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Pre-Columbian Times and The Spanish

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.

Then Came The Pirates…

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.

And Then The British (as usual!)

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.

Cruising Capital

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.

Further Reading:

Early History of The Virgin Islands – Pre Columbus To Emancipation by Vernon W. Pickering (1983)

A wonderfully-well researched book by a Virgin Islands resident covering everything from when Columbus arrived in 1493 until the abolition of slavery in the early 19th Century.

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