It is often thought that Christopher Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands when, in fact, the first people to come to the islands were the Amerindians. These pre-historic people from South America settled throughout the Winward and Leeward Islands in around 900BC and thrived for over a thousand years.
Christopher Columbus first came to the Virgin Islands in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World, giving their name of Islas Virgines as he compared the islands to the beauty of St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who followed her to martyrdom. The Virgin Islands then remained untouched for over 100 years as Christopher Columbus chose to seek gold in nearby Puerto Rico. In the 17th and 18th centuries over 30 pirates, such as Blackbeard, Norman and Jost Van Dyke, discovered the many sheltered coves within the BVI which were ideal places to begin their skull duggery and stash their booty.
The first Europeans to arrive, in the 17th century, were the Spanish in Virgin Gorda and the Dutch in Tortola, although both were short-lived. For over two hundred years the British, Spanish, Dutch, French and Danish all fought for control. The British, having arrived in 1672, quickly built plantations to grow cotton and sugar. By the end of the 18th century the main exports of the British Virgin Islands were sugar, molasses, rum, indigo and spices.
Emancipation of Slaves
In 1834, the emancipation of slaves in the West Indies along with a severe hurricane put paid to the plantations in the British Virgin Islands. By the middle of the 19th century the land where the plantations once flourished was sold to former slaves who turned to fishing and farming. During the 1930s and 40s, livestock, vegetables and fishing were still the foundation of the economy, but in the 1960s Laurence Rockefeller built a luxury resort at Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda and tourists began to arrive. The airport at Beef Island, Tortola was opened in 1968, and the opening of the first charter yacht company in 1969 marked the beginning of the islands’ yachting industry.
The charm of these islands is eternal, with a superb climate, unspoiled and perfectly suited for adventure by land and sea. Today the same coves that once harboured the likes of Columbus, Sir Francis Drake and the infamous pirate Arthur Teach provide a haven for modern day travellers who have come to enjoy the British Virgin Islands.