Plantation Era


© Ann Hollowood

Through the centuries that followed the early Spanish voyages to the West Indies, pirates and buccaneers roamed the seas around the Virgin Islands, while warring European navies were a constant threat to settlement. Spaniards were mining copper in Virgin Gorda by 1500, and Dutch buccaneers erected a fort on Tortola in about 1648, but they were expelled by a band of Englishmen some twenty years later. English emigrants from the nearby island of Anguilla began permanent settlements on Tortola and Virgin Gorda c.1680.

The English settlers created a lucrative sugar and cotton plantation economy based on slave labour. They constructed factories and houses, using techniques from both England and Africa, with New World adaptations. Virgin Islanders traded their sugar, cotton, rum, molasses, indigo and lignum vitae, along with cattle and goats, to nearby islands, the American colonies, and England.

Colonial prosperity in the Virgin Islands was short-lived. Following the American Revolutionary War, sugar and cotton prices slumped, while violent hurricanes, earthquakes, and periods of drought brought severe hardship. In Britain, Parliament abolished the slave trade in 1807, and in Tortola, a new settlement at Kingstown was founded for those Africans liberated from slaving vessels.

The abolition of slavery in 1834, celebrated in churches throughout the Virgin Islands, brought an end to that inhumane way of life; today the August Festival on Tortola commemorates the momentous day of emancipation. As economic decline continued through the 19th century, most of the estate owners left the islands, and their plantation properties gradually became available for sale; the islands began to function as a small-holding farming community, with some fishing and trade, as well as copper mining on Virgin Gorda.

Carol Arneborg