The Journal of Caribbean History: Volume 38, Issue 2

Article 2
A Business of Philanthropy: The Montserrat Company, 1856-1961

Alex Tyrrell


At a time when much of the population has fled it would be a pity if Montserrat were to be seen, in a recent historian’s words, as little more than a researcher’s “bonsai shrub” – “a nice case” of a tiny English colony that was’”run and peopled mostly by persons from Ireland” in the seventeenth century after which its history amounted to little more than a “long wind-down”. The purpose of this article is to show that the Quaker founders of the Montserrat Company set out to place this obscure colony in the forefront of a transition to modernity by using it as something like a laboratory where a humane version of nineteenth-century liberal theory could create a successful example of a free-market economy and society. For a time the Montserrat Company succeeded in making a commercial success of its business of philanthropy, but it failed to transform the colony by these means. The heavy hand of history and geography was not so easily lifted: opportunities for personal improvement were severely limited on a small and in many respects inhospitable island. To the extent that the Montserrat Company succeeded in its cultural task, all too often the unlooked for results were a brain-drain of the young, educated and ambitious. During the 1950s, when the economy of the island and the company experienced rapid decline, it was all too easy for observers to lapse into language reminiscent of stereotypes created by Thomas Carlyle and others who had deplored what they saw as the inevitable consequences of departing from the discipline of slavery.