The islands were 'discovered' by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. He named them
Las Once Mil Vírgenes
in honour of the legend of St Ursula and her 11,000 martyred virgins. There were indigenous settlements on all the major islands of the group and the first hostile action with the Caribs took place during Columbus' visit. Spain asserted its exclusive right to settle the islands but did not colonize them, being more interested the Greater Antilles. European settlement did not begin until the 17th century, when few Indians were to be found. St Croix (Santa Cruz) was settled by the Dutch and the English around 1625, and later by the French. In 1645 the Dutch abandoned the island and went to St Eustatius and St Maarten. In 1650 the Spanish repossessed the island and drove off the English, but the French, under Philippe de Loinvilliers de Poincy of the Knights of Malta, persuaded the Spanish to sail for Puerto Rico. Three years later de Poincy formally deeded his islands to the Knights of Malta although the King of France retained sovereignty. St Croix prospered and planters gradually converted their coffee, ginger and tobacco plantations to sugar, and African slavery was introduced. Wars, illegal trading, privateering, piracy and religious conflicts finally persuaded the French Crown that a colony on St Croix was not militarily or economically feasible and in 1695 or 1696 the colony was evacuated to St Domingue.

A plan for colonizing St Thomas was approved by Frederik III of Denmark in 1665 but the first settlement failed. The Danes asserted authority over St John in 1684, but the hostility of the English in Tortola prevented them from settling until 1717. In 1733 France sold St Croix to the
Danish West India & Guinea Company
and in 1754 the Danish West Indies became a royal colony. After the end of Company rule, St Thomas turned towards commerce while in St Croix plantation agriculture flourished. St Thomas became an important shipping centre with reliance on the slave trade. Denmark was the first European nation to end its participation in the slave trade, in 1802. Illegal trade continued, however, and British occupation of the Virgin Islands in the early 1800s prevented enforcement of the ban.

The Danish Virgin Islands reached a peak population of 43,178 in 1835. Sailing ships were replaced by steamships which found it less necessary to transship in St Thomas. Prosperity declined with a fall in sugar prices, a heavy debt burden, soil exhaustion, development of sugar beet in Europe, hurricanes and droughts and the abolition of slavery. In 1847 a Royal decree provided that all slaves would be free after 1859 but the impatient slaves rebelled in July 1848. By the late 19th century economic decline became pronounced. The sugar factory on St Croix was inefficient and in the 20th century the First World War meant less shipping for St Thomas, more inflation, unemployment and labour unrest. The Virgin Islands became a liability for Denmark and the economic benefits of colonialism no longer existed. Negotiations with the USA had taken place intermittently ever since the 1860s for cession of the Virgin Islands to the USA. The USA wanted a Caribbean naval base and, after the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal, was particularly concerned to guard against German acquisition of Caribbean territory. In 1917, the islands were sold for US$25 million but no progress was made for several years. The islands were under naval rule during and after the war and it was not until 1932 that US citizenship was granted to all natives of the Virgin Islands.

A devastating hurricane in 1928, followed by the stock market crash of 1929, brought US awareness of the need for economic and political modernization. Several years of drought, the financial collapse of the sugar refineries, high unemployment and low wages characterized these years. In 1931 naval rule was replaced by a civil government. In 1934, the
Virgin Islands Company
) was set up as a 'partnership programme'. The sugar and rum industry benefited from demand in the Second World War. VICO improved housing, land and social conditions, but the end of the wartime construction boom, wartime demand for rum, and the closing of the submarine base brought further economic recession. However, the end of diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba shifted tourism towards the islands. Construction boomed and there was even a labour shortage. VICO was disbanded in 1966, along with the production of sugar cane. Various tax incentives promoted the arrival of heavy industry, and during the 1960s the
Harvey Alumina Company
and the
Hess Oil Company
began operating on St Croix. By 1970, the economy was dominated by mainland investment and marked by managed enterprises based on imported labour from other Caribbean islands.

In September 1989, St Croix was hit by
Hurricane Hugo
, which tore through 90% of buildings and left 22,500 people homeless. The disaster was followed by civil unrest, with rioting, and US army troops were sent in to restore order. The territorial government, located on St Thomas, was slow to react to the disaster on St Croix and criticized. St Croix's feeling of neglect led to attempts to balance the division of power between the islands, but calls for greater autonomy grew. After some delay, a referendum was held in October 1993, which presented voters with seven options on the island's status, grouped into three choices: continued or enhanced status, integration into the USA, or Independence. However, the vote was inconclusive, with only 27% of the registered voters turning out; 50% were needed for a binding decision. Of those who did vote, 90% preferred the first option, leaving the process of constitutional change in some disarray.


In 1936 the Organic Act of the Virgin Islands of the United States provided for two municipal councils and a Legislative Assembly in the islands. Discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, sex or religious belief was forbidden. In 1946, the first black governor was appointed to the Virgin Islands and in 1950 the first native governor was appointed. In 1968 the Elective Governor Act was passed, to become effective in 1970 when, for the first time, Virgin Islanders would elect their own Governor and Lieutenant Governor. The USVI is an unincorporated territory under the US Department of Interior with a Delegate in the House of Representatives. The Governor is elected every four years. All persons born in the USVI are US citizens, but do not vote in presidential elections while on the islands.


USVI residents enjoy a comparatively high standard of living. Unemployment is low, but the working population is young and there is constant pressure for new jobs. Tourism is the primary economic activity, accounting for 80% of GDP and employment. The islands normally host 2 million visitors a year. Investment is continuing in the sector and will be boosted over the next few years by a US$100 mn project on St Croix to build a hotel, casino, conference centre and cultural theme park on 500 acres of Virgin Islands Port Authority (VIPA) land in Betty's Hope, near the airport. The manufacturing sector consists of petroleum refining, textiles, electronics, pharmaceuticals and watch assembly. The agricultural sector is small, with most food being imported. International business and financial services are a small but growing component of the economy. One of the world's largest petroleum refineries is at Saint Croix. In 1998
Hess Oil Co
Petróleos de Venezuela
signed an agreement to create a company called Hovensa to operate the refinery. Industrial incentives and tax concessions equivalent to those enjoyed by Puerto Rico attract new investors with US markets to the islands. Many US corporations have manufacturing operations in the USVI. The islands' lack of natural resources makes them heavily dependent on imports.

Geography and people

The US Virgin Islands, in which the legacies of Danish ownership remain very apparent, comprise four main islands: St Thomas, St John, St Croix and Water Island. There are 68 islands in all, lying about 40 miles east of Puerto Rico. They have long been developed as holiday centres for US citizens. The population has always been English-speaking, despite the long period of Danish control. Some Spanish is used on St Croix. The West Indian dialect is mostly English, with inflections from Dutch, Danish, French, Spanish, African languages and Creole.

Flora and fauna

The Virgin Islands' national bird is the yellow breast (
Coereba flaveola
); the national f
lower is the yellow cedar (
Tecoma stans
). The mongoose was brought to the islands during the plantation days to kill rats that ate the crops. Unfortunately rats are nocturnal and mongooses are not and they succeeded only in eliminating most of the parrots and snakes. Now you see them all over the islands, especially near the rubbish dumps. There are many small lizards and some iguanas of up to 4 ft long. The iguanas sleep in the trees and you can see them and feed them (their favourite food is hibiscus flowers) at the Limetree Beach, at
Bluebeards Beach Club and Villas
, at Coral World and Frenchmans Reef. St John has a large population of wild donkeys on the upper hills.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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