British Virgin Islands

The British Virgin Islands make up the northeastern extremity of the Greater Antilles. Known for their sheltered, clear blue sailing waters and the stunning beauty of the mountainous islands, the British Virgin Islands lie some 60 miles east of Puerto Rico. Although there are over 50 islands, rocks and cays dotting the sparkling blue sea, many of them are uninhabited.The British Virgin Islands consists of four larger islands (Tortola, Anegada, Virgen Gorda, and Jost Van Dyke) and 32 smaller islands and islets, of which more than 20 are uninhabited, the largest of the islands is Tortola.

The British Virgin Islands were initially populated by the Ciboney Indians who arrived on stone age canoes from the Americas. A few hundred years later, the Arawak Indians arrived from South America. The Arawaks settled throughout the Virgin Islands and lead a simple agricultural lifestyle, they produced exquisite pottery and ornaments and maintained a strictly hereditary society. The Arawaks peacefully dominated the islands for many years until the arrival of the Carib Indians who worked their way north from South America.

In 1555 these islands were invaded by Europeans and by 1596 most of the indigenous population was decimated. Dutch buccaneers held Tortola until it was taken over in 1666 by English planters, who established a plantation economy and for the next 150 years, developed the sugar industry through the labor of African slaves. When slavery was abolished in 1838, the plantation economy quickly faltered and the majority of the white population left for Europe.

The islands dozed, a forgotten corner of the British Empire, until 1966 when a new constitution granting greater autonomy to the islands was approved. while the governor is still appointed by the Queen of England, his or her limited powers concentrate on external affairs and local security.

The boulder-covered beach known as The Baths has made Virgin Gorda famous with travelers. Christopher Columbus actually named the island, translated to read "Fat Virgin." He thought that the mountain framing of Virgin Gorda looked similar to a protruding stomach.

Tortola of all the islands has the largest population and English is the official language which is spoken in a Calypso dialect.
The hybrid Caribbean culture is evident in the food, in the music and in the handmade sloops that many locals use for fishing. A lot of islanders of African descent retain a strong belief in the spirit world; ghosts (jumbies) often get blames for bad things and credited for good things on the islands. The inspirational antics of Bro Nansi, a wily spidery character who prevailed in adverse circumstances, wore an integral part of West African slave culture.

Called the Emancipation Festival, Carnival is celebrated in the British Virgin Islands mainly in Tortola. It is a celebration for the emancipation of the islands' African slaves. It is a two-week affair of colour noise, calypso, and steel bands. Pageants and floats are in the streets and everyone have a great time. This year's Emancipation Festival will take place July 22 through August 7, 2006.


Information provided courtesy of: Caribbean Association Midwest America