Paradise isle enslaved by unruly past

Montserrat's tiny airport, at Trant's Bay, on the north-eastern coast, was to be extended to accommodate jets, which worried David Waters, of the Carnegie Institute, an American archaeologist who established that Indians lived in the area long before Columbus discovered the Americas.

Frank Savage, the British Governor, gave the go-ahead for Dr Waters's team to dig. They started in spring and hit paydirt: sets of bones, presumably of Carib Indians, who lived on Caribbean islands and the South American mainland. Dr Waters said it was one of the most significant pre-Columbian sites found in the Caribbean. Most of the bones were in bundles, having been piled in stacks. This tallied with the knowledge that the Amerindians did not bury their dead horizontally but waited for the flesh to rot and then buried the bones.

But one set of bones was laid out European-style. An Indian chief, perhaps? Dr Waters decided to take them to the US for carbon-dating. Word spread. A Trinidadian called a local radio station to say: "You'll be in big trouble if you disturb a native burial site. On your head be it." That was in June.

In July, Montserrat's Soufriere Hills volcano began rumbling and spewing and hasn't stopped since. The ancient inhabitants, many locals believe, had cast a curse on paradise island. Descendants of voodooist African slaves, persecuted Irish Catholics and seafaring English and Scottish adventurers, it is small wonder Montserratians are superstitious. They are quick to note that the island is the shape of a tear-drop.

On the night of 16-17 October 1989, Hurricane Hugo gave the island everything it had, destroying 90 per cent of homes and killing 12 people. But the talk among many was how Hugo had torn down the ancient tamarind tree at St Anthony's Church. It was under this tree that slaves who accompanied their white masters to church but who were barred from entering used to listen from afar and worship in their own way.

In the 17th century, after slaves had planned a dance on a sugar plantation, a white seamstress called Fanny Garvey told the masters that the slaves were planning a revolt. A slave named Harry Powson was singled out as ringleader and, despite proclaiming his innocence, was executed the following day. Hours later, the worst floods in memory hit the island, killing many, and known to this day as the Powson Flood. To "lie like Fanny Garvey" remains a common local expression.

Cursed, as some believe, or blessed, as Chief Minister Reuben Meade countered the other day, Montserrat is certainly magical. The biggest sign outside the little airport does not point you in the direction of Plymouth but says: "Don't ask why me live carefully."

Although Columbus spotted the island on 11 November 1493, he never landed but simply named it after Santa Maria de Monserrate abbey outside Barcelona and sailed on. It was Englishmen who first settled here in 1631 but the island was swamped by persecuted Irish Catholics fleeing Virginia and Catholics expelled by Cromwell, giving it a reputation as a Caribbean Catholic shrine and its modern billing as "the black Emerald Isle". The Irish were the vast majority of whites but the English always ruled.

St Patrick's Day is a national holiday but with a twist. On the eve of 17 March 1768 the slaves, knowing their masters would be imbibing heavily on the morn, planned a rebellion. They were rumbled and many executed on St Patrick's Day. In 1985 the then chief minister, John Osborne, pushed through the national holiday to honour the slaves, not the masters.

As to the airport, Mr Savage hopes to kill two birds with several sets of bones. The Amerindian burial site will be turned into a museum and the new airport arrival hall re-sited next to it in a joint project to attract more tourists.

The only extra cost the British taxpayer has to worry about is the rent the Governor is paying for use of a villa called Olveston House to its owner, the British record-producer George Martin. The Governor has been forced by the threatening volcano to move out of his own home and office in the abandoned capital.