Montserrat has garnered international exposure the past 25 years due to its infamous volcano. But in the 1970s — before cable, cellphones and the Internet — the island was still obscure on the world stage. Thus, whenever a famous face graced the shores of the Emerald Isle it was huge news.
In October of 1977, a local promoter reached an agreement with Jamaican reggae singer Eric Donaldson to perform two shows. Donaldson was not as famous as contemporaries Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, but he was very popular in the Eastern Caribbean and Virgin Islands. His hit songs included Cherry Oh Baby, Keep on Riding, Sweet Jamaica and I Think I Love You. Booking him for a concert in little Montserrat was a big deal.
The first show (Friday, October 21) drew a sold-out crowd to Shamrock Cinema. Word spread quickly about Donaldson’s performance, and the Saturday show was suddenly the hottest ticket in town. Radio Montserrat had been playing Donaldson’s songs on a steady rotation all week and the hype had reached a crescendo.
“Everyone was talking about going to the Saturday show,” said former Plymouth resident Hubert “Ned” French, who now lives in Florida.
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
After the Friday night show, Donaldson returned to his room at the Letts guest house near the cinema. Police received a tip that a woman procured marijuana from nearby George Street and delivered it to Donaldson’s room. An officer visited the home of Magistrate Godfrey Persaud late that night and obtained a search warrant. Donaldson’s room was searched around 6 a.m. Saturday, and the marijuana was found. He was arrested and charged.
Reached on June 16, 2020, at his home in Kent Village in St. Catherine, Jamaica, Donaldson says he remembers the incident well. “They set me up,” he says. “They deliberately set me up.”
The Montserrat Mirror reported that Donaldson appeared in court later that Saturday morning without counsel. Attorney General John Stanley Weekes recommended to the Magistrate that Donaldson be fined EC $960, issued a deportation order and be declared a prohibited immigrant. “People who come to our land must be prepared to respect our laws,” Weekes declared, according to the Mirror.
Donaldson, who faced six months in jail if he didn’t pay the fine, pleaded guilty but was somewhat defiant. “I am a very religious man,” he told the Court. “I have a Bible, and I read that Bible every day. And that Bible tells me herb is good.” Donaldson then referred the Magistrate to Psalm 104.
A large crowd gathered outside the courthouse as news of Donaldson’s arrest spread. There was even fear of a riot. After the proceedings, Donaldson was escorted out the back of the courthouse. The Magistrate ordered that he be deported “on the first available plane.”
Meanwhile, many on the island – especially in the country – were unaware of the arrest. So later that evening, busloads of fans arrived in town expecting to attend the show. Needless to say their disappointment was palpable.
The promoter ended up paying Donaldson’s deportation order of EC $517. He stated many years later on social media that he lost about $16,000 total due to the cancellation of the second show.
Today, many countries have decriminalized marijuana laws or legalized the drug altogether, but cannabis remains illegal in Montserrat. There is not even a provision for medicinal marijuana. In retrospect Donaldson’s arrest seems like a severe overreaction, but it was normal for the time.
French, who said Donaldson gave an excellent performance the Friday night, had planned to attend the Saturday show as well. But he sees a silver lining in the cancellation.
“Maybe this was God’s work,” he said, “because I don’t know how [the venue] would have been able to hold all those people who were planning to attend that show Saturday night. Who knows, maybe something bad would have happened.”
“There’s no hard feelings. I was actually supposed to go back there before the volcano erupted. I would go back right now if they want me.”Eric Donaldson, on performing in Montserrat
Donaldson is still performing at age 73. He says he recently had to cancel a show in St. Vincent because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But he says he would be willing to return to Montserrat in the future and perform.
“There’s no hard feelings,” he said. “I was actually supposed to go back there before the volcano erupted. I would go back right now if they want me.”
Asked if he is happy that many countries have legalized marijuana since his unfortunate experience in Montserrat, Donaldson said: “Well, to tell you the truth it doesn’t really matter. It was always legal to me.”
"Mr. Festival"Eric Donaldson has won the Festival Song competition in Jamaica a record seven times:
|1971||Cherry Oh Baby|
|1978||Land of My Birth|
|1984||Proud to be Jamaican|
|1993||Big it Up|
|1995||Join the Line|
|1997||Peace and Love|