The Virgin Islands have been defined by their history. The islands possess a rich legacy of pre-Columbian settlement, and the physical, cultural, and economic footprint of the plantation era—its complexities, cruelties, and extravagance—remains. In more modern times, waves of immigrants have enriched the islands’ culture, and economic and natural challenges have defined the Virgin Islander’s resilient character.
Table of contents
- Early Peoples
- Plantation Era
- After Emancipation
- The 20th Century
Four waves of pre-Columbian settlers found homes in the Virgin Islands: the Ciboney, Igneri, Taino, and Kalinago peoples. Each group arrived in the Virgin Islands from South America, and each brought new advances in crop cultivation, social structure, and tools.
The first humans are thought to have been present in the Virgin Islands as early as 2200 BC. These earliest islanders, called Ciboney by the Spanish and Ortoiroid by today’s archaeologists, were fisher-foragers who did not make pottery or cultivate plants. They lived nomadically and used crude stone tools to prepare food. Shellfish was probably an important part of their diet.
The Ciboney lived in crude shelters, fashioned out of palm fronds and other material at hand. Social organization was primitive; families who lived and traveled together constituted a single band, without organized leadership. Archaeological evidence of these Stone Age people has been discovered at Krum Bay, St. Thomas, and Brewer’s Bay, Tortola.
The next wave was the Igneri, or Saladoid, people, who migrated from South America around 400 BC and lived undisturbed in the Virgin Islands for almost 1,000 years. They cultivated crops, including yucca and cassava. In addition to fish, the flesh of the agouti, a ratlike animal they raised, was their primary source of protein.
The Igneri knew how to make pottery and produced thin griddles on which they cooked cassava. They lived in communal round houses.
Much more is known about the third and most sophisticated group of pre-Columbians to live in the Virgin Islands. These people, defined by a different style of pottery and more advanced cultivation and social systems, have become known as Taino (the Arawaks of popular legend). Tainos lived throughout the Virgin Islands beginning around AD 100; archaeologists have found evidence of Taino settlement at some 32 sites on Tortola alone. The Salt River Bay area of St. Croix is widely believed to be an important Taino settlement and has been studied extensively. Digs at Cinnamon Bay, St. John, and Hull Bay, St. Thomas, have unearthed evidence of Taino settlements at those locations.
Tainos traveled between islands in large canoes. Their caciques (chiefs) arbitrated disputes, oversaw cultivation and hunting, and made decisions about the future of the village. Cacique was a hereditary position.
Ornamentation was important to the Tainos, for it was linked to their religious beliefs. In their worship they used zemis—idols made of wood, stone, bone, shell, and clay—through which they worshipped the gods and sought to exert control over them. The Taino god of wind and water, Jurakan, is the namesake of today’s hurricanes. Some zemis were believed to influence the weather, crops, hunting, wealth, and childbirth. Religious leaders called behiques communicated with the gods and healed the sick and injured.
Taino villages were typically a ring of circular huts. The cacique lived in a large rectangular house with his wives; commoners lived in round thatched-roof huts with dirt floors and one door. They slept in hammocks.
Tainos enjoyed parties. They created castanets out of stone and used them to make music. Both men and women played a ball game using a rubber ball. Evidence of ball courts has been found at Belmont, Tortola, and Salt River Bay, St. Croix.
The final wave of pre-Columbian people arrived in the Virgin Islands shortly before Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the islands. The Kalinago (popularly known as Caribs) were a martial society that had made its way northward from South America, conquering the more peaceful Tainos along the way. Defeated Taino males were killed or taken as slaves, while Taino women were absorbed into the Kalinago society.
It was a Kalinago village that Columbus and his men set upon on November 1493, when they sailed into Salt River Bay, St. Croix, but archaeologists do not know whether the Kalinago had reached St. Thomas, St. John, or the other islands at that time. No archaeological evidence has been unearthed that they had, and since Columbus and his fleet did not stop at any of the other Virgin Islands, no documentary evidence exists either.
The myth that the Kalinago were cannibals has never been substantiated, and, if they did eat human flesh, it is almost certain they did so for ceremonial purposes only. More likely, the myth came from the Kalinago’s fierce nature and the fact that their way of honoring the dead was to hang their bones in pots from the rafters of their homes—a practice misinterpreted by the Spanish who came into contact with them. The Spanish, who originated the myth of the cannibalistic Carib, benefited from its spread because it justified their ruthless extermination of the islands’ native populations.
Like Taino marriages, Kalinago marriages were polygamous, although not every man could afford to have more than one wife. For Tainos, it was the caciques who were most likely to have multiple wives; for the Kalinago it was the warriors. Believing that it made them more beautiful, the Kalinago flattened the front and back of their children’s heads.
The Kalinago social organization was looser than that of the Taino; Kalinago culture emphasized physical prowess and individualism. While settlements had a leader, his authority was limited. War chiefs were chosen from among villagers based on their skill in battle. The Kalinago lived separated by gender; the men lived together in a large building called a carbet, while the women lived in smaller houses. Tobacco was the standard of exchange.
Kalinago military dominance was due to the culture’s focus on training and their development of more deadly weapons than the Taino had. Young Kalinago men were trained as children to be warriors, and the values of courage and endurance were highly thought of. The bow and arrow was the most common Kalinago weapon; poison from deadly plants was used on the tip of the arrow to increase the chance of death. The Kalinago depended on the element of surprise in achieving military victories.
Within 100 years of Spanish arrival in the Caribbean, there were no more indigenous people living in the Virgin Islands. Some were captured as slaves to work in Spanish gold mines, and others fled southward to islands farther away from the Spanish strongholds of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. The Caribbean island of Dominica still has a “Carib” community—descendants of these people.
Others stayed put and fought their new Spanish neighbors. St. Croix’s Caribs, as the Spanish called them, violently opposed Spanish settlement of the region; the new Spanish settlement on Puerto Rico was the target of numerous raids and attacks between 1510 and 1530. On one raid, the Caribs killed the newly appointed governor of the colony. In response to the aggression, the Spanish crown formally gave its settlers in the region license to hunt and kill Caribs in 1512, a move that marked the beginning of the end for the remaining Virgin Islands native people. Although they continued to raid and attack Puerto Rico between 1520 and 1530, they were ultimately no match for the Spanish. By 1590, and probably well before that on most of the islands, indigenous people had disappeared from the Virgin Islands.
Today, there are no native people in the Virgin Islands. Only a few of their words—such as hurricane, hammock, and barbecue—remain.
Christopher Columbus (or Cristóbal Colón, as the Spanish knew him) sailed through the Virgin Islands in November 1493, during his second voyage to the New World. The admiral’s first voyage in 1492 had taken him to the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola. On Christmas Eve 1492, his flagship, the Santa Maria, grounded on a reef and sank off Hispaniola. Columbus and his men salvaged what they could from the ship to build a settlement for the 40 men he would have to leave behind at what he called La Navidad.
The aim of Columbus’s second voyage was settlement. Seventeen ships and more than 1,000 men departed the Canary Islands on October 13, 1493. The fleet made good time across the Atlantic and spotted the island of Dominica on November 3, 1493. They sailed northward along the northern Leeward Islands until November 13, when they reached a large, fertile, and well-populated island that Columbus decided to name Santa Cruz (the Holy Cross).
Columbus sent some of his men ashore at Salt River Bay for freshwater and, some reports claim, to capture natives who could tell him where he was. When the advance party was returning to the fleet, it encountered a canoe carrying four Carib men, two Carib women, and two Taino slaves. A fight between the two parties ensued; Columbus’s men overturned the canoe while the Caribs peppered the Europeans with poison arrows. Columbus’s party was impressed by the Caribs’ prowess as warriors. Columbus’s son, Don Fernando, wrote later about one Carib who kept shooting after the canoe was upset “as if he had been on dry land.”
Columbus named the area in front of Salt River Bay the Cape of Arrows after the skirmish. In the end, one member of Columbus’s party died, and one Carib was killed. The rest of the native party was taken as prisoners and eventually transported to Spain. It was, no doubt, a terrible fate for these captured people. A glimpse of their treatment is given by Columbus’s crewman Michele de Cuneo, who recorded matter-of-factly the details of his sexual assault on “a very beautiful Carib woman whom the Lord Admiral gave to me.”
After the skirmish at St. Croix, Columbus divided his fleet; the small caravels, including the one in which he rode, sailed northward through what is now Drake’s Channel. As he sailed, Columbus was impressed by the number of small islands before him and named them Las Virgenes, after the then-popular myth of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin martyrs killed by the Huns. St. Ursula remains on the official seal of the British Virgin Islands. The second half of Columbus’s fleet remained south and sailed straight for the eastern end of Puerto Rico, where the two parties met up and continued on their way to Hispaniola.
Although Columbus did not stop to explore these islands, he did name many of them. During the passage he labeled Virgin Gorda (Fat Virgin) and gave Tortola the name Santa Ana, which did not stick.
Other early explorers passed through the islands but did not settle. Ponce de Leon led voyages in the area in the early 16th century and Sir Sebastian Cabot and Sir Thomas Pert passed through in 1517 after exploring Brazilian waters. Sir John Hawkins sailed through in 1563 with his first cargo of African slaves for Hispaniola. On a third voyage, Hawkins sailed with young Francis Drake. After being knighted, Drake returned to the Virgin Islands in 1585, where he mustered his fleet in North Sound, Virgin Gorda, for what would be a disastrous attack on the Spanish settlement on Puerto Rico. The main passage through the island group now bears Drake’s name. Eleven years later, the Earl of Cumberland used the same North Sound as a staging area for a more successful attack on Puerto Rico.
The stories of pirates in the Virgin Islands are long on legend and short on fact, but that has not stopped many of these tales from remaining popular today. St. Thomas’s Bluebeard and Blackbeard’s Castles really have nothing to do with piracy—they were fortifications built to protect Charlotte Amalie Harbor from enemy attack. History knows nothing about a pirate called Bluebeard. Blackbeard is the pirate Edward Teach, who plundered Caribbean trading ships from 1716 to 1718. Whether he had any special affiliation with St. Thomas is unknown, but he did travel through the Virgin Islands.
The true history of piracy in the Virgin Islands is relatively short. From 1680 to 1684, under the leadership of brothers Adolph and Nicolaj Esmit, St. Thomas developed a reputation for tolerating and even indulging piracy. In 1683, Adolph Esmit was accused of offering safe harbor to La Trompeuse, a pirate ship captained by Jean Hamlin. The British ship HMS Francis, captained by Charles Carlile and sent to hunt the pirate ship, sailed into St. Thomas’s harbor and found La Trompeuse alongside five other known pirate vessels. While Carlile made plans to burn the pirate ship, Esmit sheltered the pirates, including Hamlin himself, who reportedly found accommodation at Fort Christian, the official residence. Esmit flouted English threats by not only refusing to hand Hamlin over to them, but also by selling him a new ship.
The Esmits lost power in 1684, and subsequent governors of St. Thomas were not so tolerant of the illegal trade. In 1698, pirate Bartholomew Sharp was imprisoned for life and his property confiscated; a year later St. Thomas governor Johan Lorentz forbade Captain Kidd from entering St. Thomas’s harbor.
Tales of piracy abound in the British Virgin Islands, too, fueled by the legend of treasure found on Norman Island.
Early European settlements in the islands were tenuous. The Virgin Islands, like the rest of the Caribbean, were the stage for European battles for supremacy. Alliances and enemies changed quickly; depending on your perspective, marauding ships were either pirate or patriot. Disease, war, and economic uncertainty made life difficult and unpredictable.
From 1493 until the late 1500s, settlements in the Virgin Islands were actively discouraged by the Spanish, who had established a colony on nearby Puerto Rico. Some historians say that the Spanish established a small mining outpost on Virgin Gorda in the first half of the 16th century, further discouraging other European powers.
By the beginning of the 17th century, Spanish supremacy was fading, and other European powers grew intent on settling the islands. There is evidence of Dutch and English settlements on St. Croix as early as 1625. In the British Virgin Islands, there are records of English settlements in 1640 and 1646, and a French settlement in 1648. Early settlers were a hardy bunch, drawn by the lure of adventure, the possibility of profits, and, in some cases, desperation.
British Virgin Islands
The earliest European settlement on Tortola dates back to 1649, when Dutch settlers arrived. They lived in relative peace until war broke out between the Dutch and the English in 1665. During that war the English attacked Tortola, destroyed the Dutch settlements, and took 67 enslaved Africans they found there. This is the first record of the presence of slaves on the British Virgin Islands.
The Dutch returned after the 1665 attack, and three years later a report describes the population of Tortola as “80 Irish, English, and Welsh under the Dutch.” The English and Dutch did not remain at peace, however, and during another war in 1672 the Dutch settlement was again attacked by the English. This time, the Dutch surrendered before a drop of blood could be shed. The islands became British, and they remain so today.
The future remained uncertain for settlers of the British Virgin Islands even after the Dutch surrender in 1672. During peace negotiations after the war between England and the Netherlands, it was agreed that the Virgin Islands would eventually be handed back over to the Dutch. This never happened, but the uncertainty over the islands’ future discouraged large-scale settlement and investment. The islands became home to people who could not get land on other, more prosperous, islands.
U.S. Virgin Islands
Meanwhile, the Danes grew interested in establishing a Caribbean colony. St. Thomas, still unsettled and possessing a good natural harbor, caught their eye. Their first attempt at colonizing St. Thomas came in 1665, under the leadership of Captain Erik Nielson Smith. Settlers of a number of different nationalities were recruited and began to establish trading facilities and clear the land for plantations. The colony weathered attacks from English privateers, sickness, and even a hurricane before it was abandoned 19 months later.
The Danes’ second attempt at colonization took place in 1672, when the Faero set sail for the West Indies with 190 people on board. The Danes had recruited a diverse bunch of settlers for St. Thomas. The 128 Danish West India Company employees were indentured servants, contracted to work for the company for between three and five years. The remaining 62 people were recruited from prisons and poorhouses in Denmark.
When the Faero arrived on St. Thomas in May 1672, their numbers had declined to just 104—9 had escaped and 77 died. During the first seven months of the colony’s life, another 75 people died, leaving a bare 29 people in the nascent colony. Dutch, German, English, French, Norwegian, Swedish, Scottish, Irish, Flemish, and Jewish settlers arrived and grew the colony. By 1680 there were 156 whites and 175 slaves on the island.
An eight-year tax holiday announced in 1688 drew even more settlers, including French Huguenots and many more Dutch. By 1715 the island’s population had increased to 547 whites and more than 3,000 slaves. St. Thomas’s plantation economy grew in tandem with its population. In 1688 there were 90 surveyed plantations on the island; by 1720 there were 164. Cultivation on the island peaked in 1725, with 177 plantations.
The early years of St. Croix were a time of shifting alliances and uncertainty. Although Columbus claimed St. Croix for the Spanish when he sailed by in 1493, the Spaniards made no attempt to colonize the island, probably because of the continued presence of hostile indigenous people there. Early European settlers on St. Croix were English, French, and Dutch adventurers who established tentative settlements under constant threat of attack. By 1650, the French had the upper hand on the island and developed a small-scale plantation colony, where they produced indigo, cotton, and sugar.
The French abandoned St. Croix in 1696 in favor of Haiti, and the island was virtually unoccupied until 1733, when it was sold to the Danes. It was the first time title to a West Indian island had been exchanged by means other than warfare. Denmark sent its first shipment of materials and men to St. Croix in August 1734, under the command of Frederick Moth, who had been named governor of the island. About 150 British people, who were living on the island with about 450 slaves, were allowed to stay if they pledged allegiance to the king of Denmark. The island was promptly surveyed and subdivided into 400 estates, which were sold to aspiring planters from Europe and the surrounding Caribbean colonies. The opportunity attracted Danes, Scots, English, Dutch, Irish, and Sephardic Jews.
St. John was the last of the Virgin Islands to be substantially settled by Europeans. Danish attempts to settle the island in 1675 and again in 1684 failed, in part because of disturbances by the English, who had claimed nearby Tortola in 1672, and in part because the Danes were preoccupied with establishing their colony on St. Thomas. By the early 1700s, St. Thomas was thriving and its harbor was one of the busiest in the Caribbean. Agriculture had taken a backseat to commerce, and planters were looking for an island that could provide space for plantations. St. John fit the bill.
In 1718, the Danish West India Company sent 20 planters, 5 soldiers, and 16 slaves to St. John to begin dividing, settling, and cultivating the island. To lure settlers, the Danes offered a seven-year tax hiatus and welcomed all nationalities. The deal attracted a number of established St. Thomas planters, who remained on St. Thomas but hired overseers to manage their St. John plantations. The opportunity also drew a number of poor settlers who started by cultivating cotton, indigo, and tobacco in the hopes of raising the capital required to set up a sugar plantation.
Political stability and the availability of capital led to growth of the Virgin Islands’ plantation economy. On the flat, fertile plain of St. Croix, plantations were set neatly next to each other, windmills dotting the landscape. On the other, hillier islands, slaves cleared whole hillsides of native forest and terraced the slopes for the cultivation of sugar. The plantation era was one of contradictions and great cruelty. For planters, it was often a gamble; fortunes were won and lost in a single growing season. For the enslaved Africans who produced the wealth, it was brutal and dehumanizing.
Africans who survived the devastating Middle Passage from Africa’s west coast were sold in markets at Charlotte Amalie, Christiansted, and Road Town and worked, some to death, on the plantations. Those who endured performed the grueling work of clearing land and planting and harvesting sugarcane.
Danish West Indies
By the end of the 18th century, St. Croix was second only to Jamaica in sugar production per acre. In 1800, the island had the fourth largest sugar product in the Caribbean. The colony’s success meant planters and their families could afford to lead lives of opulence. Many of the island’s elaborate estate houses date back to the period from 1760 to 1820, the heyday of the plantation period.
On St. John, the plantation era began with Danish settlement. A 1733 slave rebellion caused some planters to pull out of the island, but others remained. Many St. John plantations were owned by absentee planters.
While St. Croix and St. John grew in importance as sugar islands, St. Thomas turned its focus away from agriculture and toward trade. Delegations from the colony to Denmark in the early 18th century led to easing of trade restrictions, which allowed ships of all nations to trade in St. Thomas on payment of fixed import and export duties. Over the coming decades, trade restrictions were further eased, until St. Thomas became a free port in 1764. Denmark’s declared neutrality allowed St. Thomas to flourish even in times of war.
British Virgin Islands
The British islands got off to a slow start with the plantation industry. Uncertainty about the islands’ ownership discouraged investment, so while the Danish West Indies were being cultivated with sugar (which required major capital investment), plantations on the British islands continued to produce cotton, indigo, ginger, and coffee—all of which required little investment but yielded much more modest profits.
The plantation era began in earnest in the British Virgin Islands in 1747, when an Englishman named James Purcell was appointed lieutenant governor of the territory. Purcell lobbied for local government and traveled to Liverpool, England, to seek financing for Tortola’s planters. Purcell’s efforts bore fruit. Financing was provided, and plantations all around the island turned to sugar cultivation.
It is during this time that whole hillsides of native timber were cut down to make space for sugar fields and many of the fortifications now in ruin around the island were built. James Purcell died in 1759 and was succeeded by his brother, John Purcell, who continued to govern over an expanding plantation economy. In 1774, the same year that sugar production reached its peak on Tortola, representative government was established for the first time—another sign of the colony’s development.
Prosperity for planters meant something entirely different for the enslaved Africans brought to the islands to provide the labor that fueled the plantation economy. During the most prosperous years of plantation life here, slave ships sailed to St. Thomas, St. Croix, and Tortola with human cargo directly from Africa. Newly arrived Africans were given one week of “seasoning” to recuperate from the horrific Middle Passage from Africa before being put to work; mortality rates among newly arrived slaves were as high as 30 percent.
Most enslaved people lived in mud and thatch huts on their plantations, except for the slave driver, or bomba, who often lived in a wooden house. Field slaves worked from sunup to sundown, with longer hours during the arduous sugar harvest period. Slaves were often given small patches of land on which they were expected to produce food for themselves and their families, which was augmented by meager provisions from their owner. Each slave was supposed to receive one new piece of clothing each year but on some occasions got none.
The enslaved in the British Virgin Islands were subject to unfettered brutality, in part because of a Slave Code now noted as one of the most repressive in the entire Caribbean region. One report from Tortola tells of a planter stabbing a slave through the heart because he did not like the meal she prepared. In another case, slaves who attempted a rebellion on Josiah’s Bay Plantation in 1790 were tortured for days and then put to death in a public execution. In the Danish islands, authorities responded to the 1733 St. John rebellion by instituting repressive rules against slave gatherings.
The miracle of slavery is that the enslaved not only survived but developed a rich culture and strong character despite oppression and brutality. Most plantations allowed slaves one and a half days off each week. On Saturday afternoons they were expected to cultivate their own crops, on which they depended for food, and on Sundays they rested.
Many enslaved people found ways to earn money, some developing skills that allowed them to buy their freedom and the freedom of their families. A market was held on Sunday mornings in Charlotte Amalie, Christiansted, Frederiksted, Road Town, and other villages, where they would bring produce and other goods to sell. The enslaved also depended on their religious beliefs. Before missionaries began Christianizing slaves in the late 1700s, many practiced the religions of Africa labeled obeah today. These religions involved belief in various gods, and also knowledge of bush medicine and other healing methods. Recognizing the threat of the slaves’ religious gatherings and beliefs, authorities passed laws making obeah illegal. It remains illegal in the British Virgin Islands today.
By the turn of the 19th century, doubts were increasing about slavery. Abolitionists in the United States and Europe were gaining strength, and social changes were bringing about a greater awareness of human rights and freedoms. The Haitian revolution of 1804 had forced the issue of slavery and freedom to the forefront. Between 1834 and 1886, slavery would be abolished in the Caribbean.
The end of slavery did not automatically address the social and economic oppression experienced by Africans in the islands, but it was the first in a long series of steps toward equality and empowerment, a process that continues today.
British Virgin Islands
As the plantation industry in the British Virgin Islands grew, doubts about slavery were developing in England. Abolitionists fought for decades against the slave trade and slavery itself, eventually prevailing in 1807 when Parliament ended the transatlantic slave trade. The act meant no more Africans could be brought to the New World as slaves but did not necessarily improve the lives of slaves already in the region. Nor did it end the slave trade within the Caribbean, and many slaves from small, declining territories like the British Virgin Islands were sent to colonies still experiencing growth.
In 1811, the trial and hanging of Tortola planter Arthur Hodge for the murder of his slave, Prosper, further fueled concern over the treatment of slaves in the British West Indian colonies. The case received attention in England and throughout the West Indies, and testimony about Hodge’s brutal treatment of Prosper and other slaves further turned public opinion against slavery.
Also, the enslaved population itself was changing. Methodist missionaries arrived on the island in 1789 and were the first Christians to minister directly to the slaves. The Methodists soon had a following of more than 2,000 slaves, and in 1823 the Methodist church opened the first Sunday school on the island, a small but important step toward education.
In 1790 and 1821, slaves at Josiah’s Bay rioted in response to rumors that their owner was withholding freedom from them and that he was going to send them to Trinidad. While both riots were ultimately put down, planters were frightened.
Economic forces also caused planters to lose interest in their plantations. Sugar prices fell during the first half of the 19th century, after the discovery of a way to extract sugar from the sugar beet, which could grow in Europe. At the same time, the cost of maintaining slaves was higher since they could no longer be worked to death and then replaced. Finally, a major hurricane hit the islands on September 22, 1819, destroying 100 of the 104 plantations in cultivation. Many planters decided not to rebuild after the storm.
These factors and others led to the end of slavery in the British West Indian colonies, including the British Virgin Islands, on August 1, 1832. Historians disagree on how the emancipation proclamation was communicated in the British Virgin Islands. Some say it was read aloud at the Sunday Morning Well in Road Town, where a plaque now hangs. Others say it was more likely announced in churches around the territory.
Today, Tortola celebrates its annual Emancipation Festival on the first Monday in August in commemoration of the slaves’ first days of freedom.
Danish West Indies
Slavery persisted in the Danish colonies for 16 years longer than in the British islands. After the British ended slavery in 1832, Denmark knew it had to plan for emancipation in its colonies. In 1840, the Danish king proposed a scheme whereby slaves would be given an extra day off per week, during which they could work for their owner for wages and eventually buy their freedom. While some planters agreed to giving slaves an additional free day, few agreed to pay them, and the proposal was not accepted.
In 1847 another proposal was made, this one accepted by both Danish officials and planters. Under the plan all babies born to slaves would be free from that date on, but adult slaves would have to wait 12 years before freedom would be granted. While the Danes had consulted extensively with planters on the plan, no one had thought it necessary to consider the opinion of the enslaved people themselves, a decision that proved to be shortsighted. On July 3, 1848, thousands of enslaved people on St. Croix rose up, led by a young slave named Buddhoe, to demand their freedom. The disturbance moved through the countryside to Fort Frederik, where the group lay down its single demand: freedom. A deadline of noon came and went with no sign of freedom or the governor, Peter von Scholten, who had the authority to grant it. In response, the slaves wrested the hated “justice post,” where many slaves had been beaten and killed, from its position near the fort and threw it in the water. Buddhoe uttered an ultimatum: “Freedom by four o’clock or we burn the town.”
Von Scholten arrived in Frederiksted before 4pm and went into the fort, where he consulted with planters and officials. Von Scholten, faced with a crowd of some 8,000 enslaved people, rejected their counsel, instead uttering the words that soon became famous: “From this day forward, all unfree in the Danish West Indies shall be free.”
The end of slavery marked the beginning of a long economic decline in the Virgin Islands. The Danes and British did very little to support the newly freed slaves, and many of the planters pulled out. Left virtually alone, the former slaves turned to subsistence farming, fishing, and small-scale trade to survive. St. Croix was the only island that maintained a sugar industry significantly beyond the end of slavery; its last sugar mill closed in the 1960s.
It was this era—when Virgin Islanders managed to provide for themselves despite the lack of any support from governments—that created the independent and self-reliant character and tight-knit communities which still define these islands.
British Virgin Islands
In the British colonies, slavery was followed by a period of apprenticeship, a stepping-stone between slavery and freedom. Under apprenticeship former slaves were no longer subject to the brutality they knew under slavery and were free to move about the island as they wished. But they were required to remain on the plantations where they once were slaves, where they worked for a small salary.
Apprenticeship ended around 1840, and by then the sugar industry was close to its death. In 1839, five years after the end of slavery, Tortola produced 423 hogsheads of sugar. In 1852, it produced just one. During this time, most English planters left.
The freed slaves became yeoman farmers, merchants, and sailors. Farmers kept cattle, raised fruits and vegetables, fished, and cleared timber to make charcoal, most of which was sold to St. Thomas. In fact, aside from small-scale production for local use and the brief burst of rum production during Prohibition in the United States, the islands said goodbye to sugar for good.
What few whites remained on the island fled after riots broke out in 1853. Angered by the government’s decision to double the cattle tax overnight, islanders gathered in Road Town to protest the tax and demand the release of two men arrested because of their refusal to pay it. Eventually, the rioters broke into the prison where the men were being held, took the firearms, and spent two days burning and destroying Road Town and what plantations remained throughout the island. Only one Road Town building survived the fire; it is still known as the “fireproof building.”
The second half of the 19th century was quiet in the British Virgin Islands. Some islanders persevered by hard work, while some migrated to the United States and other places that promised more opportunity. The British government neglected the islands. The only schools were operated by the Methodist and Anglican churches, and health care was primitive. The Legislative Assembly, still a whites-only establishment, disbanded in 1902, and responsibility for the islands fell to a British governor stationed in Antigua, where it remained for 50 years.
Danish West Indies
While emancipation was achieved in 1848, black laborers in the Danish West Indies were still forced to work under slave-like conditions. Immediately after slavery was abolished, the Danish administration enacted rules designed to prevent newly freed slaves from leaving their plantations. The rules required laborers to enter into one-year contracts with their employer at terms set out by law: a five-day workweek, and wages of 5, 10, or 15 cents a day, depending on whether the slave was skilled or unskilled. Laborers were told they could apply to change employers only once a year. In addition, passport requirements were designed to limit the number of people who could leave the islands altogether.
Rules or no, many freed slaves did not remain on the plantations. On St. John, where the sugar industry collapsed almost immediately after the end of slavery, the population of the island fell from 2,228 to 994 between 1850 and 1880. Those people who remained turned to subsistence farming, fishing, and trade to survive.
On St. Croix, while many former slaves were restricted from leaving the island, they did leave the plantations to live in town, where they sought employment as servants, port hands, or artisans. To fill a shortfall of agricultural labor, St. Croix was opened to immigrants from the nearby British islands, Barbados, and St. Eustatius.
Discontent with working conditions and restrictions on free movement came to a head on St. Croix in October 1878, when a riot broke out in Frederiksted, fueled by rumors that the Danes had stopped issuing passports and that police had killed a laborer. A crowd in Frederiksted stormed the fort but was unable to scale the internal gate. They turned instead on the town and nearby plantations, setting fire to town houses, businesses, great houses, sugar mills, and crops. Crowds of laborers roamed the island for days, armed with sticks and fire. Leaders included three Crucian women: Mary Thomas (“Queen Mary”), Rebecca Frederik, and Axelline Saloman.
It took the Danes two weeks to put down the Fireburn, as the riots have come to be known. In the final analysis, nearly 900 acres of agricultural land were destroyed, 60 laborers were killed, and 3 soldiers perished. More than 400 laborers were arrested; 75 of these were sentenced to jail. Mary, Rebecca, and Axelline, the “Queens of the Fireburn,” were sent to Denmark to serve their sentences. They returned to St. Croix and worked as street vendors until their deaths. The main road between Christiansted and Frederiksted in St. Croix is called Queen Mary Highway after Mary Thomas.
The Merchant Island
St. Thomas did not fare much better than its sister islands. Cholera outbreaks there in 1853 and 1866 killed an estimated 3,200 people. A devastating hurricane in 1867, followed by an earthquake and tidal wave in the same year, destroyed the island’s reputation as a safe harbor.
The beginning of the steam age and advances in communications contributed to the island’s decline. St. Thomas’s harbor was too small for the large steamships of the late 19th century, and the advent of telegraphic connections allowed merchants to acquire market information without making the journey in person. The number of steamships calling on St. Thomas peaked in 1880 and declined after.
Meanwhile, the island saw an influx of people. Former slaves left plantations on St. Croix and St. John in high numbers, many of them heading to Charlotte Amalie, where they sought work on the docks and in subsidiary trade businesses.
The 20th Century
A few attempts were made in the early 20th century to diversify and strengthen the economies of the then-Danish West Indies and the British Virgin Islands. On St. Thomas, the National Bank of the Danish West Indies was established in 1904 after the St. Thomas Bank ceased operations in 1898. A new shipping authority was created in 1904 to encourage trade. In 1912, the Danish West Indian Company was founded, and in 1915 its headquarters were moved to St. Thomas. (Its offspring, the West India Company, is still the largest cruise ship agent on the island.)
On St. Croix, plantations turned to other crops, such as citrus, coconuts, and tomatoes. Cattle also began to be an important part of the island economy. On St. John, the Danish Plantation Company opened experimental bay rum factories in 1903 in hopes of providing some economic stimulus for the island. Bay rum proved to be a successful export, and several former sugar factories were converted to bay rum plants. One of the largest was at Cinnamon Bay.
On the British islands, authorities established an agriculture station in 1902, which was supposed to introduce new crops and agricultural skills to the islanders.
World War I and the Transfer
Despite feeble attempts to the contrary, the Danish West Indies’ economy worsened at the outbreak of World War I. Shipping ground to a near halt, and living conditions were poor. In 1916, inspired by a successful strike by sugarcane workers on St. Croix, St. Thomas coal carriers struck. Led by George A. Moorhead, the strike was successful and led to a doubling of the wage, from $0.01 to $0.02 per basket.
While St. Thomas and the other Danish West Indies were an increasing financial liability for Denmark, the United States saw them as islands of potentially strategic importance. The United States needed to protect approaches to the Panama Canal and also wanted to prevent the islands from winding up in the hands of a foreign nation hostile to its influence. U.S. interest in the islands also coincided with a growing imperialist attitude in the country.
The sale was negotiated between 1915 and 1916, and the official transfer took place on March 31, 1917. The last day of March is still observed as Transfer Day in the territory, and residents are already looking forward to large-scale celebrations around the centennial in 2017. The United States paid $25 million for the three islands.
From 1917 until 1931, the islands were administered by the U.S. Navy, and little emphasis was placed on developing democratic institutions or meaningful economic growth. However, some accomplishments were made. Naval officials reorganized hospitals, vaccination programs were put in place, and a sanitary code passed. Concrete water catchments were built on St. Thomas following a 1924 drought, and schools were built and opened.
On St. Croix, thousands of Puerto Ricans were encouraged to migrate to the island to provide agricultural labor. New Deal-era homesteading programs provided some economic opportunity for Crucians and served to subdivide several of the largest plantations. The 1934 program saw the subdivision of about 5,000 acres at estates Whim, LaGrande Princess, Northside, and Bethlehem. Under the scheme, settlers could buy six acres of land for about $18 a year, paid over 20 years.
World War II contributed to a minor economic boom for the islands. Construction of military installations on St. Thomas drew more laborers away from farms, and when the building boom was over, they did not go back. In 1952, the U.S. Virgin Islands Tourist Development Board was formed, and travelers began to discover St. Thomas.
While St. Thomas and St. John were focusing solely on tourism, St. Croix was opening its doors to industry. Tax incentives approved in the 1960s encouraged the development of the island’s industrial economy. In 1966 Hess Oil and Harvey Alumina established industrial centers on the island. Some of the early hotels—Carambola and the Buccaneer—date from this period, too.
One of the early visitors to the islands was Laurance Rockefeller, the grandson of John D. Rockefeller. Rockefeller visited the islands during the early 1950s on a Caribbean cruise and immediately saw their potential as national parks and tourist destinations. He and his agents began negotiating with landowners to buy up large tracts of St. John.
Rockefeller spent an estimated $2 million to buy more than 5,000 acres of land on St. John, which was handed over to the government when the Virgin Islands National Park was declared at a ceremony on December 1, 1956. The same day, Rockefeller reopened Caneel Bay Plantation, a luxury resort completely surrounded by park land. St. John’s nature-based tourism industry was born.
Having made his mark on the U.S. Virgin Islands, Rockefeller moved on to the British islands, where he bought large expanses of land on Tortola and Virgin Gorda to form national parks and developed Little Dix Bay Hotel, which opened its doors in 1964, on Virgin Gorda.
The Cuban Revolution in 1959 proved to be the launchpad for the Virgin Islands’ tourism industry: There was a seven-fold increase in the number of tourists between 1959 and 1969.
The modern Virgin Islands had arrived.