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Dorlene Brown, left, and Jay Shaw in London in July 2023. The sisters met in person for the first time. (Family Photo)

Montserrat’s Heritage Remains a Unifying Force

(The print version of the magazine contains an error in the printing of this feature, and we wanted you to have an opportunity to read it as it was intended. The digital version has been corrected.)

By Edwin Martin

Interest in island’s culture and history is soaring, and technology has helped connect families.

Dorlene Browne never knew her father. She was still in the womb when he died under mysterious circumstances in 1969 in Nevis, where Dorlene was born. Growing up, all her Nevisian mother told her was that her dad’s name was John Fenton and that he hailed from Baker Hill in Montserrat.

Montserrat is a mere 38 miles east of Nevis, but for Dorlene it was a light year away because she knew nothing about her dad’s background. “As I got older I felt like part of my life was missing,” she says. “My father’s side of the family was out there but I had no clue who they were or where they were.”

In 2021 during the midst of COVID, Dorlene was at a crossroads. Not only was she interested in finding out about her father’s heritage, she wanted to obtain a British passport, which she is entitled to as the child of a Montserratian. But she first had to produce vital details about her father.

While surfing Facebook, Dorlene came across a page called Montserrat Genealogy Research Community. On a whim, she submitted a question asking if anyone knew John Fenton of Baker Hill. One of the group members contacted a longtime resident of the Baker Hill area whose surname is Fenton. The group member figured that in tight-knit Montserrat, the odds of a connection would be high.

The resident not only knew John Fenton – who left Montserrat in the 1950s for Curacao and later settled in Nevis – but he helped Dorlene connect with several members of her father’s family, including Dorlene’s elder sister Jay, whom she had heard about but never met.

The newly-found siblings connected via FaceTime and hit it off right away. They exchanged family stories, and Jay, who was born in Montserrat but left at age 8, told Dorlene about meeting their dad only once – during a trip to Nevis in 1968. In July of 2023, the sisters finally met in person while in London.

“I was so happy to connect with my sister,” Dorlene says. “I love her so much.”

Jay was equally happy to meet her baby sister. “Dorlene is very nice and upstanding. Thank God we got to know each other.”

On an interesting side note, Jay grew up in Providence Estate in Montserrat with her maternal grandmother. She migrated to Antigua, then to New York. Providence would later gain fame when it was leased by music legend Paul McCartney, who lived there with his family while he recorded at Air Studios, including the No. 1 song Ebony and Ivory with Stevie Wonder.

While the sisters were in London, Dorlene also got to meet other members of her father’s family, including her dad’s 89-year-old sister.

Dorlene’s story is part of a Montserrat genealogical movement that has taken place in the past decade. The Soufriere Hills volcano depleted the island of its population, livable space and capital, but not even the worst natural disaster can rob a nation of its history. Montserratians in the diaspora, especially those born overseas, have flocked to websites such as My Heritage and Ancestry, plus DNA testing companies such 23andMe, to study their roots.

Second- and third-generation Montserratians are seeking answers that their families can’t provide. They’re creating family trees and even visiting Montserrat to learn more about their ancestors. The Montserrat Genealogical Community on Facebook has seen an uptick of members trying to locate loved ones. As of February 2024, the page had 751 members.

Collin Meade is Registrar at the Montserrat Supreme Court, where birth, death and marriage records are archived. “We’re getting calls from around the region,” he says. “Part of the reason is because the British Nationality Act was amended last year so that you can get citizenship through a grandparent. It used to be only through a parent.”

Sarita Francis, director of the Montserrat National Trust, says her organization has seen an increase of people requesting ancestral information. The National Trust’s vast archives include slavery records dating back to 1817.

Dorlene plans to visit Montserrat in 2024 in hopes of acquiring her father’s birth certificate. She recently obtained his death certificate in Nevis after a long search, and although that document doesn’t list his date of birth, it reveals his age at time of death. That gives Dorlene a time window for which to search for his birth record.

“I was robbed of a father figure growing up and I think that had an impact on my life,” Dorlene says. “Connecting with his family has brought settlement to my heart and my spirit.”