PhD Student, Falling Through the Net Cluster
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
Saphia Fleury reflects on the changes that had to be made to her research methodology as a result of Covid-19 and the questions this raised.
The ink was barely dry on my ethics approval form when the first Covid lockdown was announced. Overnight, my research plan – which involved extensive travel and face-to-face interviews with migrants and practitioners – became about as feasible as a voyage to the Moon. The focus of my investigation was the experiences of children during and after the volcanic eruptions on Montserrat. There was so little information about this period in the archives that conducting interviews with former evacuees had appeared to be the only possible methodology.
Covid forced me to turn the problem on its head and ask why the archival information was so scant. Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory, and its volcanic catastrophe took place less than 30 years ago. Around half of the island’s population had migrated to the UK in the later 1990s – up to 5,000 people. Why, then, did British repositories hold so little evidence as to the nature and impacts of the disaster? I am not a historian by training, but my background is in investigative human rights research. I approached the problem as a detective would, casting the net wide to gather all the extant evidence of what happened on the island during the volcanic crisis. This involved extensive scanning of diverse sources including Hansard, newspaper archives, scientific records, government evaluations and Select Committee hearings, MPs’ correspondence, orders of service for memorial events, children’s poetry, and even self-published autobiographical accounts of the disaster.
I became suspicious when my efforts were frequently thwarted. Key records were missing, or responses to Freedom of Information requests suggested they had never existed to begin with. Even lists of the names of the dead were inconsistent; sources could not agree on who had perished in the disaster. It struck me that this confusion over the identities of the deceased would be unthinkable had the crisis taken place on the British mainland. Following the Kings Cross fire in London in 1987, the British Transport Police spent 16 years conducting painstaking investigations to uncover the identity of the 31st victim. By contrast, the lack of a definitive record of events surrounding the deaths on Montserrat symbolised, for me, a lack of executive interest in the victims of the catastrophe, both living and dead.
This feeling was borne out by my unsuccessful requests to government ministries for official statistics on the numbers evacuated. A former UK Government employee involved in the emergency response on Montserrat helped me to explain the gaps in the statistics, stating that s/he had personally recorded the change in population using information from landing and departure forms:
“From this data it was possible to track the downward movement of the resident population and also small upward trends when Montserratians returned in order to enlist on the government Help schemes for migration to other islands or UK. Nobody requested this information and indeed no-one acknowledged it either. It was distributed to the Governor’s Office, Chief Minister, DFID [UK Department for International Development] and [my] immediate boss in London”. (Anonymous interviewee)
In spite of their efforts, the information recorded by this individual did not appear in any of the official documents I uncovered. I was forced to conclude that poor record-keeping, including failure to record reported figures, stemmed from a combination of disinterest, ineptitude, and possibly also an attempt to hide certain facts from examination, despite, in some cases, the best efforts of civil servants to keep records. A serious charge, yes, but one upheld by further frustrating attempts to uncover the facts. Instead, I pieced together a picture of the evacuation from snippets of information in around a dozen disparate sources. To this day, it appears that nobody knows the true number, or ultimate destinations, of those evacuated.
Image: Island of Montserrat
Crucial to my research was an Evaluation Report commissioned by DFID in 1999 to evaluate the UK Government’s response to the crisis. Volume I of the Evaluation Report is available online. Volume II, however, was redacted from the online version; only its contents page remained visible. I made three separate requests to DFID, the Home Office, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the redacted information. On each occasion I was told that Volume II was not available. I traced a retired civil servant who was listed in Volume I as having been interviewed for the evaluation. They provided an ISBN number for Volume II, from a photocopy of the back cover of the report in their personal files. This allowed me to call up a copy from the British Library’s Boston Spa repository. It was unredacted. A query to the British Library research service confirmed that I was the first person to request the item, meaning it had not been previously viewed by researchers. It remains unclear to me why Volume II was redacted from the publicly available Evaluation Report, or why the government departments mentioned were unable or unwilling to provide a copy. Interestingly though, the findings of Volume II on the official response were highly critical of both the UK and Montserrat governments. Is this why they were withheld? Or was the omission accidental?
A further piece in the puzzle, which took some eighteen months to trace, was the conclusions to the Coroner’s Inquest report into the volcano deaths. I made numerous requests through official channels to government departments and officials, both on Montserrat and in the UK, to access the full report. Most of these were completely ignored. I also contacted numerous individuals, including the former Premier, Governor and Coroner of Montserrat. None were able to track down a copy. The Coroner’s concluding remarks were eventually provided via a further FoI request to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), which took five months to fulfil while officials ‘reached a decision on where the balance of the public interest lies’. My attempts to access the report in its entirety, which reportedly runs to several hundred pages and includes lengthy evidence and witness testimony, has thus far proved futile. The former Coroner who conducted the Inquest expressed to me his surprise that the report was not publicly available, since: ‘one of the purposes of Inquests is to make recommendations to avoid untimely deaths in future [so] their conclusions are meant to be available to all to read’.
Additional records documenting the evacuation and resettlement of Montserratians, held at the National Archives and Bishopsgate Institute, were opened to the public following further requests which I made in 2021. They had previously been closed to scrutiny.
Image: National Archives, Kew, UK.
The unusual lengths to which I had to go to trace documents related to this study are indicative of the elusiveness of information relating to Montserrat and the volcanic crisis, which suggests at best a deprioritisation of Montserrat by the UK authorities, and at worst a deliberate cover-up of policy decisions towards Montserrat. More positively, the success I eventually had in tracing these records is due to the many helpful individuals who assisted me, both in the UK and Montserrat.
Bringing these varied sources together for the first time allows a new story to be told about the evacuation of Montserrat, one which has remained hidden for almost three decades. The voices of the evacuees are still largely excluded, making this an incomplete picture. Nevertheless, it is thanks to the restrictions imposed on my primary research by Covid that the public now has access to a broader range of materials to aid future investigations into a significant period in Montserrat’s – and Britain’s – history.