In the dream, I climbed out of bed and as I looked down the long back garden, a hail of small stones rushed at the windows soundlessly, but with increasing vigour and a hint of danger.
I woke up feeling slightly dazed. I felt impelled to relate my extraordinary dream to a fellow Caribbean law librarian as we were going downstairs to breakfast, and to a London bookseller who had come to St. Kitts for the annual conference of The Caribbean Association of Law Libraries.
Some other members were lined up at the buffet table, but a waitress was laying fresh cutlery out at some places. Somebody said that the Jamaicans had already left for an early flight. Therefore, we were astonished to see them come back into the room, just as we were finishing our meal.
Looking very flustered, one of the Jamaicans gasped, “All the planes have been grounded — no flight is coming in or going out.”
It was July 15, 2003 and the dome of Montserrat’s Soufriere Hills volcano had collapsed early that morning, producing the largest pyrotechnic flow in modern history.
As I was staying on St. Kitts for a short holiday, the next morning I took the ferry to Nevis, where I was confronted by parked cars enveloped in grey ash, like dirty snow, and saw bookshop staff vacuum-cleaning their shelves.
Thousands of Montserratians had left the island after the volcano had roared back to life in 1995, with most being evacuated to the United Kingdom. Plymouth, the original capital, and over half of the land area had been buried in hot ash and rendered uninhabitable. It is still part of an exclusion zone.
Montserrat’s population of 11,000 in 1995 fell to 1,200, but it has since risen to 5,000, and the remaining inhabitants are determined to recover their economy, even promoting sights of the still-active volcano (which last erupted 2013) as part of their tourism product.
Montserrat has been helped by the UK and by remittances from its diaspora, but has also benefited from being a full member of the Organisation for Eastern Caribbean States. This status came about by an historical accident, unlike in the VI, which is only an associate member.
The VI is often reminded that it is in a seismically active region, as by the recent earthquake with a magnitude of 4.7 (it sounded to me like a massive truck passing slowly by).
The VI experienced its own record-breaking natural catastrophes last September, but from hurricanes: firstly Irma, the strongest ever to emerge from the Atlantic in modern history; then Maria, a second Category Five about two weeks later.
Many expatriates left the VI before Irma struck. Residents and students delayed their homecoming and some offices relocated, but there was no mass evacuation nor great loss of land. In fact, most absences were only temporary and Road Town’s recovery from devastation was prioritised.
The UK and other Commonwealth countries provided service personnel to boost security in the territory and aid recovery, while their linesmen gradually restored power distribution.
Some prisoners were temporarily relocated to St. Lucia, an ironic echo of the efforts of the cash-strapped colonial administration’s offer to turn Virgin Gorda into a regional penitentiary after the copper mine closed.
Some UK citizens declined Foreign and Commonwealth Office offers to evacuate them shortly after Irma out of concern for what might happen to their roofless houses and unprotected possessions.
Most residents were also concerned about the fate of their friends and family, like an elderly cousin of mine whose wooden house had been blown away.
Human-induced global warming or not, we have to accept that our beautiful island home has been beset by geological and meteorological challenges throughout its history.
The Amerindians lived in close proximity to the sea, which provided them with a means of transport and plentiful food, but probably moved on after natural disasters or climate change.
UK provincial newspapers’ headlines screamed “Tortola inundated, 10,000 lives lost” after the 1867 hurricane in which RMS Rhone was wrecked, while their reporters rushed to their public libraries to find out where it was and what it looked like.
After the failure of the second attempt to operate profitably the copper mine on Virgin Gorda, the cash-strapped Legislative Council proposed that the island become a regional penal colony.
“A study of economic potential, fiscal structure and capital requirements in 1962 recommended three courses open to the colony: evacuation; amalgamation with the USVI; or viable development of tourism.”
The Proudfoot Report was followed by the opening of Little Dix resort and the adoption of the ministerial system of government.
Moving forward, we must carefully consider our priorities as we plan and progress our recovery and constitutional advancement in tandem. While the much-debated UK loan facility may be a much-needed sticking plaster, the decision to join the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility Segregated Portfolio Company is far more constructive.
Perhaps the most important outcome of becoming an independent country might be that we would then qualify for full membership of the OECS and other Caribbean groups.
Now is the time to be considering our priorities and what we really, really want to do to improve our lives and those of the future inhabitants of these beautiful islands we call home.