History of the British Virgin Islands

by Ray Roman | Last updated on January 15, 2024

The history of the British Virgin Islands can be traced back to pre-Columbian Amerindian settlements and has undergone several significant transitions throughout the centuries.

Located in the Caribbean, these islands are part of the Virgin Islands archipelago and have experienced changes in power and influence among various European nations, ultimately becoming a British Overseas Territory.

History of the British Virgin Islands
History of the British Virgin Islands

Initially, the indigenous people of the British Virgin Islands, such as the Arawaks and Caribs, inhabited the lands, but the arrival of European explorers shifted the trajectory of the islands’ history.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to take control, followed by the English in the late 17th century. Throughout the colonial period, the British Virgin Islands saw an amalgamation of economic and political changes, such as the plantation economy, the influence of piracy, and the transition from the Leeward Islands Colony to an autonomous territory.

Key Takeaways

  • The British Virgin Islands have a rich history with various stages including pre-Columbian settlements, European influence, and British rule.
  • The islands experienced significant transitions due to European contact, colonial expansion, piracy, and slavery.
  • The modern era saw political development and economic shifts, with the territory becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination.

Early Inhabitants and European Contact

Arawak and Carib Presence

Before Europeans arrived on the scene, the British Virgin Islands were inhabited by indigenous peoples, primarily the Arawak and Carib tribes.

The Arawak were known for their pottery and agricultural skills, while the Carib were more well-known for their aggressive nature and prowess in battle1. It is believed that the Caribs displaced the Arawaks around the time of European contact.

European Discovery and Claims

The British Virgin Islands were first sighted by Christopher Columbus during his second voyage in 14932. Columbus is said to have named the island chain “Las Virgenes” after the Catholic legend of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins3.

Over time, various European powers laid claim or made attempts to control the islands. The Dutch established the first permanent European settlements in the early 17th century4.

However, their control was short-lived, as the British took over the territory in 16725, marking the start of British rule in the Virgin Islands.

Overall, the history of the British Virgin Islands has unfolded through various phases, each influenced by the different groups i.e., indigenous tribes and European powers that lived and ruled there. The history of these islands is rich and diverse, marked by the legacy left behind by these early inhabitants and the European colonization that followed.


  1. Virgin Islands History – Britannica

  2. Christopher Columbus second voyage – Wikiwand

  3. Naming of Virgin Islands – British Virgin Islands Government

  4. Dutch Settlements in British Virgin Islands – Wikipedia

  5. British Colonisation – Wikipedia

Colonial Expansion and Piracy

17th Century Settlements

During the 17th century, the British Virgin Islands witnessed significant growth in its settlements. As an essential player in the colonial expansion, the Arawak Indians had initially settled in the region around 100 BC. Coming from South America, they established their presence in the British Virgin Islands, leaving traces of their culture behind.

In the 16th century, English overseas expansion began, and piracy played a crucial role during this time. Settlements in the British Virgin Islands started attracting adventurous individuals, seeking fortune and establishing connections with the European powers.

This backdrop of piracy in the British Isles then influenced the early English colonies and contributed to their growth.

Golden Age of Piracy

The British Virgin Islands experienced the height of piracy during the years of 1690 to 1730, also known as the Golden Age of Piracy. The region’s strategic location allowed it to become a hub for pirates and privateers who plundered ships passing through the Caribbean.

The islands were a popular hideout for these pirates, due to their numerous anchorages and natural harbors, providing cover and protection during their operations.

Several famous pirates, like Blackbeard and Calico Jack, were known to frequent the British Virgin Islands during this period. As the Virgin Islands’ history suggests, the presence of pirates and privateers left an indelible mark on the region and still intrigues modern-day visitors.

In summary, the Colonial Expansion and Piracy era in the British Virgin Islands was a fascinating time of growth, adventure, and legends. The development of settlements and the influx of pirates shaped the islands profoundly, leaving a rich historical legacy to be explored and understood in today’s modern context.

Plantation Economy and Slavery

Sugar and Cotton Cultivation

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the British Virgin Islands’ economy was heavily based on the cultivation of sugar and cotton. As a result, plantations dominated the landscape. Sugar was highly profitable and in high demand, leading to the growth of large sugar estates on the islands.

The labor-intensive process of cultivating sugar cane involved planting, harvesting, and processing the canes into sugar. Similarly, cotton plantations thrived due to the demand for textiles, and the crop was planted, harvested, and ginned to remove seeds before being made into cotton products.

In order to support these labor-intensive agricultural industries, plantation owners turned to the use of African slave labor. Slavery in the British Virgin Islands began even before European settlement, with Sir John Hawkins reportedly bringing slaves to the islands in 1563. The importation of slaves transformed the British Virgin Islands’ society, as thousands of slaves were forcibly brought to the islands to work on plantations.

Slave Trade and Emancipation

Slavery played a crucial role in the plantation economy of the British Virgin Islands, and a great number of slaves were imported through the transatlantic slave trade. The conditions for slaves working on the plantations were harsh and difficult. They were subjected to long working hours, brutal punishments, and little to no pay.

Despite these challenging circumstances, slave resistance and abolitionist movements eventually led to significant changes in the British Virgin Islands’ society. In the early 19th century, the British government began passing laws to gradually improve the conditions of slaves and restrict the slave trade.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 banned the importation of new slaves into the British Empire. However, it would take several more years for the slave trade to be fully eradicated.

Finally, on August 1, 1834, slavery was officially abolished in the British Empire with the enactment of the Slavery Abolition Act. This act had a profound impact on the British Virgin Islands, as it marked the end of the plantation economy and led to the emancipation of approximately 5,000 slaves. The transition from a slave-based plantation economy to a more diverse and inclusive society was an important turning point in the history of the British Virgin Islands.

British Rule and Economic Shifts

Colonial Administration

During the colonial period, the British Virgin Islands were governed under a British control that began in 1672. The islands were administered as part of the Leeward Islands colony from 1872 to 1960. The British established a stable administration that allowed the islands to prosper.

However, their main focus was on the larger Caribbean islands, such as Barbados and Jamaica, which had more significant economic value. You might be curious about the role of the local government during this time, but it mostly acted as an intermediary between the colonial administration and the local population.

Post-Emancipation Economy

The abolition of slavery in 1834 brought significant changes to the economy of the British Virgin Islands. Before emancipation, the economy was primarily focused on sugarcane production. However, with the decline in sugarcane production, the islands experienced a general downturn in economic activities.

As you can see, the British Virgin Islands underwent notable transformations during the British colonial administration and the period following slavery’s abolition.

The former colonial government helped the islands achieve stability, while the shift in the economy after emancipation meant that the islands had to seek new ways to thrive.

Modern Era and Political Development

20th Century Changes

During the 20th century, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) underwent significant changes that helped shape their modern identity. In the early 1900s, the BVI were still relatively undeveloped and relied heavily on agriculture and maritime industries.

However, after World War II, the islands experienced a gradual shift towards tourism, which now serves as one of their main economic drivers.

In the mid-20th century, further changes occurred when the constitution was introduced in 1971 and subsequently amended several times to provide a more robust framework for governance. These constitutional changes laid the foundation for the political development of the BVI.

Advances in Self-Governance

As the constitution evolved, the people of the BVI experienced improvements in self-governance and broader representation. The British territory now has a locally-elected House of Assembly, which wields legislative power alongside the government.

This system promotes political participation and empowers the local population to have a say in decisions that impact their daily lives.

The British Virgin Islands have also established independent judiciary systems to ensure that justice is served fairly and impartially. This separation of powers is crucial for upholding the democratic principle of checks and balances.

Despite being an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, the BVI maintains a significant degree of autonomy in managing their internal affairs.

As the islands continue to evolve, the political landscape of the British Virgin Islands will undoubtedly adapt to changing circumstances while striving to preserve their unique cultural heritage.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who were the original inhabitants of the British Virgin Islands before European colonization?

The original inhabitants of the British Virgin Islands were the Arawaks, who arrived from South America around 100 BC. They were displaced by the Caribs during the 15th century, shortly before Christopher Columbus first spotted the Virgin Islands in 1493.

What role did the transatlantic slave trade play in the history of the British Virgin Islands?

The transatlantic slave trade played a significant role in the history of the British Virgin Islands, as slaves were brought into the territory to work on plantations, primarily for sugarcane production. The practice continued until the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834.

Is the British Virgin Islands an independent nation or a British overseas territory?

The British Virgin Islands is a British overseas territory, which means that it is under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the United Kingdom, but its residents have a certain level of self-governance.

What are some unique cultural or historical features of the British Virgin Islands?

Some unique cultural and historical features of the British Virgin Islands include the historical ruins of sugar mills and slave-era buildings, the annual Emancipation Festival, and the blend of British, African, and Caribbean cultural influences.

How has the population of the British Virgin Islands evolved from historical to modern times?

Historically, the British Virgin Islands was inhabited by the Arawaks and Caribs, followed by European colonizers and African slaves. Over time, the population has become more diverse, and today it includes descendants of the original inhabitants, as well as people of various European, African, and Caribbean backgrounds.

What historical events led to the current use of currency in the British Virgin Islands?

The Currency Act of 1950 established the Eastern Caribbean Currency Authority, which issued the British West Indies dollar. In 1965, the East Caribbean dollar (XCD) replaced the British West Indies dollar as the official currency of the British Virgin Islands and other eastern Caribbean territories under the management of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank.