Our Past: History and Heritage

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© Dr. Irad Potter

The picturesque islands and cays that make up the Virgin Islands have changed and evolved over time. The earliest inhabitants took full advantage of all that the land and sea offered, travelling from island to island by canoe. Columbus may have seen these Amerindians when he sailed by in 1493 and named the islands for St. Ursula and her 11,000 martyred virgins.

English adventurers soon followed the Spanish, but it would be another 150 years before Dutch buccaneers settled on Tortola, only to be forced out by an English group in 1666. Thus began the islands’ plantation system, an era that continued—through economic fluctuations—for nearly 200 years.

Following the abolition of slavery, a series of droughts, and economic decline during the 19th century, the plantations were sold and the islands gradually converted to a small-holding agricultural economy, supplemented by fishing and mining. The middle of the 20th century brought significant change to the islands, as tourists began to discover the area’s scenic beauty and unique culture.

The richness and diversity of Virgin Islands culture and traditions are rooted in the past. Our festivals, foods, arts and music are connections with those who went before, while our traditional houses, historic ruins and museums, terraced hills, and island sloops are tangible reminders of earlier times.