A Brief History of the BVI

The British Virgin Islands didn’t become British until 1672. For centuries before, the islands were populated by the Spanish, French and Dutch. But, the original inhabitants of the islands were likely Ciboney Indians who migrated to many Caribbean Islands from Florida.

The Ciboney are an ancient people who have occupied Florida and the Caribbean for more than 13,000 years. They can trace their origins to the Pacific islands. Decedents can still be found in Cuba and Florida.

Between 500 BC and 650 AD, the Arawak Indians began moving north from South America. They settled throughout the Caribbean, including the Virgin Islands. The Arawaks were a peaceful people and enjoyed a sophisticated culture that was hierarchical in nature. They were competent builders and farmers. As many as 20,000 Arawaks are believed to have occupied the Virgin Islands.

The aggressive Carib Indians, also from South America, began challenging the Arawaks in the middle of the 14th century and eventually displaced them from all of the islands of the Lesser Antilles. Unlike the Arawaks, the Caribs lived in a non-stratified society in which internal conflict was common.

The word cannibal is derived from the Caribs who are believed to have eaten the Arawak men they conquered. The wives of the defeated Arawaks were taken by the Caribs as their own but they continued to speak in their native language while the men spoke Carib.

Carib descendants today live on many of the islands of the Lesser Antilles, however, their presence in the Virgin Islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean was largely eradicated following the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493.

It is Columbus who named the islands in honor of the 11,000 beautiful virgin followers of St. Ursula who were martyred by the Huns while making a pilgrimage to Cologne. The arrival of Columbus on his second expedition to the New World marked the beginning of the end for the native indians. After years of modest attempts at settlement, Spain sent troops to invade the islands in 1555 and formally laid claim to the land. With the invasion came disease and slavery. Within a decade, most of the native population was dead or enslaved in mining camps on Jamaica and what is now known as the Dominican Republic.

The islands were sparsely populated for the next one hundred years when a hearty group of French settlers arrived and began to barbecue beef in smokehouses called boucans. The French would sell the beef to passing ships. Ultimately, the Spaniards drove the interlopers off the islands, but in revenge, the displaced French began raiding the Spanish fleets. They became known as Buccaneers.

The ranks of the Buccaneers swelled as unemployed sailors drifted through the area. Their attacks on the Spaniards were encouraged by many European countries, particularly England. The namesake of the central channel in the BVI, Sir Francis Drake, was one such royally authorized pirate. Other notable pirates have also left their names on the land. Norman Island is named after a French pirate who is reported to have hidden his booty in the caves at the entrance to the harbor called the Bight. Thatch Island is named after Edward Thatch, more commonly known as Blackbeard. And, Jost Van Dyke is named after the Dutch Privateer Joost van Dyk.

With the defeat of their armada in 1588, Spanish influence over the waters of North America and the Caribbean began to decline. In 1602, the Dutch formed the Dutch East India Company for the purpose of finding a direct western passage to Asia. By 1648, they had established a permanent settlement on the island of Tortola. English planters displaced the Dutch in 1666 and in 1672 the island was annexed into the British administered Leeward Islands that included Nevis, Montserrat, St. Kitts, Anguilla, and Antigua. The annexation of Virgin Gorda and Anegada followed in 1680. Meanwhile, over the period 1672–1733, the Danish gained control of the nearby islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.

In 1773, Brittan granted the planters a civil government, with an elected House of Assembly and a partly elected Legislative Council. Constitutional courts were also established. The planter’s economy was fragile at best and collapsed completely with the abolishment of slavery by Brittan in 1834. In 1867 the constitution was surrendered and a legislative council was appointed that lasted until 1902, when sole legislative authority was vested in the governor-in-council.

In 1917, the United States purchased St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix from Denmark for $17 million, renaming them the United States Virgin Islands. Subsequently, the British renamed the islands they controlled as the British Virgin Islands.

In 1950 a partly elected and partly nominated legislative council was reinstated. Following the defederation of the Leeward Islands colony in 1956 and the abolition of the office of governor in 1960, the islands became a crown colony. In 1958 the West Indies Federation was established, but the British Virgin Islands declined to join, in order to retain close economic ties with the U.S. islands. Under a constitutional order issued in 1967, the islands were given a ministerial form of government. The constitution was amended in 1977 to permit a greater degree of autonomy in internal affairs.

Since the 1960s, the islands have increasingly moved to an economy based on tourism and financial services. Today, the BVI is widely recognized as the finest sailing area in the world and has become one of the wealthiest economies in the in the Caribbean. There is virtually no unemployment or serious crime in the BVI. Residents are exceptionally friendly and the scenery is spectacular. If there is a paradise on earth, it is the BVI.