History of the
was not the first man to set eyes on the British Virgin Islands -
Amerindians from South America were - some 2,500 years earlier. Recent
archaeological studies have concluded that there were plenty of Indians
living on these shores before the Europeans arrived. As many as 20,000
may have lived on the major islands, with large communities and
artifacts suggesting they were, by the time Columbus arrived, a
developed agrarian society with a complex set of farming &
techniques, house construction and cultural rituals. The arrival of
Columbus on his second expedition in 1493 marked the beginning of the
end for the Indians. The initial Spanish settlers brought with them
disease and slavery - shipping many of the Indians off to what is now
the Dominican Republic to work in the mines. Many died of European
diseases - smallpox and flu were common killers - also from working
The Virgin Islands (both U.S. and British) were
named by Columbus after the 11,000 beautiful virgin followers of St.
Ursula - all of whom, apparently whilst on a rather innocent pilgrimage
to Cologne, met their deaths at the hands of some over-zealous Huns.
Ironically, the Virgin Islands attracted a wave of Renaissance thugs,
called pirates. The numerous small islands (in the BVIs alone there are
33) were ideal for concealment and stashing booty. But the islands
attracted all sorts actually - from the Honourable Sir Francis Drake to
the rather less principled Blackbeard. The English, Dutch, French,
Spanish and Danish all jostled for control of the islands for the next
two hundred years; the final act seeing the English oust the Dutch and
gaining a permanent foothold in Virgin Gorda and Tortola.
1600's England ended up with the BVIs and the Dutch had the other
Virgin Islands (St. John, St. Thomas, St. Croix). The BVIs were more
strategic than anything else but were planted when economic conditions
were particularly favourable. The Dutch decided in 1917 that it was
best to sell their lot to the Americans for US$17 million.
Economically, this appears to have worked out rather well. The US
Virgin Islands (as they were then renamed) have become bustling, busy
places with a clearly americanised commercial bent and feel. The BVIs
have become, by comparison, the quiet neighbours.
advent of tourism in the Caribbean, the BVIs have developed as a centre
for those cruising around in yachts - numerous marinas and
marine-related businesses attest to this. A kind of understated,
sophisticated charm, pervades the islands although the prosperity of
the USVIs has seen a leaning in that direction with the US$ Dollar
being the accepted currency. However the appeal of these islands is
timeless: a wonderful climate, unspoiled, sheltered and ideally suited
for exploration by boat. Today the same coves and bays that once saw
the likes of Columbus, Sir Francis Drake and the infamous pirate Henry
Morgan (aka Blackbeard) provide refuge to a flotilla of modern day
explorers who have come to discover, once again, the British Virgin
A Millennium of History in the Virgin Islands
people who inhabited the Virgin Islands during the last millenium saw
vast changes in their social condition, from the rural culture of the
Amerindians to the era of information technology. Communications and
information that took eight weeks to cross the seas became available to
the common man in eight seconds. Politically, they progressed from the
rule of absolute monarchy to government by parliamentary principle.
Here are a few landmarks in that millenium.
pre-Columbian artifacts indicate that there were Arawaks settled in the
islands in 400 BC. They lived a peaceful, rural life for 1,400 years
until their settlements were overwhelmed by the nomadic Carib Indians,
at the end of the 14th century.
||In 1493, Christopher Columbus, exploring for new
mineral wealth, discovered the islands and claimed them for Spain. It
was evident that there was copper on Virgin Gorda. The Carib indians
were so antagonistic and defended their territory so fiercely that,
||in 1550, Charles V of Spain decreed that they
treated as enemies and they were exterminated. The Spanish, continuing
their explorations, discovered the bounty of South America and
abandoned the islands, which were left uninhabited for the last half of
the 16th. century.
||The sovereigns of Holland, England, and France
interested in the wealth being acquired by Spain, and their
representatives sailed through the waters of the islands on their way
to harrass Spanish possessions and capture the Spanish treasure ships.
One of those representatives was Sir Francis Drake, who passed through
in 1585. The archipelago of the West Indies was becoming increasingly
important as the New World was being opened up, and formal claims of
possession were made on all the islands.
||In 1621, the Dutch made Tortola their base and
spasmodic attacks from Spain, who still considered the islands to be
theirs, persisted in their occupation and built a fort there. During
their tenure, the islands became a haven for buccaneers.
||Charles 1 of England issued letters of patent and
a grant of
ownership of the islands to the Earl of Carlisle in 1625; however, no
attempt was made to occupy the islands because England was colonising
the larger islands of Barbados, St.Christopher, Nevis, Montserrat and
Antigua, and, these were proving very profitable. Those islands
eventually united to become the Colony of the Leeward Islands.
||Spain, weakened by aggression, agreed, in 1648,
all the Dutch colonies in the West Indies,
||but in 1665, on the outbreak of war between
Holland, Captain John Wentworth attacked the islands and the Dutch lost
||In 1666, the islands were formally annexed by
England to the
government of the Leeward Islands, and came under some measure of civic
||English planters from Anguilla began to settle on
Gorda and Tortola in 1680. The islands became productive, sending
sugar, rum and cotton to England. No taxes were levied.
||By 1690, Virgin Gorda had fourteen planters, with
families and slaves, growing cotton. There was a settlement on Tortola,
but the island was considered of little value, except for smuggling.
The settlers hold on their land was tenuous, and they lived in constant
threat of invasion by the Spanish. The islands were proving difficult
to defend and were still accommodating smugglers and privateers.
||In 1707, Captain John Walton was appointed the
lieutenant governor of the islands,
||and by 1717, records show 317 white people on
and 159 on Tortola, along with families and slaves. The islands were
considered a liability, harbouring lawless elements. England wanted to
re-settle the inhabitants in St.Kitts.
||saw the beginning of religious influence on the
population, with the establishment of a small Quaker community.
||James Purcell became the lieutenant governor in
1741. He was
the first person to raise with England the question of a civil
government in the Virgin Islands, but his efforts were to no avail.
||It was not until 1773 that the principle of
was introduced. The islanders petitioned the Governor in Chief of the
Leeward Islands that they have a civil government and constitutional
courts of justice. The people wanted to solicit taxes for the building
of churches and jails, and to pay clergymen. In return for civil
concessions, they promised to pay 4 1/2 % of value on each
hundredweight of goods produced on the islands. That year, the King
declared that an Assembly could be convened, and the islands had their
first House of Representatives, consisting of eleven members.
||From 1775 to 1783, during the American war of
the prosperity of the islands increased considerably. Not only were
British naval and merchant ships making use of the huge harbour of
Tortola, but the islanders were active in privateering.
||saw the advent of the first Methodist
missionaries to the
islands. At this time, the estimated inhabitants of the islands was
4,000, including slaves. The influence of the Christian religion has
remained strong to this day.
||The start of the Napoleonic wars, in 1793, again
increased maritime activity and prosperity. As many as two hundred and
sixty ships would assemble in the protected harbour and roadstead of
||Tortola was declared a free port in 1802.
||In 1807, Britain abolished the slave trade.
||With the coming of peace in 1815, and trade in
sugar declining, the islands fell on hard times and, again, smuggling
became a major industry.
||In 1831, full rights of British subjects were
devolved by law
on the free blacks,
||and the Emancipation Act of 1834 resulted in the
collapse of the plantation economy. At this time, there was an
estimated population of 5,500.
|devastating hurricanes destroyed the remaining
and civic buildings and records.
||Crown Colony government was adopted in 1867. The
was reconstituted with six non-elected members, three ex-officio, and
three nominated members.
||In 1871, the Federation of the Leeward Islands
||In 1902, the power of legislation for the colony
transferred to the Federal Government of the Leeward Islands. The civil
administration was the responsibility of the Commissioner assisted by
the executive council, which acted as an advisory body. The Executive
Council consisted of two official and two non-official members. It was
the Executive Council that formed the nucleus for the eventual
reconstitution of legislative government in the Virgin Islands, as it
became more influential and politically sophisticated.
||In 1938, the Civil League was formed that
petitioned for the
reinstitution of an elected legislature, but no action was taken on
this because of the weak financial situation of the islands and the
advent of World War 11.
||The Legislative Council was restored in 1950. It
eight members, two ex-officio, two nominated, and four elected members,
with the Commissioner serving as President. Property and literacy
qualifications were imposed and only British males over the age of
twenty-one years could vote. The islands still remained part of the
Leeward Islands Federation.
||In 1953, The Hotel Incentive Ordinance was
passed, which was
the first step in promoting the islands as a tourist destination with
||A new Constitution was brought into effect in
gave universal suffrage to all British subjects over the age of
twenty-one, without property or literacy qualifications. The
Legislative Council consisted of six elected members, two ex-officio
members, and three official members, with the Administrator as
President of the Council.
||The Federation of the Leeward Islands was
abolished in 1956
||and the Federation of the West Indies was created
however, the Virgin Islands declined to become a member, as it was
reluctant to relinquish any of its newly gained powers.
||In 1960, all constitutional ties with the Leeward
were removed, and the British Virgin Islands stood alone as a separate
colony, directly responsible to Her Majesty's Secretary of State.
||In 1964, further
constitutional reform gave members more initiative in the colony's
affairs. The ministerial system was introduced. Legislative Council
consisted of seven elected and three non-elected members. Executive
Council, the advisory body, consisted of three elected and two
non-elected members. The Administrator remained Head of Government and
was responsible for Finance, Law and Order, External Affairs and the
||In 1969, the yacht chartering business began, and
now become a major industry.
||In 1970, the Administrator became known as the
seeking and acting on the advice of the Executive Council.
||Further constitutional reforms, in 1979, lowered
age to eighteen, and increased the elected members of the Council to
||saw the introduction of the Social Services
providing basic social security benefits to all who contributed to the
scheme. The census of that year showed a population of 12,034.
||The British Nationality Act of 1981 made British
Islanders citizens of a British Dependent Territory.
||With the passing of the International Business
in 1984, the off-shore financial businesses began to take advantage of
the tax and asset protection benefits offered.
||Following the unrest in Panama, in 1988, the
social stability of the islands, along with the security measures in
place to deter illegal operations, encouraged an influx of Trust
companies, with registration of thousands of international business
companies. These have become a large source of revenue and employment
to the local community.
||saw the arrival of the first cruise ship in
||was the year in which the cruise ship dock, since
came into operation. This has exposed the islands as a desirable
tourist destination to many thousands of visitors.
||In 1990, the H.Lavity Stoutt Community College
This provides a wide range of tertiary education to all members of the
||The 1991 census showed a population of 16,115.
||In 1998, a revised Constitution provided more
representation. The number of members of the Legislative Council was
increased to thirteen, with nine district members, and four
||Further constitutional change in 2000 increased
the number of
ministers to five. The Government has been determined in its efforts to
increase the prosperity of the islands and the well being of its
people. By providing and improving the necessary infrastructures, it
has brought the people of the Virgin Islands into the second millenium
ready to take full advantage of the era of information technology.