Situated at 16° 45′ N and 62° 10′ W , Montserrat has an area of 103 sq km (40 sq mi). The island, which lies between Nevis and Guadeloupe, about 43 km (27 mi) southeast of Antigua, has a mountainous terrain, with two peaks rising higher than 900 m (3,000 ft). Montserrat is wholly volcanic in origin, and there are seven active volcanoes. Mean temperatures range from a minimum of 23° C (73° F ) to a maximum of 31° C (88° F ); June–November, the hurricane season, is the warmest time of the year, and December–March is the coolest. There is no clearly defined rainy season, although rainfall tends to be more abundant during the second half of the year; the annual average is 157 cm (62 in).
In mid-2002, an estimated 8,437 people lived on the island, down from 12,853 in 1998. After the island's volcano became active in 1995, an estimated 8,000 refugees left the island. Since then, the British government has developed three contingency plans concerning the population, depending on the amount of the volcano's destruction: moving the southern population to the north; total evacuation to neighboring islands (Antigua and Barbuda and Guadeloupe); and permanent settlement elsewhere should the island become uninhabitable. When destructive pyroclastic lava flows came in mid-1997, much of Montserrat's population was evacuated to the northern tip of the island, and about half of the population left the island.
Most residents of Montserrat are of African ancestry. Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, and Pentecostals make up the great majority of the population. English, the official language, is spoken in an island patois. Montserrat has about 269 km (168 mi) of highways, about 203 km (127 mi) of which are paved. Blackburne Airport, about 15 km (9 mi) from the capital, has a surfaced runway of 1,030 m (3,380 ft), which opened to traffic in 1967. Montserrat Aviation Services, in cooperation with Leeward Islands Air Transport (LIAT), maintains regular flights to and from Antigua, Nevis, and St. Kitts.
Christopher Columbus, who sighted the island in November 1493, gave it the name Montserrat because its rugged terrain reminded him of the site of the Abbey of Montserrat in the Spanish highlands near Barcelona. English and Irish colonists from St. Kitts settled on the island in 1632, and the first African slaves arrived 32 years later. Throughout the 18th century, the British and French warred for possession of Montserrat, which was finally confirmed as a British possession by the Treaty of Versailles (1783). By the early 19th century, Montserrat had a plantation economy, but the abolition of slavery in 1834, the elimination of the apprentice system, the declining market for sugar, and a series of natural disasters brought the downfall of the sugar estates. In the mid-19th century, Joseph Sturge of Birmingham, England, organized a company that bought up the abandoned estates, planted them with limes (a product for which Montserrat is still famous), and sold plots of land to small farmers. From 1871 to 1956, Montserrat formed part of the Federation of the Leeward Islands, and after two years as a separate colony it became part of the Federation of the West Indies (1958–62). Since the breakup of the Federation, Montserrat has been separately administered, under a constitution effective 1 January 1960.
The crown is represented by an appointed governor, who presides over an Executive Council structured like that of Anguilla. There is also a Legislative Council which, like Anguilla's, includes two appointed members. In 2001, the number of elected members of the legislature was expanded from seven to nine; the attorney general and financial secretary serve as ex-officio members. Suffrage is universal at age 18. The legislators serve terms of up to five years. In elections held in April 2001, the New People's Liberation Movement, led by John A. Osborne, won seven seats and the National Progressive Democratic Party led by Reuben T. Meade won two seats. Montserrat's judicial system consists of a magistrate's court and a Court of Summary Jurisdiction; appeals are to the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court on St. Lucia.
Prior to the resumption of volcanic activity in the mid-1990s, tourism accounted for about one-fourth of the annual GDP; the island had some 17,000 visitors in 1992. Important crops include cabbages, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. Exports include electronic components, plastic bags, apparel, hot peppers, live plants, and cattle. Montserrat uses the East Caribbean dollar. In 1990, GDP was US $31 million. Exports in 1998 were US $1.5 million; imports, chiefly of machinery and transportation equipment, foodstuffs, manufactured goods, fuels, lubricants, and related materials totaled some US $26 million.
The principal health facility is a 67-bed general hospital maintained by the government; provisions for social welfare include a family planning association and an old people's welfare association. Free dental care is provided by the government for all schoolchildren, elderly persons, and expectant or nursing mothers. Education is free and compulsory up to age 14. The government maintains 15 schools: 1 infant school (ages 5–7), 9 primary schools (ages 5–12), 2 all-age schools (ages 5–15), and 3 secondary schools (ages 10–19). As of 1998, radio service was provided by one AM and two FM stations, including the government-owned Radio Montserrat, and Radio Antilles and Gem; one television service is provided by relay from elsewhere in the Caribbean and transmitted locally by Antilles Television and cable stations. There are two weekly newspapers, the Montserrat Times and the Montserrat Reporter .