The 20th Century

© Paul’s Photo Services

At the turn of the century, the Virgin Islands were part of the Leeward Islands Federation (a Crown Colony of the UK), with an economy based on small-holding farms and trade. Virgin Islanders exported livestock, produce, charcoal and fish to the neighbouring Danish island of St. Thomas. Times were difficult, and many Virgin Islanders emigrated to other Caribbean islands and Central America, sending home wages to support their families.

In 1900, a new Agricultural Department was created and, with financial and technical assistance from Britain, an Experiment Station was set up just outside Road Town, now the site of the J. R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens. As a result, agricultural production increased, and the local government arranged to purchase and process the crops in a government factory, preserved today as the Lower Estate Sugar Works Museum. Despite the success of the cotton, sugar, lime, and tobacco industries, the Virgin Islands agriculture-based economy continued to suffer the effects of hurricanes, environmental pests, and world market conditions.

The United States Government’s purchase of the nearby Danish islands in 1917 led to economic benefits in the (British) Virgin Islands in the form of employment opportunities and increased trade, a situation which continued through the first half of the century. Following World War II, economic development focussed on livestock production and, as the ‘50’s progressed, tourism.

By the mid-century, tourism was spreading in the region, and visitors began to sample the unspoilt natural beauty and unique culture of the British Virgin Islands. Small tourist hotels and resorts were constructed on several islands, and over the next two decades, the islands’ infrastructure was greatly improved.

By this time, political changes were also being implemented. In 1950, the Legislative Council was reconstituted, enabling more local participation in government. Six years later, the Federation of the Leeward Islands was dissolved, and the Virgin Islands became a colony (later territory) in its own right. In 1967, a new constitution provided for a ministerial system of government, with an elected, representative legislature.

As tourism continued to develop in the BVI, the Government worked to broaden the Territory’s economic base through the financial services industry. The pioneering International Business Companies (IBC) Act of 1984, developed in close consultation with the private sector, launched what would become a thriving international financial services centre.

By the end of the century, the Virgin Islands had become a democratic Territory of the United Kingdom with one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean.

Carol Arneborg