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On Montserrat: (A family Portrait)

By Edgar Nkosi White

Edgar Nkosi White

Edgar Nkosi White

I know that you’ll find this as hard to believe as I did, but not everybody in Montserrat loves each other. So there it is! As a matter of fact, there are so many personal wars going on in Montserrat that it’s amazing that we can still speak to each other. I asked the police commissioner Steve Foster, how it was possible, since he is a man gifted in logic and has a clear understanding of Montserratian madness. His answer was very simple, simple enough for even me to understand:

“The same people don’t dislike the same people at the same time so we keep changing partners like Masquerade.”

He was right. That way it’s possible on a tiny island of only 5,000 souls, to keep conversation going.

Then we have to take into account also the fact that gossip doesn’t necessarily count as conversation because Montserratians love melee and gossip and therefore it’s possible to take a pause from whatever war you have going with one person long enough to gossip about a next. This can be called a truce and it’s understood that tomorrow we’ll go right back to hating each other and “bad-mindedness” just as before.

Besides gossip is easy to carry because it doesn’t weigh much, like:

“Who taking Spanish lessons from who now, and which underage girl was seen climbing out which minister’s car at what hour of the night when they should be home braiding they hair or reading they Bible?”

Then there is the car beeps which could easily be misinterpreted as sign of friendship. This took me a long time to comprehend. A beep-beep can simply mean: “Come out the middle of the road, you fool you, before me lick you down and raise me insurance!”

Or two cars exchanging beeps can also mean: “How, you still alive, you f…..r you? “Just so me outlive you, you mother’s s…t you, me no mind dead!”

Now, we have to give credit too, for the non-nationals on island. They assist a great deal because in Montserrat although we might not like each other very much we hate non-nationals more. Non -nationals also serve another useful function; we can blame them for everything. For example, take the sentence: “Before them a bang water come ya, we never have no crime inna Montserrat.”

Which made me go in search of this golden era on this paradise island I keep hearing about. It made me wonder why they even bothered to have police or a jail here on this island back in those glorious years before non-nationals, what they needed police for? Her Majesty’s Prison must have been a weekend retreat where men just signed themselves in when they wanted to rest. I had to ask my friend

Fred White, (he’s 90 now and if anybody should know he should) if he could remember a time in Montserrat when the lion and the lamb lay down together and “Even puss and fowl agree.”

He say that from he born he never see it.

“ Montserrat was never sweetness and light. While one set of folks doing all right, the next catching hell, believe it to be true. It was always White water time for somebody!

You had was to fight for every Jesus thing you a get. And you know how rich people love to quote scripture to you when you say you hungry?   They go tell you about: the sluggard and the ant. But if you quote scripture back at them and tell them about the rich man trying to reach heaven and how even camel have better chance of passing through the eye of a needle, them does get vex and you lucky if you get a fish from them never mind money.”

So when was this golden time on Montserrat?

“ Golden time, what? You used to did have to go toilet in bush, couldn’t get to reach the sea. Wipe you backside with stone and get back to work. People forget all that. I remember when we beg for one cent more to pick cotton, and the estate owners, men like Wade, them say no. And Maas Bob and Ellen Peters of the Trade Union say we should come out the field. Just lef everything and strike. They send British ship to come here lock we up because they say is riot. Them want scare we back a fields a wok.

And still them lose the whole crop because the cotton fly way and cover ground like snow. Me tell you me laugh til me nearly dead. Rather then spend one cent more them lose the whole crop. Still they had was to come back to we and pay what we ask. Maybe that is the golden time them a talk about!”

So much for the Caribbean, the way it used to be.

A next good thing is that child molestation was never known to exist back in paradise days. Man never lusted after young gal or their own granddaughter. Isn’t that good? Fortunately, every other person in Montserrat is a lay preacher and so that leaves very little time for wickedness (although somehow we seem to manage).

Now I sometimes hear people talk nonsense like: “But we were happy and we never even knew we were poor.”

Well, evidently a lot of people did know they were poor, which is why so many people got the hell out of Montserrat even before the eruption. We have the highest rate of emigration outside of Ireland (in proportion). We love leaving here but we’re not so welcoming to those who come here to live.

But let’s get back to those paradise days when Massa owned the estates and there was a hierarchy of skin here. You could always tell who owned what according to skin colour. Just look at the photographs of those days and it tells you everything. See who owned the first six cars on island? See who looked directly into the camera and who looked down at the ground in apology. The lighter the skin, the greater the opportunity (this still exist today where you find young girls begging red skinned men to give them babies just so the child could have an advantage. This is still deep in the Montserrat psyche).

As for the rest, you were left to either use your head or use your hands. Some used both and became smugglers. Redistributed the wealth. Those who did it best were of course ship builders. They were able to make the sea work for them. To be a good smuggler you needed knowledge of three things: knowledge of the sea, knowledge of the land (where to hide the goods in the ghauts and beneath the cusha) and thirdly and most important, knowledge of your fellow Montserratians. The art of grudge, and who would be the most likely to betray you and when. Then you make it worth their while not to. Armed with these three things and luck, you might make it long enough to become legitimate and a wealthy merchant and turn Christian. Like Walter Wade or an Osborne. Then you don’t have to stand in line anymore when you go bank. Then you know you’ve arrived. In more cases than not the sea still saves us by giving more than it takes. We eat, they eat well!

Men of my father’s (Toomer Dyer) generation, Kinsale men like Richard Samuels. Men who could walk one end of Montserrat to the other in a night, visit two women and still wake up early morn to see to their business. It must have been the good food and drink. I don’t know. They say that since there’s seven days in a week a man could have 6 and a half women (“man must have a half day to heself”). And I wonder how they did it. But maybe it was because so many men left that there was nothing but women on island, so man could take advantage.

My father saw my mother
By moonlight and kerosene
On long graceful Montserrat legs
Moving all grace and glory
Like a ship Out on the sea.

Still men got into fights and because there was no internet or television for distractions, people loved the spectacle of a man getting a good cut-ass. If you catch a good lick from a bull-pestle you go into spasm and you beg for a next one to release you. Cudjoe Head and St. Johns were good for fights, and Harris’ for Obeah and the women too. But when women fight it wasn’t so much to leave wounds as to leave the other naked. Then of course there was that old reliable standby: poison.

Montserrat was always famous for poisoning That was always a good way to leave a message. You poison someone’s animal, be it dog or sheep, you let them know how you feel about them. This is still being used today. They poisoned my friend’s horse down Cos Bay. You must be careful with poison though. It has a bad habit of returning to the sender, threefold.

And the last of the great myths is that those in the diaspora really want to come home. Not for Christmas but to stay. This is a winter day-dream. The truth is that people rather struggle in some city with seven locks on their doors and a steel gate on the window so that when they sleep they sleep beneath the shadow of bars. Call that life. They like the idea of Montserrat but not Montserrat itself. They can dream on that.

Two weeks at Christmas isn’t quite the same as living in Montserrat. Because as old time people used to say:

“Come see and come live, two different things.”

The first requirement for a successful life in Montserrat is patience. That you can’t buy at Duty Free.

The one thing you must never ask in Montserrat is why. The answer is always:

“Because that’s how we do it.” Which means somebody British did it that way a hundred and fifty years ago. To which the only reply you must give is “Oho, I see.” This will save time and maybe your sanity.

And yet and still it works. Montserrat this island. And I ’d rather dwell here than elsewhere. There’s space enough to speak to sheep and goats and listen to the sea. And at night you make the Montserrat prayer: Lord send us tourist if you can, but not too many to overwhelm us like Vikings and get so crazy that they feel that they own us and this island.

And please Lord, let the sea still come and write our name in the sand. Amen

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A Moment with the Registrar of Lands

By Edgar Nkosi White

Edgar Nkosi White

Edgar Nkosi White

I know that you’ll find this as hard to believe as I did, but not everybody in Montserrat loves each other. So there it is! As a matter of fact, there are so many personal wars going on in Montserrat that it’s amazing that we can still speak to each other. I asked the police commissioner Steve Foster, how it was possible, since he is a man gifted in logic and has a clear understanding of Montserratian madness. His answer was very simple, simple enough for even me to understand:

Insert Ads Here

“The same people don’t dislike the same people at the same time so we keep changing partners like Masquerade.”

He was right. That way it’s possible on a tiny island of only 5,000 souls, to keep conversation going.

Then we have to take into account also the fact that gossip doesn’t necessarily count as conversation because Montserratians love melee and gossip and therefore it’s possible to take a pause from whatever war you have going with one person long enough to gossip about a next. This can be called a truce and it’s understood that tomorrow we’ll go right back to hating each other and “bad-mindedness” just as before.

Besides gossip is easy to carry because it doesn’t weigh much, like:

“Who taking Spanish lessons from who now, and which underage girl was seen climbing out which minister’s car at what hour of the night when they should be home braiding they hair or reading they Bible?”

Then there is the car beeps which could easily be misinterpreted as sign of friendship. This took me a long time to comprehend. A beep-beep can simply mean: “Come out the middle of the road, you fool you, before me lick you down and raise me insurance!”

Or two cars exchanging beeps can also mean: “How, you still alive, you f…..r you? “Just so me outlive you, you mother’s s…t you, me no mind dead!”

Now, we have to give credit too, for the non-nationals on island. They assist a great deal because in Montserrat although we might not like each other very much we hate non-nationals more. Non -nationals also serve another useful function; we can blame them for everything. For example, take the sentence: “Before them a bang water come ya, we never have no crime inna Montserrat.”

Which made me go in search of this golden era on this paradise island I keep hearing about. It made me wonder why they even bothered to have police or a jail here on this island back in those glorious years before non-nationals, what they needed police for? Her Majesty’s Prison must have been a weekend retreat where men just signed themselves in when they wanted to rest. I had to ask my friend

Fred White, (he’s 90 now and if anybody should know he should) if he could remember a time in Montserrat when the lion and the lamb lay down together and “Even puss and fowl agree.”

He say that from he born he never see it.

“ Montserrat was never sweetness and light. While one set of folks doing all right, the next catching hell, believe it to be true. It was always White water time for somebody!

You had was to fight for every Jesus thing you a get. And you know how rich people love to quote scripture to you when you say you hungry?   They go tell you about: the sluggard and the ant. But if you quote scripture back at them and tell them about the rich man trying to reach heaven and how even camel have better chance of passing through the eye of a needle, them does get vex and you lucky if you get a fish from them never mind money.”

So when was this golden time on Montserrat?

“ Golden time, what? You used to did have to go toilet in bush, couldn’t get to reach the sea. Wipe you backside with stone and get back to work. People forget all that. I remember when we beg for one cent more to pick cotton, and the estate owners, men like Wade, them say no. And Maas Bob and Ellen Peters of the Trade Union say we should come out the field. Just lef everything and strike. They send British ship to come here lock we up because they say is riot. Them want scare we back a fields a wok.

And still them lose the whole crop because the cotton fly way and cover ground like snow. Me tell you me laugh til me nearly dead. Rather then spend one cent more them lose the whole crop. Still they had was to come back to we and pay what we ask. Maybe that is the golden time them a talk about!”

So much for the Caribbean, the way it used to be.

A next good thing is that child molestation was never known to exist back in paradise days. Man never lusted after young gal or their own granddaughter. Isn’t that good? Fortunately, every other person in Montserrat is a lay preacher and so that leaves very little time for wickedness (although somehow we seem to manage).

Now I sometimes hear people talk nonsense like: “But we were happy and we never even knew we were poor.”

Well, evidently a lot of people did know they were poor, which is why so many people got the hell out of Montserrat even before the eruption. We have the highest rate of emigration outside of Ireland (in proportion). We love leaving here but we’re not so welcoming to those who come here to live.

But let’s get back to those paradise days when Massa owned the estates and there was a hierarchy of skin here. You could always tell who owned what according to skin colour. Just look at the photographs of those days and it tells you everything. See who owned the first six cars on island? See who looked directly into the camera and who looked down at the ground in apology. The lighter the skin, the greater the opportunity (this still exist today where you find young girls begging red skinned men to give them babies just so the child could have an advantage. This is still deep in the Montserrat psyche).

As for the rest, you were left to either use your head or use your hands. Some used both and became smugglers. Redistributed the wealth. Those who did it best were of course ship builders. They were able to make the sea work for them. To be a good smuggler you needed knowledge of three things: knowledge of the sea, knowledge of the land (where to hide the goods in the ghauts and beneath the cusha) and thirdly and most important, knowledge of your fellow Montserratians. The art of grudge, and who would be the most likely to betray you and when. Then you make it worth their while not to. Armed with these three things and luck, you might make it long enough to become legitimate and a wealthy merchant and turn Christian. Like Walter Wade or an Osborne. Then you don’t have to stand in line anymore when you go bank. Then you know you’ve arrived. In more cases than not the sea still saves us by giving more than it takes. We eat, they eat well!

Men of my father’s (Toomer Dyer) generation, Kinsale men like Richard Samuels. Men who could walk one end of Montserrat to the other in a night, visit two women and still wake up early morn to see to their business. It must have been the good food and drink. I don’t know. They say that since there’s seven days in a week a man could have 6 and a half women (“man must have a half day to heself”). And I wonder how they did it. But maybe it was because so many men left that there was nothing but women on island, so man could take advantage.

My father saw my mother
By moonlight and kerosene
On long graceful Montserrat legs
Moving all grace and glory
Like a ship Out on the sea.

Still men got into fights and because there was no internet or television for distractions, people loved the spectacle of a man getting a good cut-ass. If you catch a good lick from a bull-pestle you go into spasm and you beg for a next one to release you. Cudjoe Head and St. Johns were good for fights, and Harris’ for Obeah and the women too. But when women fight it wasn’t so much to leave wounds as to leave the other naked. Then of course there was that old reliable standby: poison.

Montserrat was always famous for poisoning That was always a good way to leave a message. You poison someone’s animal, be it dog or sheep, you let them know how you feel about them. This is still being used today. They poisoned my friend’s horse down Cos Bay. You must be careful with poison though. It has a bad habit of returning to the sender, threefold.

And the last of the great myths is that those in the diaspora really want to come home. Not for Christmas but to stay. This is a winter day-dream. The truth is that people rather struggle in some city with seven locks on their doors and a steel gate on the window so that when they sleep they sleep beneath the shadow of bars. Call that life. They like the idea of Montserrat but not Montserrat itself. They can dream on that.

Two weeks at Christmas isn’t quite the same as living in Montserrat. Because as old time people used to say:

“Come see and come live, two different things.”

The first requirement for a successful life in Montserrat is patience. That you can’t buy at Duty Free.

The one thing you must never ask in Montserrat is why. The answer is always:

“Because that’s how we do it.” Which means somebody British did it that way a hundred and fifty years ago. To which the only reply you must give is “Oho, I see.” This will save time and maybe your sanity.

And yet and still it works. Montserrat this island. And I ’d rather dwell here than elsewhere. There’s space enough to speak to sheep and goats and listen to the sea. And at night you make the Montserrat prayer: Lord send us tourist if you can, but not too many to overwhelm us like Vikings and get so crazy that they feel that they own us and this island.

And please Lord, let the sea still come and write our name in the sand. Amen