Virgin Islands

Group of over one hundred Caribbean islands located between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, east of Puerto Rico.

When Christopher Columbus first sighted this archipelago of islands in November 1493, he named them Las Once Mil Virgenes (The Eleven Thousand Virgins) both to commemorate the legend of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 martyred virgins, and to exaggerate the magnitude of his find to his patron, Queen Isabella of Spain. In reality, the total number of Virgin Islands is much closer to 110 than 11,000. Many of them are small and uninhabited, and to outsiders the Virgin Islands are often synonymous with the five large islands that have become immensely popular tourist destinations: Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas on the United States side, and Tortola and Virgin Gorda on the British. The fact that the islands are split into United States and British territories is the end result of the region's complex history of slavery, colonization, and resistance—the story that lies behind its modern resorts and restaurants.

Early History and Colonial Rule

The first inhabitants of the Virgin Islands were probably the Ciboney Amerindians, who appear to have migrated from South America to what is now Saint Thomas in approximately 300 B.C.E. Within 500 years they were replaced by the Arawaks, who were mainly farmers, and who eventually spread out to Tortola and several other Virgin Islands. Beginning at the end of the fourteenth century, the Arawaks were overtaken by the more aggressive Caribs, who named Saint Croix “Ay Ay” and established themselves on many other islands as well. But it was Columbus's intrusion that would have the most lasting effects.

Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to “discover” the Caribbean Islands, and in their journeys they nominally claimed each island they saw for the Spanish flag. Because the Virgin Islands were smaller than many of the other Caribbean islands and were not as rich in minerals and other natural resources, the Spanish chose not to settle them, and the islands were largely ignored during the first century of Caribbean colonization. By the 1600s, however, the European craze for expansion in the region hit them in earnest.

The struggle for domination inevitably resulted in some conflicts. Saint Croix was shared by the English and Dutch, then held solely by the English, overtaken by the Spanish, then the French, then given to the Knights of Malta, and returned to the French before it was sold to the Danish West India and Guinea Company in 1733. Saint Thomas was occupied by the Danish, attacked by the Dutch, and captured and then abandoned by the English before being reclaimed by Denmark in 1671. Tortola was settled by Dutch buccaneers before being attacked and captured by the English in 1665. It was not until the beginning of the eighteenth century that the Virgin Islands had reached a more or less stable political configuration, with the islands grouped into Danish and English holdings. By then it was clear just what was at stake for each of these colonial powers: the Virgin Islands were developing into flourishing slave economies.

Once it was discovered that the islands' soil would support both cotton and sugar, settlers were eager to cultivate these crops. The white population at the time was an unpredictable assortment that included Quaker religious dissenters, then-infamous buccaneers, and ex-convicts who were sent to the West Indies as part of their jail sentences. It was clear that these white settlers would not provide all of the labor the new plantations would require. In 1673 the first consignment of 103 African slaves, probably taken from homes in Guinea, landed in Saint Thomas. By 1715 the island had 160 plantations and 3,042 slaves.

Similarly drastic gains were made across the region by the mid-1700s, and in response to the new demand, Charlotte Amalie in Saint Thomas became one of the world's largest slave markets in the eighteenth century. In both sets of islands, working conditions were arduous, the clothing and food given in compensation was minimal, and punishments were strict. As one historian said, “It is difficult to characterize any slave system as more repressive than that of the Virgin Islands.”

A drought in 1725–1726 resulted in a scarcity of food, and many planters chose simply to let their slaves starve to death. In all cases, slaves were left with virtually no avenues of formal redress. In the British islands, a slave who resisted a white owner could have his nose split, or a limb cut off, and “as many number of stripes” as the master chose to inflict. In the Danish islands a slave who struck a white person or even threatened to strike one “should be pinched and hung”—or, if the person chose to pardon him, “should lose his right hand.” Death by various means of torture was permitted for a wide range of crimes, and especially for being suspected of any plans to run away. But it was little surprise that many slaves still took the opportunity to escape when they could, and also little surprise that slaves in the Virgin Islands led two of the most dramatic revolts in the Caribbean.

The first was the Saint John revolt in 1733. In the months leading up to the protest, a drought, two hurricanes, and an insect plague had made the slaves' already desperate situation intolerable. The passage of a new brutally restrictive slave code in September 1733 proved to be the last straw. The leaders of the revolt were allegedly African-born slaves who had been royalty in their West African homelands, and after they captured Saint John's only fort, they gave the signal for an island-wide uprising. At that time, Saint John had 1,087 slaves to 208 whites, and the slaves were able to control the island for six months.

It was not until August 1734 that the last rebels finally surrendered; although they had been promised a free pardon, they were instead publicly executed by torture. Many other rebels had committed suicide rather than be recaptured. While their daring effort ultimately ended in tragedy, it provided a powerful signal of their uncompromising commitment to freedom. In 1790 British slaves led an uprising on Tortola after a rumor spread that England had granted them their freedom and their masters were holding it back. However, the rumors had some basis in reality, because by the end of the eighteenth century Britain was already calling for abolition.

Abolition and Its Aftermath

Several planters on the British islands had already begun manumitting groups of slaves, leading to a growing class of free blacks, and the numbers grew even larger after Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807. From that time on, illegal cargoes of slaves found on British ships were seized and “liberated”; but instead of being returned to their African homes, they were brought to the West Indies and set free there. Not surprisingly, as the number of free blacks in the islands increased, blacks who remained enslaved grew even more convinced of their own right to be free. British Virgin Islands slave insurrections flared up in 1823, 1827, 1830, and 1831. Full emancipation of all English slaves was finally established on August 1, 1834.

The Apprenticeship period that followed emancipation mandated that all slaves remain with their former owners for another four years, and so essentially extended slavery until 1838. But black British Virgin Islanders were still relieved, above all, to be finally free. In the Danish West Indies, although the slave trade had been abolished in 1792, slavery itself remained legal until 1848. That year, on July 3, Moses Gottlieb, also known as Buddhoe, led fellow Saint Croix slaves in another dramatic uprising—arguably among the most successful in history.

In this action, slaves sacked the houses of the police assistant, the town bailiff, and a wealthy merchant and then took over the fort, threatening to burn the entire town if they were not emancipated within the hour. Most of the whites had already taken refuge on ships docked in the harbor. Sensing just how serious the threat was, within the hour the governor general read the Proclamation of Emancipation, which declared that “all unfree in the Danish West India Islands are from to-day free.” So these Saint Croix slaves became one of the few groups of enslaved people to succeed in liberating themselves.

Across the Caribbean, however, true economic and social freedom came slowly for black Virgin Islanders. In the Danish West Indies the 1849 Labor Act made working conditions for newly emancipated blacks nearly as restrictive as they had been under slavery. In the British West Indies the 1867 reversion to an appointed governing council—and the abolition of free elections—ensured that the colonies would be governed by their white minorities. In both sets of colonies, prevailing social traditions continued to enforce racism and racial separation, on the theory that free blacks were still different from and inferior to free whites. In the Virgin Islands and across the Caribbean, the abolition of slavery also led to a decline in economic productivity—and in a tight economy, it was the black workers who suffered most.

It was this economic decline that first led Denmark to contemplate selling its colonies to the United States in 1866. After talks that extended over the next fifty years, the transfer became a reality on March 31, 1917. The twentieth century had already brought some small improvements to the Virgin Islands, as both the Danish and British governments had begun establishing schools and banks, and in 1915 events in Saint Croix marked the beginning of changes that eventually spread throughout the Caribbean. That year, D. Hamilton Jackson formed the first labor union in the West Indies. Within decades, the labor movement became the basis not only for a dramatic improvement in working conditions across the region but also for the push for increased self-government. In islands across the Caribbean, the black workers who joined labor unions eventually became the black politicians and voters who won independence from their colonial powers.

Virgin Islanders were no different in their desire for greater political authority, and over time legislative changes ensured that the majorities would indeed rule in the islands. Full electoral government came to the British islands in 1967, and the U.S. islands in 1970. But both groups of islands chose not to push for full independence, undoubtedly because of the strong economic benefits that the islands received from the United States and Britain. This was especially true in the case of the U.S. islands, and in 1958 the British islands had even declined to join the West Indies Federation established by the rest of the British Caribbean because of their own wish to keep their strong economic ties to the U.S. islands. In 2003 Great Britain announced that it would be willing to grant independence to all of its Caribbean colonies, but the Virgin Islands again expressed no interest in becoming an independent nation.

Virgin Islands Today

The economies of each of the Virgin Islands also changed dramatically with the advent of the tourist industry. Today, the Virgin Islands have some of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean, and the U.S. islands in particular have become a haven for other West Indian immigrants. This prosperity comes largely from the islands' continuing status as dependent territories. But much of it is also directly linked to their popularity as tourist destinations, particularly among American and British tourists. For the islands' black majorities, this has meant jobs in every sector of the tourist industry, from service to construction.

Virgin Islanders today enjoy citizenship status in their respective countries but retain the Afro-Caribbean cultural heritage of their island homes. A 1995 hurricane caused significant damage in the islands, but by 1998 the tourist industry had already begun its comeback. The Virgin Islands entered the twenty-first century as one the Caribbean's most successful regions, and this relative prosperity was a welcome change and reward for Virgin Islanders.

See also Colonial Latin America and the Caribbean; Colonial Rule; Punishment of Slaves in Colonial Latin America and the Caribbean; Slave Rebellions in Latin America and the Caribbean; Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean; Transatlantic Slave Trade.