The Virgin Islands are a Caribbean archipelago comprised of three political jurisdictions. These are a British overseas territory, A US unincorporated territory and part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, known as the British, United States and Spanish Virgin Islands, respectively. This collection of islands is one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in the world today, offering a combination of stunning scenery, sunny weather, and an intriguing history.

Columbus “Discovers” The Virgin Islands

The history of the United States Virgin Islands dates to 1493, when Christopher Columbus first visited the region. Although the islands had been inhabited for around 3,000 years prior to this, modern history suggests that Columbus “discovered” the islands on his trip to seek a passage to India. The Arawak, Carib and Ciboney tribes that resided in the islands were named “Indians” by Columbus due to the nature of his journey.

Naming the Islands

The name “Virgin Islands” was coined by Columbus in reference to the legendary take of St. Ursula, which includes 11,000 beautiful virgins. Today many people choose to charter a yacht in the US Virgin Islands because of the area’s distinct natural beauty. Following Columbus’s initial visitation, very few other travellers are documented as having entered the area of the Virgin Islands for almost a century.

European Colonisation

It was not until the early 1600s that Europeans began to take an interest in the Virgin Islands, with travellers from England, France, Spain, Holland and Denmark all seeking to colonise areas of the region, along with the Knights of Malta. St. Croix, which is today one of the most popular islands with tourists, was colonised jointly by England and Holland in the 1620s. St. Thomas became home to a settlement of the Danish West India Company in 1672, which later expanded and resettled on neighbouring St. John. 

Piracy and Slavery

A treaty was signed in 1685 between the Dutch of Brandenburg and the Danish, which allowed for the establishment of a slave trading post. This was created on St. Thomas and the slave trade became a huge part of life in the region for several centuries. Officials also approved the designation of St. Thomas as a safe haven for pirates, opening trade routes that persisted until at least the 1800s. Slavery was not officially abolished until 1848, following an uprising on St. Croix. While 17,000 slaves were still indentured, 5,000 were freed. This promoted the governor at the time to declare freedom from slavery. However, many plantation owners refused to accept this and the proclamation was in direct contradiction to the king’s orders. A time of labour riots and economic uncertainty followed.

United States Territories

It was not until 1917 that some of the Virgin Islands became territories of the United States. In that year, the US paid $25 million to Dutch authorities to take ownership of St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix. Initially designed as a military manoeuvre, these islands would remain under US jurisdiction and become what we know today as the US Virgin Islands.

The British Virgin Islands

What would become the British Virgin Islands were freed in 1956 from the Leeward Islands Federation and received a British constitution in 1967. By 2000, it was found that almost 41% of British offshore companies were based in the British Virgin Islands. Today, the British Virgin Islands are one of the leading offshore financial centres in the world and the local population boasts an estimated $40,000 income per family, one of the highest per capita incomes in the entire Caribbean.

The Tourism Industry

In the wake of two world wars and at a time when international travel was becoming more accessible, the Virgin Islands began to develop a tourism industry in the middle of the 20th century. The influx of tourists gave the local economy a much-needed boost, with business opportunities for the hospitality and leisure sectors creating new jobs and income streams. This in turn attracted a flood of immigrants seeking work, which increased the population and brought more prosperity. By the turn of the millennium, the US Virgin Islands were renowned as one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. A yacht charter in the Virgin Islands is now a dream holiday for many. 

Danish Architecture

While none of the three modern regions of the Virgin Islands are under Danish jurisdiction today, one of the prime draws for tourists is the Danish architecture. Many fine examples remain on the islands, with many buildings boasting original walls, courtyards and ornamentation that can be characterised by traditional Danish flair. 

Across both the US and British Virgin Islands, the later years of the 20th century and the first decade of the new millennium were a time of great economic prosperity. Over the past ten years or more since the global financial crisis, revenues, investment and tourism have all dropped off. However, federal stimulus and a variety of other support packages have been put in place to restimulate the economy, draw in more tourists and create new jobs.