Relics of Empire: The British Virgin Islands

The British Virgin Islands can be found in the Caribbean, and constitute a portion of the Virgin Islands Archipelago. While the whole territory is generally referred to as the “Virgin Islands”, ownership of the chain is divided between Britain, America, and Spain. Thus, most use the term “British Virgin Islands” or “BVI” to distinguish the British Overseas Territory from the other territories.

Road Town, Tortola, BVI - 2005
Road Town, Tortola, BVI – 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The islands were first sighted by Christopher Columbus as he was making his second voyage to the New World. He dubbed the islands Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgenes (Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins). Obviously, the unwieldy name was quickly shortened to The Virgins.

As with many islands in the Caribbean, the Spanish initially laid claim to the Virgin Islands in the early 16th century; however, no attempt was made at settlement. Throughout the next few decades, the powers of Europe all struggled over ownership and control over the islands. The English, Dutch, Spanish, Danish, and French all laid claim to the islands at one point or another, but for many years, the Virgins were little more than a popular pirate haunt.

The first official settlement was established by the Dutch in 1648 on the island of Tortola. English forces were able to capture Tortola in 1672 at the beginning of the Third Anglo-Dutch War. The British were able to use Tortola as a strategic base from which they were able to annex Virgin Gorda, Anegada and the rest of the British Virgin Islands in 1680.

Though the British now held full control over the Territory, immigration was slow and few cared to stay long. Many settlers feared the instability of the region, and anticipated attacks by the Spanish or the Dutch. By 1685, the population was reduced to two: an undaunted Mr. Jonathan Turner and his wife. After 1690, however, the British Virgin Islands saw a dramatic upswing in population growth and by 1696, the total number was up to fifty.

With a steadily growing population on the islands, the British appointed a deputy-governor to manage the territory. The role was little more than nominal, with no real power behind the title. People on the islands lived however they wanted, without a law or government. The islands continued this way for over 100 years.

The coat of arms of the British Virgin Islands.
The coat of arms of the British Virgin Islands. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As sugar was a major industry on the island, much of the BVI economy was built on the back of slave labour. Tortola and Virgin Gorda in particular were settled primarily by plantation owners who brought in massive numbers of African slaves. By 1756, the slave population on the islands was at 6,121.

While the emancipation of 1834 released all slaves on the islands, evidence of the massive slave population is still very clearly seen in the modern demographics. The population of the BVI today is around 21,730, and approximately 83.4% are of African descent. Roughly 7% of the population is of British or European origin, while the remaining 9.6% is Carib, Indian and mixed-race Hispanic.

After emancipation, the islands struggled economically for many years. Plantations were no longer economically viable, and many owners simply picked up and went home to England. Decline and disorder followed, and emigration was high until local community leaders stood up and insisted on change.

Conditions in the territory have since improved drastically, thanks to better government and the advent of the offshore financial services industry. Today, the BVI is in the lead as one of the top global offshore financial centres.


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