The History of the British Virgin Islands is usually, for convenience, broken up into five separate periods:

  • Pre-Columbian Amerindian settlement, up to an uncertain date
  • Nascent European settlement, from approximately 1612 until 1672
  • British control, from 1672 until 1834
  • Emancipation, from 1834 until 1950
  • The modern state, from 1950 to present day


Pre-Columbian settlement

The first recorded settlement of the Territory was by Arawak Indians who came from South America, in around 100 BC. Vernon Pickering places the date later, at around 200 AD, and suggests that the Arawak may have been preceded by the Ciboney Indians. They are thought to have settled in nearby St. Thomas as early as 300 BC. There is some evidence of Amerindian presence on the islands. Perhaps in seasonal fishing camps, as far back as 1500 BC. There is little academic support for the idea of a permanent settlement on any of the current British Virgin Islands at that time.

The Arawak inhabited the islands until the 15th century, when they were displaced by the more aggressive Carib, a tribe from the Lesser Antilles islands. The Caribbean Sea is named for these people. Some historians believe that the popular account of the aggressive Carib chasing peaceful Arawak out of the Caribbean islands is based in simplistic European stereotypes, and that the true story is more complex.

None of the later European visitors to the Virgin Islands reported encountering Amerindians in what would later be the British Virgin Islands. Christopher Columbus did have a hostile encounter with the Carib natives of St. Croix.

Comparatively little is known about the early inhabitants of this territory specifically (as opposed to the Arawak generally). The largest excavations of Arawak pottery have been found around Belmont and Smuggler's Cove on the northwest of Tortola. Many other archaeological sites have been found with Arawak artefacts, including at Soper's Hole, Apple Bay, Coxheath, Pockwood Pond, Pleasant Valley, Sage Mountain, Russell Hill (modern day Road Town), Pasea, Purcell, Paraquita Bay, Josiah's Bay, Mount Healthy and Cane Garden Bay. Modern archaeological excavations regularly cause local historians to revise what they thought they knew about these early settlers. Discoveries reported in the local newspapers in 2006 have indicated that early Arawak settlement of the islands may have been more significant than had earlier been thought.

1492 - Early European Exploration

The first European sighting of the Virgin Islands was by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the Americas. Columbus gave them the name Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes (Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins), shortened to Las Vírgenes (The Virgins), after the legend of Saint Ursula. He is also reported to have personally named Virgin Gorda (the Fat Virgin), which he thought to be the largest island in the group.

The Spanish claimed the islands by original discovery, but never settled the Territory. In 1508, Juan Ponce de León settled Puerto Rico, and reports in Spanish journals suggested that the settlement used the Virgin Islands for fishing, but nothing else. Their references may have been to the present U.S. Virgin Islands, which are closer.

In 1517, Sir Sebastian Cabot and Sir Thomas Pert visited the islands on their return from exploring Brazilian waters. Sir John Hawkins visited the islands three times, firstly in 1542 and then again in 1563 with a cargo of slaves bound for Hispaniola. On his third visit, he was accompanied by a young Captain by the name of Francis Drake in the Judith.

Sir Francis Drake visited the islands four times; its main channel was named in his honour.

Drake returned in 1585, and is reported to have anchored in North Sound on Virgin Gorda prior to his tactically brilliant attack on Santo Domingo. Drake returned for the final time in 1595 on his last voyage, during which he died. The main channel in the British Virgin Islands was named in his honour.

In 1598, the Earl of Cumberland is reported to have used the islands as a staging ground for his later attack on La Fortaleza in Puerto Rico, during conflicts between England and Spain.

In 1607, some reports suggest that John Smith sailed past the Virgin Islands on the expedition led by Captain Christopher Newport to found the new colony in Virginia.

English (and Scottish) monarch King James I granted a patent to the Earl of Carlisle for Tortola, as well as "Angilla, Semrera (Sombrero island) & Enegada". Carlisle also received letters of patent for Barbados, St. Kitts and "all the Caribees" in 1627 (the "Carlisle proprietorship"). He died shortly after, but his son, the 2nd Earl of Carlisle, leased the patents to Lord Willoughby for 21 years in 1647. Neither ever attempted to settle the northern islands.

First Dutch settlements

Dutch privateer Joost van Dyk organized the first permanent settlements in the Territory in Soper's Hole, on the west end of Tortola. By 1615, van Dyk's settlement was recorded in Spanish contemporary records, which noted its recent expansion. He traded with Spanish colonists in Puerto Rico and farmed cotton and tobacco.

Some sources suggest that the first settlements in the Virgin Islands were by the Spanish, who mined copper at the copper mine on Virgin Gorda. No archaeological evidence supports any settlement by the Spanish in the islands at any time, nor any mining of copper on Virgin Gorda prior to the 19th century.

By 1625, van Dyk was recognized by the Dutch West India Company as the private "Patron" of Tortola, and had moved his operations to Road Town. During the same year, van Dyk lent some limited (non-military) support to the Dutch admiral Boudewijn Hendricksz, who sacked San Juan, Puerto Rico. In September 1625, in retaliation, the Spanish led a full assault on the island of Tortola, laying waste to its defences and destroying its embryonic settlements. Joost van Dyk escaped to the island that would later bear his name, and sheltered there from the Spanish. He later moved to the island of St. Thomas until the Spanish gave up and returned to Puerto Rico.

Notwithstanding Spanish hostility, the Dutch West India Company considered the Virgin Islands to have an important strategic value, as they were located approximately halfway between the Dutch colonies in South America (now Suriname) and the most important Dutch settlement in North America, New Amsterdam (now New York City). The Dutch built large stone warehouses at Freebottom, near Port Purcell (just east of Road Town), to facilitate exchanges of cargo between North and South America.

The remains of Fort Charlotte, built on an earlier lookout post erected by the Dutch

At this time, the Dutch settlers erected some small earthworks and a three-cannon fort above the warehouse, on the hill. This was the site where the English later built Fort George. The Dutch also constructed a wooden stockade for a lookout post above Road Town. This site was later developed as Fort Charlotte. They stationed troops at the Spanish "dojon" near Pockwood Pond, later to be known as Fort Purcell. In the 21st century, it is usually called "the Dungeon".

In 1631, the Dutch West India Company expressed an interest in the rumours of copper on Virgin Gorda, and a settlement was set up on that island, which came to be known as "Little Dyk's" (now known as Little Dix).

In 1640, Spain attacked Tortola in an assault led by Captain Lopez. The Spanish attacked again in 1646 and 1647, led by Captain Francisco Vincente Duran. The Spanish anchored a warship in Soper's Hole at West End and landed men ashore. They sent another warship to blockade Road Harbour. After a team of scouts returned a safe report, the Spanish landed more men and attacked Fort Purcell overland by foot. They massacred the Dutch, and next attacked Road Town, killing all inhabitants and destroying the settlement. They did not bother with the smaller settlements further up the coast in Baugher's Bay or on Virgin Gorda.

Decline of the Dutch West India Company

The Dutch settlements did not return a profit. Evidence suggests that the Dutch spent most of their time more profitably engaged in privateering than trading. The lack of prosperity of the territory mirrored the lack of commercial success of first the Dutch West India Company as a whole.

The company changed its policy. It sought to cede islands such as Tortola and Virgin Gorda to private persons for settlement, and to establish major slave pens to support the slave trade in the Caribbean, as they were importing slaves from Africa. The island of Tortola was sold to Willem Hunthum at some point in the 1650s, at which time the Dutch West India Company's interest in the Territory effectively ended.

In 1665, the Dutch settlers on Tortola were attacked by a British privateer, John Wentworth; he captured 67 slaves and took them to Bermuda. The record of his prize is the first documentation of slaves being held in the Territory.

In 1666, a number of the Dutch settlers were reported to have been driven out by an influx of British "brigands and pirates", although numerous Dutch remained.

1672 - British colonisation

England took control of the British Virgin Islands in 1672, at the outbreak of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, and has retained influence since. The Dutch averred that in 1672 Willem Hunthum put Tortola under the protection of Colonel Sir William Stapleton, the English Governor-General of the Leeward Islands. Stapleton reported that he had "captured" the Territory shortly after the outbreak of war.

Colonel William Burt was dispatched to Tortola and took control of the island no later than 13 July 1672 (when Stapleton reported the conquest to the Council of Trade). Burt did not have sufficient men to occupy the Territory, but before leaving the island, he destroyed the Dutch forts and removed all their cannon to St. Kitts.

By the Treaty of Westminster of 1674, the war was ended, and provision was made for mutual restoration of all territorial conquests during the war. The Treaty provided the Dutch with the right to resume possession of the islands, but by then the Dutch were at war with the French, and fear of a French attack prevented their immediate restoration. Although the possessions were not considered valuable, for strategic reasons the British became reluctant to surrender them, and after prolonged discussions, orders were issued to Stapleton in June 1677 to retain possession of Tortola and the surrounding islands.

In 1678, the Franco-Dutch War ended, and the Dutch returned their attention to Tortola, although it was not until 1684 that the Dutch ambassador, Arnout van Citters, formally requested the return of Tortola. However, he did not do so on the basis of the Treaty of Westminster, but instead based the claim on the private rights of the widow of Willem Hunthum. He asserted that the island was not a conquest, but had been entrusted to the British. The ambassador provided a letter from Stapleton promising to return the island.

At this time (1686), Stapleton had completed his term of office and was en route back to Britain. The Dutch were told Stapleton would be asked to explain the discrepancy between his assertion of having conquered the island, and the correspondence signed by him indicating a promise to return it, after which a decision would be made. Unfortunately, Stapleton travelled first to France to recover his health, where he died. Cognisant that other Caribbean territories which had been captured from the Dutch during the war had already been restored, in August 1686 the Dutch ambassador was advised by the British that Tortola would be restored, and instructions to that effect were sent to Sir Nathaniel Johnson, the new Governor of the Leeward Islands.

But Tortola was never actually returned to the Dutch. Part of the problem was that Johnson's orders were to restore the island to such person or persons who have "sufficient procuration or authority to receive the same..." However, most of the former Dutch colonists had now departed, having lost hope of restoration. Certainly there was no official representation of the Dutch monarchy or any other organ of government. In the event, Johnson did nothing.

In November 1696, a subsequent claim was made to the island by Sir Peter van Bell, the agent of Sir Joseph Shepheard, a Rotterdam merchant, who claimed to have purchased Tortola on 21 June 1695, for 3,500 guilders. Shepheard was from the Margraviate of Brandenburg, and the prospect of Tortola coming under Brandenburg control did not sit well in Westminster. The Brandenburg claim was dismissed by the British on the grounds that Stapleton had conquered rather than been entrusted with Tortola. The now common delaying tactic of forwarding all correspondence to Governor Codrington for comment was employed. Codrington readily appreciated the risks of a Brandenburg trading outpost on Tortola; as such an outpost already existed on nearby St. Thomas. The Brandenburgs had previously set up an outpost for trading slaves on Peter Island in 1690, which they had abandoned, and they were not considered welcome. At the time they had an outpost on St. Thomas, but they engaged in no agriculture, and only participated in the trading of slaves. Negotiations became more intense, and the British re-asserted the right of conquest and also (wrongly, but apparently honestly) claimed to have first discovered Tortola. During the negotiations, the British also became aware of two older historical claims, the 1628 patent granted to the Earl of Carlisle (which was inconsistent with Hunthum's title being sold to him by the Dutch West India company), and an order of the King in 1694 to prevent foreign settlement in the Virgin Islands. In February 1698, Codrington was told to regard the earlier 1694 orders as final, and the British entertained no further claims to the islands.

In common with most Caribbean countries, slavery in the British Virgin Islands forms a major part of the history of the Territory. One commentator has gone so far as to say: "One of the most important aspects of the History of the British Virgin Islands is slavery."

As Tortola, and to a lesser extent Virgin Gorda, came to be settled by plantation owners, slave labour became economically essential, and there was an exponential growth in the slave population during the 18th century. In 1717 there were 547 black people in the Territory (all of whom were assumed to be slaves); by 1724, there were 1,430; and in 1756, there were 6,121. The increase in slaves held in the Territory is, to a large degree, consistent with development of the economy of the British Virgin Islands at the time.

Slave revolts

Uprisings in the Territory were common, as they were elsewhere in the Caribbean. The first notable uprising in the British Virgin Islands occurred in 1790, and centred on the estates of Isaac Pickering. It was quickly put down, and the ring leaders were executed. The revolt was sparked by the rumour that freedom had been granted to slaves in England, but that the planters were withholding knowledge of it. The same rumour would also later spark subsequent revolts.

Subsequent rebellions also occurred in 1823, 1827, and 1830, although in each case they were quickly put down.

Probably the most significant slave insurrection occurred in 1831 when a plot was uncovered to kill all of the white males in the Territory and to escape to Haiti (which was at the time the only free black republic in the world) by boat with all of the white females. Although the plot does not appear to have been especially well formulated, it caused widespread panic, and military assistance was drafted in from St. Thomas. A number of the plotters (or accused plotters) were executed.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the incidence of slave revolts increased sharply after 1822. In 1807, the trade in slaves was abolished. Although the existing slaves were forced to continue their servitude, the Royal Navy patrolled the Atlantic, capturing slave ships, and freeing slave cargoes. Starting in 1808, hundreds of freed Africans were deposited on Tortola by the Navy who, after serving a 14 year "apprenticeship", were then absolutely free. Naturally, seeing free Africans in the Territory created enormous resentment and jealousy amongst the existing slave population, who understandably felt this to be enormously unjust.

1834 - Emancipation

Emancipation pamphlet, circa 1815

The abolition of slavery occurred on 1 August 1834, and to this day it is celebrated by a three day public holiday on the first Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in August in the British Virgin Islands. The original emancipation proclamation hangs in the High Court. However, the abolition of slavery was not the single defining event that it is sometimes supposed to have been. Emancipation freed a total of 5,792 slaves in the Territory, but at the time of abolition, there were already a considerable number of free blacks in the Territory, possibly as many as 2,000. Furthermore, the effect of abolition was gradual; the freed slaves were not absolutely manumitted, but instead entered a form of forced apprenticeship which lasted four years for house slaves and six years for field slaves. The terms of the forced apprenticeship required them to provide 45 hours unpaid labour a week to their former masters, and prohibited them from leaving their residence without the masters' permission. The effect, deliberately, was to phase out reliance on slave labour rather than end it with a bang. The Council would later legislate to reduce this period to four years for all slaves to quell rising dissent amongst the field slaves.

Joseph John Gurney, a Quaker, wrote in his Familiar Letters to Henry Clay of Kentucky that the plantation owners in Tortola were "decidedly saving money by the substitution of free labour on moderate wages, for the deadweight of slavery".

In practice, the economics of the abolition are difficult to quantify. Undeniably, the original slave owners suffered a huge capital loss. Although they received £72,940 from the British Government in compensation, this was only a fraction of the true economic value of the manumitted slaves. In terms of net cash flow, whilst the slave owners lost the right to "free" slave labour, they now no longer had to pay to house, clothe, and provide medical attention for their former slaves, which in some cases almost balanced out. The former slaves now usually worked for the same masters, but instead received small wages, out of which they had to pay for the expenses formerly borne by their masters. However, some former slaves managed to amass savings, which clearly demonstrates that in net terms the slave owners were less well off in income terms as well as capital as a result of abolition.

Modern developments

In 1901 the Legislative Council was finally formally dissolved, and the islands were then officially administered through the Governor of the Leeward Islands, who appointed a commissioner and an executive council. The Territory was not remotely economically prosperous, and social services had deteriorated to a vanishing point. Emigration was extremely high, particularly to St. Thomas and to the Dominican Republic. Both concern and assistance from Britain was in very short supply, not least because of the two World Wars which were fought during this period.

In 1949 another unlikely hero emerged. Theodolph H Faulkner was a fisherman from Anegada, who came to Tortola with his pregnant wife. He had a disagreement with the medical officer, and he went straight to the marketplace and for several nights criticised the government with mounting passion. His oratory struck a chord, and a movement started. Led by community leaders such as Isaac Fonseca and Carlton de Castro, on 24 November 1949 a throng of over 1,500 British Virgin Islanders marched on the Commissioner's office and presented their grievances. They presented a petition which commenced:

"We are imbued with a desire to decide our local affairs with our own selves. We have outgrown that undesirable stage where one official, or an official clique, makes decisions for us... We are seeking the privilege of deciding how our monies are spent and what shall be our Presidential laws and policies."


1950 - Self government

The Legislative Council building in Road Town, erected about sixty yards from the market where Faulkner roused the crowds.

The voices of the people were heard. As a result of the demonstrations the previous year, the Legislative Council was reinstituted by the British Government in 1950 under a new constitution. The reformation of the Legislative Council is often left as a footnote in the Territory's history - a mere part of the process that led to the more fundamental constitutional government in 1967. The 1950 constitution was in fact always envisaged as a temporary measure (it was famously described by McWelling Todman QC as “an instrument minimal in its intent and its effect”). But, having been denied any form of democratic control for nearly 50 years, the new Council did not sit idly by. In 1951 external capital was brought in to assist farmers from the Colonial Welfare and Development office. In 1953 the Hotel Aid Act was enacted to boost the nascent tourism industry. Up until 1958 the Territory had only 12 miles of motorable roads; over the next 12 years the road system was vastly improved, linking West End to the East End of Tortola, and joining Tortola to Beef Island by a new bridge. The Beef Island airport (now renamed after Terrance B. Lettsome) was built shortly thereafter. The Territory considered holding a plebiscite as to whether the British and U.S. Virgin Islands should merge under the U.S. flag.

External events also played a factor. In 1956 the Leeward Islands Federation was abolished. Defederation enhanced the political status of the British Virgin Islands. Jealous of its newly acquired powers, the Council declined to join the new Federation of the West Indies in 1958, a move that would later be crucial in the development of the offshore finance industry.

In 1967 the new constitution with a much greater transfer of powers was brought into effect by order in council, and introduced true Ministerial Government to the British Virgin Islands. Elections followed in 1967, and a comparatively young Lavity Stoutt was elected as the first Chief Minister of the Territory.