On Being The Other: A Look At Montserrat

Montserrat Beach

Edgar Nkosi White

Release Date

Monday, June 24, 2013


History to me has as much to do with the things which didn't happen as the things which did. This is a very different view from that of the so-called realists who say that history is only about success and victory since it is only the victorious who get to record it and so all else is irrelevant. The Royal family, for example, always make certain that their children major in history, as well they might, since history for them reads like a family portrait. If, on the other hand, you come from a small Caribbean island like Montserrat, you learn to glory more in gesture and defiance than conquest. Or to put it another way, you learn to share the victory of mere survival.

Montserrat has never been exactly a hotbed of insurrection. Subversion has always been more our meat rather than revolt. Being colonized by both Irish and British tends to instil you with guile and so when faced with captivity and forced labour, you soon learn that not every nail must be driven straight. We could never hope to equal Haiti in open rebellion. We had neither the numbers nor the terrain to engage in prolonged guerrilla warfare like Jamaica with its Maroons or Brazil with its Quilombo societies, which could strike at will and then vanish into the hills, sometimes for years at a time. When you lack such numbers and terrain (and dare I say, such will), you have to make do with intent.

For example, we celebrate St. Patrick's Day here every year, not in celebration of the Irish saint who supposedly Christianized Ireland and drove the snakes from that land, but more in memory of the attempted uprising by slaves on Montserrat on that day, hoping to use the occasion of the holiday as cover. It was a good plan. All it lacked was success and silence. Life at that time was sharp as a needle and brief as thread. Any attempt at revolt resulted in execution by hanging because an example must be made. It involves the concept of treason. Is it a treasonable act for a slave to attempt freedom? When you are The Other, the alien, the threatening presence in midst of any community, you're made to pay the price.

You see what I mean when I say that history is a very peculiar tale depending on what lens it's viewed from? In such an environment, the greatest fear is that a slave would go unaccounted for any length of time. The first surveillance in the Americas had to do with keeping accurate records of the coming and going of slaves for it wouldn't do to have random coming and going of slaves, especially after dark. It was for this reason that the pass system was instituted in pre-emancipation days. Of course, after emancipation this became the Passport.

The difference between pre- and post-slavery is the introduction of money into our lives. Not that money was not always present because of course it was, although we had little contact with it. Money floated somewhere in the ether above our heads and was seldom seen in quantity. It remained a tantalizing promise that when amassed in sufficient quantity, it might be used to purchase freedom. This usually took a lifetime to do. A few pence could be made here and there from selling produce from provision land but money was not the absolute necessity it became after Emancipation for a master now had no need to feed or clothe you. It was no longer in his interest to keep you alive.

Suddenly you were set free from slavery into the infinite embrace of poverty. Now another game began. Money became the new crucible and replaced the whip and the chain with necessity and survival. Emancipation provided the illusion of choice and option. Freedom now meant you could beg or borrow your way into oblivion. In effect, you borrowed against yourself and your projected labour. You became a sharecropper. Gandhi once said that poverty was the greatest violence. He was certainly right for whereas a slave in former days knew captivity, he now would learn poverty and a new modern concept: debt. Welcome to the brave new world.

Freedom meant that one could emigrate, providing you found the means to get far enough away to make more money. You left your family behind as collateral and you went off to larger islands in search of better. At that time, Panama was the most accessible because of work on the Canal (construction work was the most dangerous and because of swamp disease and lack of inoculation, there was a constant search for fresh workers. Over 27,500 official lives were sacrificed to build that happy canal so that America could end up with a 99-year lease. It was, by the way, because that 99-year lease was expiring which led directly to Reagan's invasion of Panama (which you might remember was led so ably by our very own Caribbean born and native son, General Colin Powell, the Beloved)

Other ports of call after emancipation were Cuba and Venezuela. Later it would be the Dutch Islands of Aruba and Curacao and eventually the three sisters: Britain, America and Canada which would claim us. Each place held its promise and its danger. In the early days, it was the physical danger which was the greatest to us. Later it would be the psychic danger of exile in places like Great Britain where you were reminded daily that you were despised and perceived as a threat to their way of life: The Other.

The point of emigration is, of course, to make a better way for ourselves and family. It is through the remittance of funds from the diaspora that small islands like Montserrat have survived. Those who go abroad keep in touch with those who stay behind. Return is the bond which binds us; it has kept us healthy despite the ravages of a devastating volcanic eruption which claimed more than half of our island.

Economics is at best an imprecise science. Although it looks very impressive on blackboards at universities, it has very little to do with the real world because it fails to deal with either biology or ecology. Economists love the concept of tourism because they love revenue incentives. They never stop to ask the question, At what cost to people, and what exactly will this mean to the environment? One would think that this would be the first question an economist would ask but it never is. There is never enough room on a blackboard for people.

It's na''ve to think that we can have the benefits of a tourist economy without paying the penalty of a tourist economy. It would be good to have the tourist dollars without tourist madness, the wealth without the penalty of private beaches and gated communities with ourselves under surveillance. Tourists are best when they don't become delusional and start demanding ownership of your island. We must be careful what we pray for. It would be frightening to see Montserrat become like St. Maarten and others which have become lost to themselves. Do we want to find ourselves costumed and packaged like artefacts and labelled the official art of the island, to be trotted out for amusement like windup dolls when leviathan-like tourist ships arrive?

The problem of history is that it never quite leaves us. The dream for those of us who have been away from home has always been to return. The nightmare is to wake and find ourselves The Other.

Edgar Nkosi White is a Montserrat born playwright and novelist. His novel, The Rising, is available on Amazon. His play, I Marcus Garvey, will be featured at this year's Calabash Festival in Montserrat this July.

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