The New York Times
March 17, 2000
Montserrat Celebrates Slave Revolt

          By The Associated Press

          LITTLE BAY, Montserrat (AP) -- Far from Ireland, in the shadow of a
          tropical volcano, residents of the ``other Emerald Isle'' are celebrating a
          different kind of St. Patrick's Day.

          In Montserrat, a hilly British territory settled by Irish pioneers, people mix
          their annual celebration of shamrocks and green beer with memories of
          an aborted slave revolt against Irish planters in 1768.

          The result is a Caribbean amalgam of colonial culture and African pride
          -- a weeklong fete with islanders dancing Irish jigs one night, then
          mocking their one-time masters the next by cracking whips and
          masquerading in tall hats like bishops' miters.

          ``We are celebrating the rise of the slave freedom fighters, but also the
          Irish Catholic element in our history,'' said historian Howard Fergus.
          ``They both have a place in our St. Patrick's Day,'' which is celebrated
          Friday, the anniversary of the saint's death.

          While the southern part of Montserrat has turned gray and barren from
          avalanches spewed by the Soufriere Hills Volcano, much of the island still
          evokes Ireland, with rugged cliffs, rolling hills and brilliant green
          vegetation. Places with Irish names such as Sweeney's Well and Riley's
          Estate dot the map, and immigration officials stamp passports with bright
          green shamrocks.

          The St. Patrick's Day traditions have suffered in recent years as the
          volcano forced thousands of people from their homes and two-thirds of
          the population abandoned the island. When the volcano first roared to life
          in 1995, it sent avalanches of superheated rock and gases into the largest
          towns and forced an evacuation of the capital, Plymouth, and the island's
          only airport.

          ``We lost it a bit because of the volcano, but we're trying to revive it
          now,'' said Fitzroy Martin, who was masquerading in early festivities this

          Tourism officials trying to bolster the island's battered economy have
          been promoting the celebration in Europe in hopes of luring visitors from

          ``We're looking back to remember what's valuable in our history, but
          we're looking forward to try to see what kind of economic benefit we
          can reap from its relics,'' said Kenny Castle, one of the organizers of the
          island's celebration.

          The Irish presence in Montserrat dates back to the 1630s, when the first
          pioneers -- Roman Catholics -- sailed over from St. Kitts because of
          friction with British Protestant settlers there.

          The Irish planters brought African slaves to work their sugar cane fields.
          Soon the slaves outnumbered them 3-to-1 and began rebelling.

          In 1768, the slaves planned an island-wide attack on St. Patrick's Day,
          when the planters would be celebrating. Servants were instructed to grab
          all the weapons they could find inside the Government House while field
          slaves stormed the building with rocks, farm tools, clubs and homemade

          But someone leaked the plan, and debate over who's to blame still
          continues. Local authorities punished the slaves severely, hanging nine.

          ``It was crushed cruelly,'' Fergus said. ``There is a myth that the Irish,
          being oppressed by the British, were more humane, and this exposes that

          In the decades after Britain abolished slavery in 1834, most whites left
          the island. But their surnames were adopted by the slaves and live on.

          In memory of the failed rebellion, organizers have recreated a slave
          village where visitors will eat traditional foods such as salted codfish and
          sweet potato ``dookna'' and play games such as ``Zig Zag Zaggett'' --
          similar to marbles but played with cashew seeds.

          Children are to dance Irish jigs while adults perform the heel-and-toe
          steps to heavy drumbeats.

          ``It's a parody of Irish dancing to African music,'' said government
          spokesman Richard Aspin. ``In the old days, the slaves would peek in
          the windows on the Irish holidays and then parody what was going on

          There will also be an Irish sing-along, a historical lecture by former Irish
          Parliament member Michael Higgins and a special Mass at the last
          remaining church. Montserrat's main place of worship, St. Patrick's
          Church, is buried under volcanic ash.

          ``It's all fun,'' Castle said. ``There are no hard feelings between the
          cultures. What happened way back in history is past for us.''

          Organizers remind islanders that St. Patrick himself was enslaved by Irish
          raiders before he began converting Ireland to Christianity.

          ``St. Patrick was a slave, too, so we can sympathize with him,'' said
          Chief Minister David Brandt.

                     Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company