Directory of the British Virgin Islands
ReservationsBVI.com


Hurricanes and Hangovers and Other Tall Tales and Loose Lies from the Coconut Telegraph by Dear Miss Mermaid
Page Loading...
British Virgin Islands Alive Guide (Alive Guides Series) (Paperback)
British Virgin Islands Alive Guide (Alive Guides Series) (Paperback)
by Harriet Greenberg, Douglas Greenberg
Caribbean Cruising: Your Guide to the Perfect Sailing Holiday
Caribbean Cruising: Your Guide to the Perfect Sailing Holiday
Yachtman's Guide to the Virgin Islands
Yachtman's Guide to the Virgin Islands
DIVING & SNORKELING BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
DIVING & SNORKELING
BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS

Virgin Island Anchorages
Virgin Anchorages
tricks of the trades
Tricks of the Trades

History of the British Virgin Islands


Columbus 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 & fishing 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 inhumanly hard.

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.

By the 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.

With the 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 Islands.
A Millennium of History in the Virgin Islands

The 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.

Carbon dating of 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.

1493 In 1493, Christopher Columbus, exploring for new lands and 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,
1550 in 1550, Charles V of Spain decreed that they should be 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.
1585 The sovereigns of Holland, England, and France became very 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.
1621 In 1621, the Dutch made Tortola their base and despite 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.
1625 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.
1684 Spain, weakened by aggression, agreed, in 1648, to recognise all the Dutch colonies in the West Indies,
1665 but in 1665, on the outbreak of war between England and Holland, Captain John Wentworth attacked the islands and the Dutch lost their foothold.
1666 In 1666, the islands were formally annexed by England to the government of the Leeward Islands, and came under some measure of civic control.
1680 English planters from Anguilla began to settle on Virgin Gorda and Tortola in 1680. The islands became productive, sending sugar, rum and cotton to England. No taxes were levied.
1690 By 1690, Virgin Gorda had fourteen planters, with their 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.
1707 In 1707, Captain John Walton was appointed the first lieutenant governor of the islands,
1717 and by 1717, records show 317 white people on Virgin Gorda 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.
1720 saw the beginning of religious influence on the island population, with the establishment of a small Quaker community.
1741 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.
1773 It was not until 1773 that the principle of representation 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.
1775 From 1775 to 1783, during the American war of Independence, 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.
1789 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.
1793 The start of the Napoleonic wars, in 1793, again brought increased maritime activity and prosperity. As many as two hundred and sixty ships would assemble in the protected harbour and roadstead of Tortola.
1802 Tortola was declared a free port in 1802.
1807 In 1807, Britain abolished the slave trade.
1815 With the coming of peace in 1815, and trade in cotton and sugar declining, the islands fell on hard times and, again, smuggling became a major industry.
1831 In 1831, full rights of British subjects were devolved by law on the free blacks,
1834 and the Emancipation Act of 1834 resulted in the final collapse of the plantation economy. At this time, there was an estimated population of 5,500.
1837
1842
devastating hurricanes destroyed the remaining sugar works, and civic buildings and records.
1867 Crown Colony government was adopted in 1867. The Legislature was reconstituted with six non-elected members, three ex-officio, and three nominated members.
1871 In 1871, the Federation of the Leeward Islands was created.
1902 In 1902, the power of legislation for the colony was 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.
1938 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.
1950 The Legislative Council was restored in 1950. It consisted of 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.
1953 In 1953, The Hotel Incentive Ordinance was passed, which was the first step in promoting the islands as a tourist destination with quality hotels.
1954 A new Constitution was brought into effect in 1954, which 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.
1956 The Federation of the Leeward Islands was abolished in 1956
1958 and the Federation of the West Indies was created in 1958; however, the Virgin Islands declined to become a member, as it was reluctant to relinquish any of its newly gained powers.
1960 In 1960, all constitutional ties with the Leeward Islands were removed, and the British Virgin Islands stood alone as a separate colony, directly responsible to Her Majesty's Secretary of State.
1964 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 Civil Service.
1969 In 1969, the yacht chartering business began, and this has now become a major industry.
1970 In 1970, the Administrator became known as the Governor, seeking and acting on the advice of the Executive Council.
1979 Further constitutional reforms, in 1979, lowered the voting age to eighteen, and increased the elected members of the Council to nine.
1980 saw the introduction of the Social Services Ordinance, providing basic social security benefits to all who contributed to the scheme. The census of that year showed a population of 12,034.
1981 The British Nationality Act of 1981 made British Virgin Islanders citizens of a British Dependent Territory.
1984 With the passing of the International Business Companies Act, in 1984, the off-shore financial businesses began to take advantage of the tax and asset protection benefits offered.
1988 Following the unrest in Panama, in 1988, the economic and 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.
1986 saw the arrival of the first cruise ship in island waters.
1994 was the year in which the cruise ship dock, since extended, came into operation. This has exposed the islands as a desirable tourist destination to many thousands of visitors.
1990 In 1990, the H.Lavity Stoutt Community College was opened. This provides a wide range of tertiary education to all members of the community.
1991 The 1991 census showed a population of 16,115.
1998 In 1998, a revised Constitution provided more equitable representation. The number of members of the Legislative Council was increased to thirteen, with nine district members, and four Territorial-at-large members.
2000 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.

TOP OF PAGE