Christopher Columbus is credited with "discovering" the Virgin Islands in 1493, but, in fact, they had already been inhabited for 3,000 years. It is believed that the original settlers were the nomadic Ciboney Indians, who migrated from the mainland of South America and lived off the islands' fish and vegetation. The first real homesteaders were the peaceful Arawak Indians, who arrived from Venezuela, presumably in dugout canoes with sails.
For about 500 years, the Arawaks occupied the Virgin Islands, until the arrival of the cannibalistic Carib Indians in the 15th century. The Caribs destroyed the Arawaks, either by working them to death as slaves or by eating them. With the advent of European explorers and their diseases, these tribes were completely wiped out.
The Age of Colonization
In November 1493, on his second voyage to the New World, Columbus spotted the Virgin Islands, naming them Las Once Mil Virgenes, after the Christian St. Ursula and her martyred maidens. Short of drinking water, he decided to anchor at what is now Salt River on St. Croix's north shore. His men were greeted by a rainfall of arrows. Embittered, Columbus called that part of the island Cabo de Flechas, or "Cape of the Arrows," and sailed toward Puerto Rico.
As the sponsor of Columbus's voyage, Spain claimed the Virgin Islands; however, with more interest in the Greater Antilles, Spain chose not to colonize the Virgins, leaving the door open to other European powers. In 1625, both the English and the Dutch established opposing frontier outposts on St. Croix. Struggles between the two nations for control of the island continued for about 20 years, until the English prevailed (for the time being).
As the struggle among European powers widened, the islands continued to function as a battleground. In 1650, Spanish forces from Puerto Rico overran the British garrison on St. Croix. Soon after, the Dutch invaded; in 1653, the island fell into the hands of the Knights of Malta, who gave St. Croix its name.
However, these aristocratic French cavaliers weren't exactly prepared for West Indian plantation life, and their debts quickly mounted. By 1674, King Louis XIV of France took control of St. Croix and made it part of his kingdom.
The English continued to fight Dutch settlers in Tortola, which was considered the most important of the British Virgin Islands. It wasn't until 1672 that England added the entire archipelago to its growing empire.
A year before, in March 1671, the Danish West India Company made an attempt to settle St. Thomas. The company sent two ships, but only one, the Pharaoh, completed the voyage, with about a third of its crew. Eventually, reinforcements arrived, and by 1679, at least 156 Europeans were reported living on St. Thomas, along with their slaves. Captain Kidd, Sir Francis Drake, Blackbeard, and other legendary pirates of the West Indies continued to use St. Thomas as their base for maritime raids in the area. Its harbor also became famous for its slave market.
In 1717, Danish planters sailed to St. John from St. Thomas to begin cultivating plantations. By 1733, an estimated 100 sugar, tobacco, and cotton plantations were operating on the island. That same year, the slaves rebelled against their colonial masters, taking control of the island for about 6 months and killing many Europeans. It took hundreds of French troops to quell the rebellion.
In that same year, France sold St. Croix to the Danish West India Company, which divided the island into plantations, boosting the already flourishing slave trade. Some historians say that nearly 250,000 slaves were sold on the auction blocks at Charlotte Amalie before being sent elsewhere, often to America's South. By 1792, Denmark changed its tune and announced that it officially planned to end the slave trade. It was not until 1848, however, that it did so. The British had freed their 5,133 slaves in 1834.
The great economic boom that resulted from the Virgin Islands plantations began to wilt by the 1820s. The introduction of the sugar beet virtually bankrupted plantation owners, as the demand for cane sugar drastically declined. Cuba eventually took over the sugar market in the Caribbean. By 1872, the British had so little interest in the British Virgins that they placed them in the loosely conceived and administered Federation of the Leeward Islands.
The Danes Are Gone But Their Architecture Still Stands -- Some of the architectural legacy left by the colonizing Danes still remains in the islands, especially in Christiansted and Frederiksted on St. Croix, and in Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas.
Many of the commercial buildings constructed in downtown Charlotte Amalie are restrained in ornamentation. Pilasters and classical cornices were commonplace on many buildings. Most door arches and windows were framed in brick. To "dress up" a building, ornamentation, such as cornices, was added in the final stages. The walls were covered with plaster, but in recent decades this plaster and stucco have been stripped from the walls. Underneath the rubble, well-designed shapes and patterns of old brick and blue bitch -- a stone made of volcanic tuff -- were discovered. The old masons may have known what they were doing. Once stripped of their plaster coating, the walls don't stand up well in the Caribbean sun and salt air. Cast-iron grillwork on some of the second-floor overhanging balconies displays a certain architectural flair. Many of the buildings in St. Thomas originally had courtyards, or still do. These added to the living space on the second floor. In the courtyard were kitchens and, almost more vital, cisterns to capture the precious rainwater.
Similar building techniques were used on structures that went up on St. Croix. Christiansted remains one of the most historically authentic towns in the West Indies, true to its original Danish colonial flavor. The basic style was a revival of the European classic look of the 18th century, but with variations to accommodate the tropical climate. As early as 1747, the Danes adopted a strict building code, which spared Christiansted from some of the violent fires that virtually wiped out Charlotte Amalie. Frederiksted, the other major town of St. Croix, has a well-designed waterfront, with blocks of arcaded sidewalks. The quarter is protected by the government as part of Frederiksted's National Historic District.
Great architecture was never the forte of the British Virgin Islands. During a time when major buildings might have been created, the B.V.I. were too economically depressed to find the funds for major structures of lasting significance. Therefore, for much of its history, its people have lived in typical West Indies shanties, with an occasional public building constructed that vaguely imitated 18th-century Europe in style. Curiously enough, although the B.V.I. didn't leave the world any lasting architectural heritage, it did produce a native son, William Thornton, whose designs were used for the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.
Enter the United States
In 1867, the United States attempted to purchase the islands from Denmark, but the treaty was rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1870; the asking price was $7.5 million. Following its acquisition of Puerto Rico in 1902, the United States expressed renewed interest in acquiring the Danish islands. This time, the United States offered to pay only $5 million, and the Danish parliament spurned the offer.
On the eve of its entry into World War I, the U.S. Navy began to fear a possible German takeover of the islands. The United States was concerned that the Kaiser's navy, using the islands as a base, might prey on shipping through the Panama Canal. After renewed attempts by the United States to purchase the islands, Denmark agreed to sell them in 1916 for $25 million, a staggering sum to pay for island real estate in those days.
By 1917, the United States was in full control of the islands, and Denmark retreated from the Caribbean after a legacy of nearly 2 1/2 centuries. The U.S. Navy looked after the islands for 14 years, and in 1954, they came under the sovereignty of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Some money was diverted to the area during the Prohibition era, as some islanders made rum and shipped it illegally to the United States, often through Freeport, the Bahamas. In 1927, the United States granted citizenship to the island residents. In 1936, under Franklin Roosevelt, the first Organic Act was passed, giving the islanders voting rights in local elections. This act was revised in 1954, granting them a greater degree of self-government.
Jobs generated by World War II finally woke the islands from their long economic slumber. The U.S.V.I. were used as a port during the war and visitors first started to appear on the islands. In the postwar economic boom that swept across America, the Virgin Islands at long last found a replacement for sugar cane.
The British Virgin Islands Develop
The British Virgin Islands were finally freed from the Leeward Islands Federation in 1956, and in 1966, Queen Elizabeth II visited this remote colonial outpost. By 1967, the British Virgin Islands had received a new constitution. Tourism was slower to come to the British Virgins than to the U.S. Virgin Islands, but it is now the mainstay of the economy.
In 2000, the British government issued a report that found that nearly 41% of offshore companies in the world were formed in the British Virgin Islands. By 2011, the B.V.I. was one of the world's leading offshore financial centers, and the local population boasted one of the highest incomes per capita in the Caribbean -- at around $40,000 per family.
Tourism & the Economy Today
The economy of both the British and the U.S. Virgins has been one of the most stable and prosperous in the Caribbean. But with the worldwide economic slump, all of the islands are feeling the impact, with a falloff in tourism and revenues. There has also been a drop in investments in the private sector aimed at expanding tourist facilities.
In the meantime, the governments of both the British Virgins and the U.S. Virgins continue to struggle with unemployment as they mount ongoing struggles to reduce crime and to protect the environment.
In 2010, officials in the U.S. Virgin Islands developed closer contact with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The aim is to help the territory solve some of its long-standing problems, such as the best way to address the solid waste problem and how to preserve healthy air standards.
The U.S. Virgin Islands were awarded $364 million in federal stimulus funding in 2009, and the funding is being used to stimulate the local economy during the recession. One of the major and predictable goals of the stimulus package is in job creation. Some of the money has been earmarked for upgrading the ferry service between Cruz Bay on St. John and Red Hook on St. Thomas. Other programs will be announced at some point in the future.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.