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A Brief History of BVI

By: Stephen Leslie France, Editor - aLookingGlass | Last Updated: January 6, 2017

The history of the different islands’ names varies depending on your source. While it is true that the Spanish word for ‘turtledove’ is tórtola, during a one-day seminar, “The History and Historical Sites of the British Virgin Islands,” Dr Michael Kent, history professor at H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, relayed that the name of the largest British Virgin Island was given by the Dutch in the 1650s. Ter
Tholen in Dutch could refer to the island, Tholen in Holland, or possibly a ship. The name was then changed to Tortola by the English, and it’s just a happy coincidence that many turtledoves call this island home.

Other islands, according to Dr Kent, were named to serve as signposts to ship captains for provisioning. Beef Island is where ships would know to go for beef; they’d then head over to Salt Island to preserve the meat, and finally stop at Cooper Island for barrels to store their provisions. Sir Richard Branson’s Mosquito Island, according to Dr Kent, may have originally been Musketa—indicating a place to buy muskets, not a place full of the flying pests.

The name Virgin Islands comes from Christopher Columbus who named the multitude of islands after the alleged 11,000 virgins, followers of St Ursula, who were beheaded in the fourth century. Vernon Pickering’s A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands states, “The amount of islands and rocks, and the short stay in the area, convinced Columbus to choose that name, thus simplifying the task of assigning a name to each Island.”

While the official name of the Territory is the Virgin Islands, Dr Kent said, “For over 200 years, British documents have been calling this place the British Virgin Islands.”

Archaeological evidence exists of inhabitants living in the British Virgin Islands as early as 1000 BC, Dr Kent said. After that, the timeline of settlers includes “Saladoid” Amerindians from 500-250 BC followed by Arawak and Carib Indians from 500-1000 AD. A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands says, “Arawaks were basically farmers growing food mainly for their own needs.” The book also notes that “Caribs reached most of the islands in the Antilles and chased away or killed the more peaceful Arawaks.” Dr Kent reported that the Indians were exterminated by Spaniards throughout the 16th century. “The Spaniards occupied the territory throughout the first half of the 16th century until the Dutch took control for a short period of time. In 1672, the English invaded Tortola, and the island has been under English (later British) control since that time,” said Dr Kent. A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands claims, “The earliest records referring to the presence of slaves in the British Virgin Islands begin in 1665” when 67 slaves were removed to Bermuda. The mass importation of slave labour occurred in the mid-1750s when sugar production began in the BVI. “Many of the slaves,” according to A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands, “came from Benin and Nigeria.” The UK National Archives website states that the United Kingdom abolished the slave trade in 1807 with Parliament’s Slave Trade Act, but slavery was not abolished in the British Virgin Islands until August 1, 1834 when 5,792 slaves were freed.

Prior to the official emancipation, many freed Africans lived in the British Virgin Islands. Some were slaves that had been freed by white landowners while others were liberated Africans from shipwrecks on the islands or from ships ”where British officers had liberated them under the protection of the Crown,” says A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands.

International Finance

As stated in A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands, the newly elected administration in 1983 “revised and amended several old ordinances and acts and introduced a very important law called the International Business Companies Ordinance in 1984. This resulted in the registration of over 3000 foreign companies in a very short time. These businesses are not taxed in the BVI as long as their business is conducted outside the territory.”

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