One fateful day a pleasant city sitting beneath a dormant volcano was completely destroyed when the volatile peak rumbled to life. Sound familiar? Everyone knows the story of Pompeii in Italy, destroyed in AD 79 by Mount Vesuvius. But this was the city of Plymouth, Montserrat. The year: 1995.
You can explore ancient Pompeii in our photo essay below. But for the moment let’s stick with Plymouth, the capital of Montserrat, a British overseas territory in a chain of islands known as the Lesser Antilles.
Less than two decades ago, the Georgian-era capital of Plymouth was a pleasant place to live – a little British outpost complete with traditional red telephone boxes and a far more agreeable climate than the homeland. Originally named by Christopher Columbus on a visit to the island in 1493, Montserrat is known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean due to its similarity to coastal Ireland and the Irish descent of its inhabitants. Their capital may have been destroyed, but the good people of Montserrat still celebrate St Patrick’s Day in style – join them here.
The good life along the shores of the Caribbean Sea came to an end on July 18, 1995. On that fateful day, Soufriere Hills volcano – which had lain dormant thoughout recorded history – exploded in an eruption of titanic proportions that consumed Plymouth under 12 metres of mud and rendered the southern half of Montserrat uninhabitable.
The eruption forced over half Montserrat’s population to flee abroad due to economic disruption and lack of housing. Two years later, in 1997, 19 people died after being overtaken by a pyroclastic flow following another eruption. Since then, the volcano’s activities have been confined to venting ash into the uninhabited southern region. But this occasionally spreads to northern settlements. Buried cars and houses visible only by their roofs are a common site amid the ruins of Plymouth.
Soufriere Hills volcano erupted again on January 18, 2010, when pyroclastic flows – fast-moving currents of gas and molten rock travelling at up to 450 mph – reached the sea via Aymers Ghaut (above). Then, on February 5, 2010 another relentless explosion sent flows down several sides of the mountain, while on February 11, 2010 a partial collapse of the lava dome belched ash clouds over neighbouring islands Guadeloupe and Antigua. Ironically, the inhabited northern region of Montserrat remains largely undisturbed by the ash.
Today the lush green vegetation comprising most of Montserrat is a stark contrast to the ash ravaged badlands around Plymouth and the volcano itself (see top satelite image). A new airport in the north opened in 2008 to replace the original one buried in the 1995 eruption. While Plymouth was once the only port of entry to Montserrat, a dock has been built at Little Bay, where the island’s new capital is being constructed. The people of Montserrat were granted full UK citizenship in 2002.
A Photo Tour of Ancient Pompeii
(Image released into public domain – more information here)
The image above depicts the terrifying day in AD 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted near Pompeii. The result: an ancient city completely destroyed, buried by more than 60 feet of ash and pumice and lost to civilisation for more than 1,500 years. Now, after its accidental discovery in 1592, Pompeii has become a world heritage site, excavated by archeologists to reveal many of the treasures of its ancient Roman heritage. This photo essay shows Pompeii as it is today, with Vesuvius lurking menacingly in the background.
The excavation of Pompeii has provided critical insights into city life at the height of the Roman Empire. In 2007 alone, the site attracted 2,571,725 visitors. Its younger counterpart of Plymouth, however, has remained strictly off-limits to the public since the eruption of 1995. Perhaps one day, like Pompeii, the city will be excavated. And with any luck that day will be somewhat closer than 1,500 years away.