By Kathleen Wunderly
The island of Montserrat, comprising only 39 square miles, is part of the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies, located in the Caribbean Sea about 295 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. It is a British Overseas Territory, and economically dependent on the United Kingdom.
Montserrat has an annual six-month hurricane season, many of the storms are very severe, and the year-round hazard to life and property results from the fact that the island is entirely volcanic.
The Soufriere Hills Volcano began actively erupting in 1995, with a huge eruption in 1998 that buried Plymouth, the island’s capital, with a pyroclastic flow (hot gas and rocks). The island’s road system also was destroyed, and about 8,000 inhabitants fled to other countries.
New government buildings have been built elsewhere on the island but half of Montserrat is uninhabitable, and the population is down to some 4,700, a situation that the tourism office cheerfully says “means everyone knows everyone here.” The same source ingeniously describes the island as “Pompeii in the tropics.”
The indigenous people of the Caribbean, including Montserrat, were Taino Indians out of South America. They called their island Alliougana, meaning “land of the prickly bush.” When Columbus came upon the then-uninhabited island in 1493, he named it Santa Maria de Montserrat, after a monastery near Barcelona.
The place name in Spain refers to a nearby jagged geographic feature that the Romans called Mount Serrat, meaning “saw mountain.” Montserrat’s volcanic landscape is similarly serrated, though also with enough vegetation to merit the nickname “Emerald Isle” in modern times, in a salute to its Irish roots.
Those roots date to 1632, when Thomas Warner, the first British governor of nearby St. Kitts, banished that island’s Irish Catholic settlers to Montserrat. They were joined in 1651 by slaves from Africa (who eventually outnumbered all other ethnic groups) and some Irish forcibly exiled by Oliver Cromwell during his 1649-53 invasion of Ireland.
Montserrat celebrates St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, for a somewhat equivocal reason. On that date in 1768, the island’s slave population planned a rebellion, assuming their Irish and English masters would be preoccupied with drunken revelry.
An informer thwarted the plot and nine of its leaders were executed. Some place names and surnames in Montserrat (and in tourist marketing) recall the early Irish presence, but the island in most ways reflects a pan-Caribbean culture.
Montserrat is probably one hurricane or volcanic eruption away from eradication, in which case it also would become a philatelic dead country. Here is a brief survey of its stamp history.
In 1871, the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands was constituted by British law, comprising Antigua, Montserrat, St. Christopher (Kitts), Anguilla, Nevis, Dominica, and the British Virgin Islands. These entities now became “presidencies” of the federation.
Montserrat’s stamp chronology begins in September 1876, when its first issues were placed on sale: 1-penny and 6d stamps of Antigua with a black line through that island’s name and “MONTSERRAT” added beneath.
Montserrat’s first stamps under its own name emerged in January 1880, depicting Queen Victoria (Scott 3-4). Other issues of the same design in different colors and denominations were issued in 1884-85.
Then, on Feb. 3, 1890, the Leeward Islands General Stamp Act dictated uniform postage and revenue stamps throughout the Leeward Islands and a common set (the Queen Victoria keytype issues) was placed on sale Oct. 31, 1890. The islands’ previous individual stamps were withdrawn, and then destroyed in London.
This huge change in policy made sense as far as being an economical way of producing stamps, but it deprived the presidencies of their postal identity and also most of their usual postal revenue from collectors worldwide. Stamp income, such as it now became, would be pooled and then divided five ways.
Possibly because of good lobbying efforts, the Virgin Islands received approval from the executive council of the Leewards in 1898 to produce stamps with their own name, which were issued the following year (Scott 21-28). Subsequently, the Leeward Islands Stamp Act of 1902 decreed that “the Governor may from time to time” authorize “special stamps” in the presidencies, for concurrent use with the uniform stamps used throughout the Leewards.
The permitted denominations of “special stamps” were specified in an order of the Leewards’ executive council of June 20, 1903, as were the designs for each of the islands. The design of the Montserrat issues was to be “the central figure in the Public Seal of the Presidency for all values, with the exception of the 5s, which stamp will bear the design of the head of His Majesty the King [Edward VII].” The portrait of the king was a keytype design, and the 5-shilling issues of Antigua, Dominica and Montserrat were identical except for each island’s name.
Montserrat’s 1903 set comprises nine stamps (Scott 12-20) in denominations from ½ penny to 2sh6d depicting the symbol of the colony, and one (21) 5sh stamp with the portrait of King Edward VII. The seal of the colony, a form of which appears to this day on the Montserrat flag, shows a female allegorical figure symbolizing Ireland embracing a cross and holding a harp, making three references in all to Catholic Ireland.
Some historical philatelic sources, though seemingly with no humorous intent, have described the design as “Hope with a harp.” Modern Montserrat governmental references more prosaically call the seal’s design “the lady with a harp.”
The stamps were designed and printed by typography by Thomas de la Rue in London in sheets of 120 stamps (two panes of 60 each) on the British Colonial “Crown over CA” watermarked paper. The perforations are gauge 14.
The 2015 Scott Classic Specialized Catalogue of Stamps and Covers 1840-1940 lists modest values for the colony-seal designs: from 90¢ for a mint Scott 12 to $37.50 for a mint Scott 19. The King Edward stamp is more costly: $160 mint and $225 used (and scarce). A complete set of Scott 12-21 is estimated at $263.05 mint, $511.60 used.
Prices will surely rise for these and all Montserrat stamp issues if worse comes to worst for this often unlucky little island.