British Virgin Islands History
|Christopher Columbus is said
to have discovered the Virgin Islands in 1493, but in truth,
it was inhabited 3,000 years prior. The Arawak Indians from
Venezuela are said to have crossed the ocean in dugout canoes
with sails. The nomadic Ciboney Indians from South America remained
on the Virgin Islands for about 500 years until the cannibal
Carib Indians arrived in the 15th century. The remaining tribes
were eventually wiped out after European settlers infiltrated
Columbus underwent his second voyage to the New World in 1493.
Sponsored by Spain, the country laid its claim to the islands after
the “discovery,” but never bothered to colonize on them.
European powers capitalized on Spain’s lack of interest in
colonizing and several battles ensued between the English, Spanish,
Dutch and French.
The English first tucked the ever-important Tortola into its empire,
but it wasn’t until 1672 when they officially gained control
from the Dutch the archipelago now known as the British Virgin Islands.
Around this time, the Virgin Islands as a whole became known for
their bustling slave trades. Some historians agree that nearly 250,000
slaves were sent from the islands to other locations with many being
sold to America’s south. The British eventually freed 5,133
slaves in 1834.
In the 1820s, the economic boom ignited by the sugar cane plantations
came to a halt. Cuba practically took over the sugar market in the
Caribbean thereby bankrupting many plantations in the Virgin Islands.
This caused Great Britain to lose interest in the British Virgin
Islands and they were transferred to the loosely administered Federation
of the Leeward Islands in 1872.
After much courting, the United States finally gained full control
of the area now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1917 after purchasing
it from the Dutch. The neighboring British Virgin Islands, however,
remained under control of the Leeward Islands Federation until 1956.
The Queen’s visit to the remote colony in 1966 helped revive
Britain’s interest in the British Virgin Islands and a year
later, they received a new constitution.
Pirates are another major piece of British Virgin Island history.
The infamous pirate Blackbeard is said to have marooned 15 pirates
just off of Deadman Bay. And Norman Isle is thought to be the inspiration
behind the Robert Louis Stevenson classic Treasure Island. The caves
of the now deserted Norman Isle are regarded as the premier snorkeling
spot in the British Virgin Islands.
Recent history in the Virgin Islands centers around tourism. The
British Virgin Islands have been much slower in adopting the tourist-friendly
atmosphere its U.S. counterpart has been enjoying. In the 1980s,
there was a large disregard for preserving the natural beauty of
the land as resort developers wiped out large areas on land and
underwater. Jean-Michael Cousteau did his part by spearheading reef
conservation efforts and is now a trustee of the British Virgin
Islands National Parks.
Fortunately, islanders are now realizing that tourism also depends
on the preservation of natural resources and are thinking twice
about the money development brings.