of labour, expertise, business, administrative skills and produce that enriched each unit of the colony to their mutual benefit. Up to the early 1960s this could be said to have extended less formally across the rest of the British West Indies.

The current freedom of movement initiative therefore is nothing new and is in fact merely a return to the status quo of forty years ago, before the nationalist tendencies of individual island governments, armed with the newfound trappings of flags, coat of arms, national anthems and gilded passports, raised their insular xenophobic gates against their cousins across the waters.

This paper uses the case study of the relationship between two members of the former Federation of the Leeward Islands, Montserrat and Dominica, to show how economic and demographic balance, as well as cultural interaction was maintained and enhanced during the years of the union. It is an historical study that can inform our present concerns about the union and freedom of movement within the OECS.

The Two Emerald Isles

Geologically there are similarities between Dominica and Montserrat that created soil and climatic conditions, which to a certain extent set them apart from the other less mountainous and consequently dryer Leeward Islands: Young volcanic peaks rising sharply out of the ocean, active sulphur springs and fumaroles, lush micro climates due to altitude and similar flora and fauna including the edible frog (Leptodactylus fallax). There was of course a marked difference in the size of both islands, Dominica being eight times larger than Montserrat. But as many travel writers observed, Montserrat appeared to be a mini Dominica. Emigrants from Montserrat to Dominica therefore found themselves in a familiar, even if more extensive landscape where agricultural practices could be pursued in much the same manner as on the emerald hills of home.

Historically there were marked differences in the timescale of European settlement and colonization. Montserrat was settled in the early 1630s at a time when Dominica, although claimed on paper by both England (1627) and France (1635), was in fact still under the physical control of the Carib/Kalinago people. The links between the two islands have fluctuated over time, strengthening and weakening according to political and economic circumstances. As elsewhere in the Leeward Islands, the last Kalinago on Montserrat (Alliouagana) retreated to Dominica (Ouaitoucoubouli) in the face of Spanish slave raiding during the early sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century the exodus was renewed during the incursions that accompanied the settlement of the English and the French. In those days, as the present day Caribs of Dominica like to remind us, there were no restrictions as to their movement across the region and leading Caribs have commented that we later European and African arrivals just want "to return to Kalinago ways of movement".

During the seventeenth century there were several Kalinago raids from Dominica upon the European settlements on Montserrat. These were a combination of raids of retribution by Montserratian Kalinagos based in Dominica and as a tactic to stall the push of further colonization towards their stronghold in Dominica. Montserrat, like all the other Leeward Islands, succumbed to colonization sooner because of its size. Informal French settlement of Dominica only came in the 1720s, almost one hundred years later. Official British annexation was finally achieved in 1763 under the terms of Article 9 of the Treaty of Paris. Land on Dominica was immediately surveyed and put up for sale by a British Land Commission and many planters from the "old colonies" of the Leeward Islands, including Montserrat, invested in Dominican real estate.

For a time after 1766 the Dominican ports of Roseau and Portsmouth operated as free ports, open to ships of all nations so as to stimulate the growth of this new British colony. During this period the two ports were key transshipment points for enslaved West Africans being transported across the Atlantic to work on plantations in the Eastern Caribbean. Several hundred of those arriving in Roseau between 1766 and 1788 were transshipped to Montserrat on inter-island trading schooners.

Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century enslaved people were moved in this way as required, between colonies. But with the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, restrictions were placed on how many slaves could be moved from island to island. There was concern among the Planter Legislatures on all islands about the maintenance of sufficient volumes of the workforce on their respective territories, now that slave populations had to be maintained by natural increase rather than by continuous importation from West Africa. Laws were enacted to permit the movement of usually not more than four domestic slaves accompanying their owner. Until full emancipation in 1838 inter-island movement of the enslaved was restricted. Constitutional changes that took place in the Leeward Islands after 1832 assisted in opening up this corner of the sub-region to the movement of free labour.

Constitutional Change and Plantation Economies

Two years before the partial emancipation of the enslaved in 1834, the British government made a move to consolidate the administration of the Leeward Islands. Independent island legislatures had long been bothersome to the colonial authorities in London and with the shift of interest towards the 'New Empire' of Asia and Africa, more streamlined management was required for the increasingly less important colonies of the West Indies, and the Leeward Islands were among the least of them all. On 23 November 1832 a general government of the Leeward Islands, overseered by a governor in Antigua was established, with Dominica included for the first time. However each island continued to possess its own legislative Council and Assembly while representatives of the Crown, acting through the Governor in Antigua supervised the island units. Initially they were styled Lieutenant Governors in Dominica, St. Kitts and Anguilla, and Presidents in Council, in Montserrat, Nevis and the Virgin Islands.

In 1871 the Imperial Act for the Federation of the Leeward Islands (34 and 35 Chapter 107, Imperial) was passed. The formation of a general Legislative Council for all the islands was established with the view of assimilating, as far as local circumstances would permit, the laws of the different island units. Although they were situated close to each other geographically, they were widely apart in respect of laws. The decade of 1871-1881,was one of much legal activity in consolidating local laws. Several local offices in respect of education, police and legal affairs were abolished and federal officers for the colony appointed. The determination of the imperial government to institute "pure" Crown Colony government in each island was doggedly pursued during this period, with Antigua and Dominica being the last to give up their partially elected legislatures in 1898.

Although the details of such administrative changes may have been distant from the mass of newly liberated Montserratians, the practical application of these changes and the advantages that could be taken of the opportunities that they opened up were not lost on the labour force. Freedom of movement between islands of the colony was a primary advantage. Particularly from the late nineteenth century, the more educated among them moved through the islands as policemen, teachers and clerks. English speaking Leeward Islanders, Montserratians among them, were in demand by the British colonial administration to take up duties in the French-Creole speaking Dominica. Here there were language barriers, influenced by historic cultural associations with France, the dominance of a French and Belgian Roman Catholic clergy, and a weak education system hampered by the isolation of villages.

Even at the level of agricultural labour some English planters on Dominica were determined to maintain a cultural divide in the recruiting of their work force. Charles Leatham, the "sugar king" of nineteenth century Dominica is reputed to have said "I only want English speaking Negroes on my estates and I can get enough from Antigua and Montserrat". His legacy in this regard is the English-Creole and Protestant zone in the north-eastern corner of Dominica extending across his former estates of Woodford Hill, Temple, Eden, and Londonderry and incorporating the villages of Wesley and Marigot. As late as 1919, in a booklet directed at intending settlers to Dominica, first published in 1903, the advisory entitled "Labour" reads: "The native of Dominica is rather independent, but the supply of labour is added to by labourers from Montserrat, Antigua and other islands and planters now have little difficulty in getting as many hands as they require."

The fortunes of Montserrat took a roller coaster ride during most of the nineteenth century. In the 1840s the government of the colony virtually came apart because of the exodus and collapse of the planter class and their capital, so that in 1848 the salaries of Montserrat's public officers were two years in arrears. Sugar prices were affected, as they were elsewhere in the Caribbean, as a result of the abandonment of the protected market for colonial sugar by the British government in 1846. And yet, by the 1860s prices had risen once more allowing Montserrat sugar production to recover to levels of 100 years previously. But prices and production subsequently crashed near the end of the 19th century, never to recover.

The circumstances of Montserrat and Dominica matched each other in this development. As soon as the futility of trusting in sugar as their staple crop became obvious, and as the central factory system could not be profitably introduced owing to their natural configuration, attention was directed to the cultivation of other tropical products. Dr. John Imray in Dominica and the Sturge family in Montserrat were pioneers of the lime industry. In the peak year of 1885 the Sturge's company in Montserrat was growing 1000 acres of limes and along with the purchase of limes from other farmers, was sending 180,000 gallons of lime juice to England. By the end of the century Dominica, with its much greater acreage was outstripping Montserrat and by the early years of the 20th century it was the largest single producer of lime products in the world. At the same time Dominica was expanding the cultivation of cocoa as well as limes and it was the large newly restructured British owned cocoa estates that were being established during the 1880s in the north of the island that attracted Montserrat settlers. With "the native of Dominica" focused on becoming independent peasant proprietors and reluctant to work on plantations, what the Dominican plantocracy needed from Montserrat was labour to work its fields and factories and as a result the history of lime and cocoa production in Dominica is synonymous with the peak years of Montserratian immigration.

Why they left Montserrat

These dates and statistics in relation to constitutional change and plantation fortunes provide a "privileged" history of Montserrat. It only hints at the conditions being experienced by the former slaves and the first two generations of their descendants. For instance, despite the hopeful signs as reflected in the plantation statistics during the 1860s, the times were still hard. Emigration continued. Between 1861 and 1871 1,900 people left Montserrat for other West Indian islands. What was happening in Montserrat that made emigration to Dominica preferable to staying at home?

The Montserrat authorities used tactics of land deprivation coupled with sharecropping or the metayer system, to ensure dependence on the plantation as the only ways that the labourer could obtain wages and garden lands for subsistence (Fergus 1994: 106). Agreements for continued use of allotments on the hilly fringes of the plantations or on abandoned land, went some way to supplement food supply and ensure subsistence for households. As one historian has put it, "the salvation of the black population probably was achieved by their own hands, through non market incomes" (Akenson 1997: 169). But even as wage labourers, the commitment to the plantation was tightened further by the introduction of a truck system. This was designed to funnel their wages back into the plantation coffers. Besides crop production, plantation interests began to control the sale of imported food and consumer goods, as in the company store system. Direct payment for purchases was coupled with the offer of credit so that those who worked were continually in debt. The ability to pay was dependent on employment and employment was dependent on the rise and fall of plantation fortunes and in the late 19th century unspecified numbers were unemployed for long periods. Added to this were the perils of natural disaster and disease. Storms in the mid 1830s and 1898, drought for ten months in 1849-1850 and earthquakes, particularly that of 1843, took their toll. In 1849-1850 during the drought, a small-pox epidemic swept the island, with about a three percent mortality rate.

In reviewing the literature of post-emancipation strategies for freedom Karen Fog Olwig observes that the ex-slaves adopted essentially two routes in pursuit of freedom. The first involved acquiring land and settling as small farmers in free villages outside the plantations. The second concerned migration in order to take advantage outside the sphere of the plantation society entirely (Fog Olwig 1995: 100). She adds that only a small minority of the freed, were able to aspire to upward mobility primarily by obtaining an education to enter the teaching profession or similar positions. The Montserratians who departed for Dominica were combining both of the first two options and in some rarer cases, achieving the third option of social mobility.

It was also reported that Montserratians were emigrating because the uncertainty of tenure of their house lots and provision grounds was a threat to their independence (Hope 1995: 165). On Montserrat there were only two acres of Crown land, occupied by coastal batteries. But squatters occupied abandoned estates and plentiful unused mountainous land. But with magistrates directed to act against squatting their occupation was insecure (Berlcant-Schiller 1995: 61). By the end of the 19th century it became known that land on Dominica was more readily available to labourers, following a period from the 1860s to the 1890s when there was a definite policy of restricting sale of Crown lands even on an island where forested land was plentiful. From 1900 there was steady progress in Dominica associated with a marked influx of British settlers and their capital that were opening up Crown lands in the interior and, as their official booklet advised them, turned to Montserrat for labour. Newly resuscitated estates moving into limes and cocoa were eager to accept immigrants. Garden land on the outskirts of estates was readily available. The economy of Montserrat was not making equivalent headway and in 1902 it still required a considerable amount in British Imperial aid to meet its expenditure. But by 1906 with prosperity from limes, and more so cotton, having an economic effect, emigration to Dominica slowed, but did not cease.

As far as the Montserratians were concerned, Dominica provided opportunities outside of the influence of Montserrat's plantation structure and yet it was close enough so as not to have to break the ties with home completely. Although many of their countrymen were also emigrating to Trinidad and British Guiana, Dominica provided a situation that was neither as distant nor as alien. It was only an overnight sail or steamship journey of 109 miles from Plymouth to Portsmouth or Roseau on Dominica. In fact the movement of shipping between the two islands was far more frequent then than it is now, and it provided a quick and cheap passage for Montserratian workers. Joanna Meade, now 93 years old, who traveled to Dominica with her parents in about 1910 "when I could stand up holding my mother's skirt", remembers being told that her passage cost them two shillings. She remembers being told that her people came from Molyneaux. From April 1891 a steamship, the RMS Tyne, subsidized by the government of the Leeward Islands, had commenced a regular inter-island schedule that greatly facilitated the movement of labour and produce (Watkins 1924: 45).

The unskilled labour force on Montserrat weighed the advantages and disadvantages of emigration that has been made by people of the island for generations, regardless of the destination: the security of the home ground, however destitute it may be, and the support systems of the extended family versus the unknown opportunities, often based on hearsay, to be faced alone as a stranger in another land. From the Dominican planter's point of view there were social advantages to have Montserratian workers. As outsiders they had developed none of the ties to land and family connections that the Dominican peasantry had established. Therefore they were more dependent on the estate and its grant of garden plots for their livelihood. For the Montserratians, freedom from the social and economic restrictions at home and the hope of more easily available access to land than was possible in Montserrat were the main factors that influenced the decision of their parents to emigrate, according to aged Montserratian informants still living in Dominica. At the same time, Dominicans themselves were also on the move to similar destinations across the region. This gave added purpose for Montserratians to fill the vacancies they left behind. In this way labour force was shifting across the Caribbean finding niches of opportunity wherever possible.

The "Montserratian" Estates of Dominica

There are specific Dominican estates associated with Montserratian labour. These are distinguished by the fact that they are large, more than 500 acres in extent with the majority at over 1000 acres, and owned by Anglophone interests: British companies, Dominicans of British descent and in one case, an investor from the United States. By the late 19th century the "English-speaking" Leatham estates in the north-east had been sold over to Estates Investment Trust of Dominica while another in the district employing Montserrat labour was Melville Hall Estates Ltd. Elsewhere, the British firm of chocolate manufacturers Rowntree & Company held the estates of Blenheim, Moore Park, Picard and Morne Pleasant concentrating on cocoa production. These were all near to the second town of Portsmouth, which was the port of entry for Montserratians arriving to work in the north. Centres of Montserratian labour on the west coast were Goodwill Estate owned by the Dominican Potter family, Bath Estate owned by the important lime producers, L. Rose & Company, and Canefield, owned by an American millionaire Andrew Green, who invested in the latest citrate of lime processing equipment available. One informant remembers standing with the manager of Bath Estate as the mainly Montserratian work force filed out of the yard in the evening. "If they go back to Montserrat, Dominica going back to nothing" the manager said.

The Montserratians have left their influence in the vicinity of these estates focusing on three main areas: (1) Portsmouth, (2) the sister villages of Wesley and Marigot and (3) the environs of Roseau, particularly the communities of Pottersville and Roger. It is in the latter communities that we find the purer lineage of Montserratian culture. At Portsmouth, and especially at Wesley and Marigot, Montserratians were outnumbered by Antiguans and there one finds a greater mix of general Leeward island influence. But the Antiguan reasons for emigration have similarities with the Montserrat experience. Yet the conditions for the plantation labourer in Antigua after the earlier "full emancipation" there in 1834 was perhaps worse than elsewhere in the Leewards. There were a series of droughts from the 1860s into the 1890s, dismal conditions of survival during the sugar crisis on the island from 1884, the shortage of available land and terrible social and sanitation conditions where infant mortality in 1856 was as high as 21 percent (Watkins: 1924 42-44). In comparison to this, work on the plantations of Dominica was a welcome escape with the bonus of access to fertile garden lands into the bargain. What they cultivated on these lands added significantly to the variety and quantity of produce in the local market places. Whereas Dominicans concentrated on the "wet" crops of plantains and the root tubers: dasheen, tannia and yams, Montserratians were well remembered by my informants for their production of "dry", "Leeward Island" crops of sweet potatoes, sweet cassava, corn and pigeon peas.

In religion, the Anglican and Methodist faiths, but particularly the latter, dominated Wesley and Marigot. By the 1920s the size of congregations were such that two Methodist chapels and one Anglican church were constructed in the district. Here the French-Creole language, which is common to the rest of Dominica, was swamped by Leeward Island English-Creole in this part of the island. Other Dominicans called this mixture of Antiguan and Montserratian dialects "kockoy". This is supposedly because the language is equated with a fruit tree of the Musa family locally called "kockoy", which is halfway between a plantain and a banana. Similarly, to the Dominican ear, the dialect was neither English nor French patois. More recently, during the late 20th century, other Dominicans have increasingly referred to the people of the district as "a fu a we" people. So distinct had the culture of Wesley become that the people of this district petitioned a commission of enquiry in 1893 that they should have special representation "on the grounds of having peculiarities special to itself, which are as follows: soil, product, language, custom, habits and religion" (Hamilton Report 1893).

A study of the Montserratians associated with Canefield Estate gives the clearest picture of their relationship to the Dominican society over the last century. In 2002 there were still four persons alive who had emigrated with their parents from Montserrat in the 1910s and who themselves had worked on Canefield as adults. Others are children of Montserratian emigrants who have since passed away while there are also grandchildren with memories of family stories of the Montserrat connection. Most of them live in a community called Roger on a hillside above Canefield that was once part of the estate. Richard Graham is 95 years old. He came to Dominica with his parents. His father had some education and could read and write. He worked in the mill and as a leader of a gang in the field, close to the overseer.

"One day Mr. Green (the estate owner) give my father a paper with the plan of all the land at Roger on it and he tell my father to give everybody working at Canefield a piece of land. So my father divide it out and that is how we get the piece we living on right here. And that is how the other people like Margaret and Teresa and Ma Breezy them get all their piece." His wife Joanna Graham (née Meade) aged 93 added: "Years pass and some family send from Montserrat and say that me grandpopa die and leave a house lot for us, but we have more land here, land at Roger and land in the mountain, so what we want with a house lot in Montserrat? We tell them keep the land for themselves. None of us ever been back to Montserrat. We don't know Montserrat. Is really only Dominica we know."

In Roger and Canefield, most of which is now converted to housing, and in Pottersville, a suburb of Roseau where the descendants of Montserratians who worked on Goodwill and Bath estates now live, there are O'Garro, Dyer, Graham, Mead, Tuitt, Ryan, Daley, Lee, Farell and Cassell families, all of whom trace their ancestors back to Montserrat. These are the families who help to keep the dwindling congregation of the Anglican church going or who are members of the Methodist community.

From the late 19th century it was their ancestors who brought the colour and rhythm of Montserrat masquerade to the streets of Roseau during the pre Lenten Carnival. Up to the 1950s Dominicans awaited the arrival of the Montserratian Red Indians who came into Roseau on Carnival Monday morning from Pottersville and Roger with their drums, fifes and whips and dressed in their distinctive masks and costumes (Fergus 1994: 241). This has disappeared now because, as Joanna Meade Graham says, "Is really only Dominica we know". And the cultural ties with Montserrat are even weaker among young people who are many generations removed from those who sailed from Plymouth to Roseau in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Their story, however, is as vital to the integration movement in the Caribbean today as it was when their ancestors sought a niche of opportunity in another Caribbean territory. There has been a two-way exchange and several Dominicans now work in Montserrat. Sadly two of them were killed in the pyroclastic flow of June 25 1997. By understanding the long tradition of inter-island contact and exchange and by realizing how deeply rooted it is in the life of our island people, let us hope that our leaders, perhaps by force of circumstance, will continue the process of free movement of citizens and regional opportunity of which the Montserrat labourer was a pioneer.


Akenson, Donald Harman. If the Irish Ran the World: Montserrat, 1630-1730. Liverpool University Press 1997.

Aspinal, Algernon E. The British West Indies, Their History, Resources and Progress. Pitman & Sons Ltd, London 1913.

Berleant-Schiller, Riva. 'From Labour to Peasantry in Montserrat after the End of Slavery,' in Small Islands, Large Questions: Society, Culture and Resistance in the Post-Emancipation Caribbean. Fog Olwig, Karen, Ed. Frank Cass, London 1995.

Cumper, G. E. The Economy of the West Indies. ISER University of the West Indies 1960.

Fergus, Howard A. Montserrat: History of a Caribbean Colony. Macmillan Caribbean 1994.

Fog Olwig, Karen, Ed. Small Islands, Large Questions: Society, Culture and Resistance in the Post-Emancipation Caribbean. Frank Cass, London 1995.

Hamilton, Sir Robert. Report of the Royal Commission to enquire into the condition and affairs of the island of Dominica, HMSO, London, 1894.

Thomas-Hope, Elizabeth M. 'Island Systems and the Paradox of Freedom: Migration in the Post-Emancipation Leeward Islands' in Small Islands, Large Questions: Society, Culture and Resistance in the Post-Emancipation Caribbean. Fog Olwig, Karen, Ed. Frank Cass, London, 1995.

Skinner, Thomas, of Canada Limited, Ed. Year Book of the British West Indies, 1930. London 1930.

Smith M. G. The Plural Society in the British West Indies. University of California Press, London, 1965.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Peasants and Capital: Dominica and the World Economy. John Hopkins University Press 1988

Watkins, Frederick, Henry. Handbook of The Leeward Islands. West India Committee, London 1924.


Search again

Home | Site Map | Contact

site by delphis

Copyright © 2004 - 2017 Lennox Honychurch. All Rights Reserved.