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British Virgin Islands History
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British Virgin Islands.

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 the land.

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.

More Information


British Virgin Islands Travel Guides
 Frommer's British Virgin Islands
 Lonely Planet British Virgin Islands
 Let's Go British Virgin Islands
 Fodors British Virgin Islands