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World Travel Guide > Guides > Caribbean > British Virgin Islands

British Virgin Islands History, Language and Culture

History of British Virgin Islands

Although there is evidence of habitation dating back to 1500 BC, the Islands were first settled by South American Arawaks around 100 BC before being supplanted by the Caribs in the 15th century.

Sighted by Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493 he named them ‘Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgenes’ – meaning ‘Saint Ursula and her 1100 Virgins’.

Over the following 200 years the Spanish, British, Dutch, French and Danish competed for control as the islands became a haven for pirates. The British captured the Dutch settlement on Tortola Island in 1672 and annexed Anegada and Virgin Gorda, which would become part of what we now know as the British Virgin Islands. Meanwhile, the Danes gained control over Saint Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix.

In time the British established sugar cane plantations worked by slaves brought from Africa and the islands’ masters prospered until the mid-19th century when the abolition of slavery and a series of hurricanes all but destroyed the industry. In 1917 the USA bought the Danish islands for $25 million to establish the United States Virgin Islands.

The British Virgin Islands were administered as part of the British Leeward Islands with St Kitts and Nevis, before gaining colony status in 1960 and autonomy in 1967. Under its latest constitution, adopted in 2007, HM The Queen remains Head of State with the elected premier, currently Orlando Smith, serving as head of government and presiding over the single chamber parliament.

Did you know?
• Although the British Virgin Islands are made up of more than 60 islands and cays, only 15 are inhabited.
• Fungi, the traditional music of the islands, is named after a cornmeal dish made with okra.
• Financial services account for more than half the islands’ income leading some to label the territory as a tax haven.

British Virgin Islands Culture

Religion in British Virgin Islands

Mainly Christian, including Methodist (45%), Anglican (21%) and Roman Catholic (6%).

Social Conventions in British Virgin Islands

The British Virgin Islands remain linked to the British Commonwealth, and the islanders reflect many British traditions and customs. The development of tourism proceeds with great caution; hence the unspoilt charm of these islands and cays remains the chief attraction. The pace of life is very easygoing. Shaking hands is the customary form of greeting. Dress is informal for most occasions apart from the formal requirements of some hotels. Beachwear should be confined to the beach or poolside.

Language in British Virgin Islands

English.