Fifty years ago, the normally desolate and uneventful island of Montserrat was suddenly thrown into chaos. A popular downtown businessman had been assaulted by a non-national police officer and the locals were furious. Dozens surrounded the police headquarters and demanded justice. Insults and threats were hurled. So were bombs. Yes, actual bombs. A state of emergency was declared, the Defense Force was summoned, and a curfew was imposed.
The Emerald Isle was suddenly under siege.
When the mini-insurrection ended five days later, there were thankfully no casualties. But there were multiple injuries and serious damage, not just to property but to the relationship between the public and law enforcement.
The subject at the center of the incident was Peter “Red Poll” Howson, who hailed from Long Ground Village in eastern rural Montserrat but relocated to Plymouth as a teenager in the mid-1950s and became a town icon. Red Poll, nicknamed after the breed of cattle of the same name, was a food vendor, street peddler and consummate hustler. His Coconut Bar near the public market became a town staple. He cooked local dishes, including his trademark souse, and even sold apples from a push cart.
Red Poll (more commonly spelled “Red Pole”) endured many hardships. As a young man he almost died from fish poisoning. Layers of his skin were stripped away, his fingers became gnarled, and he was hospitalized for an extended period. But he recovered and persevered.
He even had a stint as a calypso singer. In fact he was one of the five pioneers who competed in the inaugural Festival calypso show in 1962. Although he didn’t take calypso seriously, he was Montserrat’s first unofficial Road March winner with his rendition of Sally Sally Water during the 1962 show.
On Saturday, April 12, 1969, Red Poll got into an altercation with Barbados-born Police Constable Carson Forde. The officer reportedly touched a young Montserrat woman inappropriately and Red Poll visited the station to ask why he did it.
“A lot of new recruits had come into the police force from the Windward Islands and there was jealousy among Montserrat men over them getting involved with the local girls,” said John Wilson, a longtime Plymouth shop owner. “The general public was on Red Poll’s side.”
Red Poll was beloved in the George Street community where he lived. Although not a saint, he was a generous and benevolent man. But he was also renowned for being outspoken so it was not surprising that he didn’t back down during the confrontation with Forde. The officer reportedly struck Red Poll with a bull pistle, a whip-like weapon made from the dried genital of a bull.
As news spread about the incident, a crowd gathered outside the station, which was located at the bottom of Harney Street, across from Her Majesty’s Prison and close to Fort Ghaut. Wilson, who was on hand for the gathering at the police station, says it was calm at first. Some in the crowd demanded that Forde step outside.
Suddenly, a group of officers – led by hulking Sergeant Paddy Lee, a Montserratian – emerged from the station decked in riot gear.
“They had huge shields and some long clubs,” Wilson said.
“Charge!” Lee told his officers, who approached the protesters and began swinging their batons. Several people were struck, many others ran, and that act of aggression transformed a once-peaceful demonstration into a powder keg. Making matters worse, Police Commissioner J.J. Vanterpool allegedly fired shots from a second-floor window of the station, striking two protesters in the arm.
As Saturday turned to Sunday, it appeared that tensions had calmed. But later in the evening, two loud explosions were heard coming from near the police station. It is believed that a protester lit two sticks of dynamite and threw them from the clandestine confines of Fort Ghaut into the police station yard. Explosives were easily accessible in those days because fishermen used them as a means of a quick catch. Dynamite was also used in construction to crush rocks.
There was some property damage at the station but no serious injuries. However, the authorities finally realized that the uprising was real. Other protesters threw chains atop the hanging electrical wires in town and short-circuited the system, knocking out electricity to entire grids in the Plymouth area. There were also reports of sporadic vandalism.
“A lot of new recruits had come into the police force from the Windward Islands and there was jealousy among Montserrat men over them getting involved with the local girls.”John Wilson, longtime Plymouth businessman
A state of emergency was declared by Administrator (Governor) Dennis Gibbs, the Defense Force was called in, and a curfew was imposed. News of the tumult reached to Britain, and the BBC broadcast a report on the incident, stating that it began with an altercation involving a man named “Red Pell”. The Royal Navy was deployed offshore just in case.
During the uprising, Joseph Lynch was a 26-year-old corporal in the Defense Force. He remembers patrolling during the 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew that began Monday, April 14, 1969.
“We had to guard the most vulnerable places such as Government House,” said Lynch, who eventually became a Major in the Montserrat Defense Force. “We had a lot of cooperation from the public. Sometimes in the middle of the night when they heard our boots coming they would come out of their house and give us coffee.”
The curfew was finally lifted on Thursday, April 17, 1969. The presence of the Defense Force had helped quell the insurgence. But that was because some of the agitators were actually members of the Defense Force, according to some insiders.
Forde, the officer who struck Red Poll, was subsequently issued a 21-day jail sentence and $300 fine following an extensive inquiry. About 90 percent of the police force threatened to resign over what they deemed an excessive punishment. Forde appealed, his sentence was later commuted and he made his way to Antigua under an assumed name, most likely with government assistance for his protection.
Many of the non-national officers eventually resigned and went back to their home countries or other islands in the region. The Royal Montserrat Police Force had to move quickly to supplement its losses. A group of Montserrat-born recruits were sent to Barbados for training. And a new crop of officers arrived from around the region.
For several reasons the Royal Montserrat Police Service has always been dominated by foreign officers. One former Montserrat-born police officer said some locals are reluctant to join the force because it’s sometimes awkward doling out discipline in a small community because of the close ties. Others say there used to be a stigma in Montserrat regarding police work. The pay was meager, and most policemen were recruited due to their brawn, not their brain.
In September of 2019 it was revealed that of the 74 current officers on the Montserrat police force, only 13 are local-born.
As for Red Poll, he continued his business following the riots. He was also a popular figure at Sturge Park during cricket matches and would invade the field, arms outstretched, to congratulate a local player’s achievement and hand him a monetary reward.
Red Poll relocated to the United Kingdom after the volcanic crisis in the late 1990s and settled in Leeds. He passed away in 2001.
Editor’s note: The original intent was to publish this story in April of 2019 on the actual 50th anniversary of the riot. But due to several circumstances, including the inability to obtain a decent photo of Red Poll, the publication was delayed.