Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Virgin Islands

1712454Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition — Virgin Islands


VIRGIN ISLANDS, a group of small West India Islands (see West Indies), about one hundred in number, for the most part uninhabited, extending eastward from Porto Rico, and lying between 17° and 18° 50' N. lat, and 64° 10' and 65° 30' W. long. Their total area may be estimated at about 465 square miles, and their population at 67,000. For the most part they are rocky or sandy and barren, but the cultivable portions yield sugar, maize, coffee, cotton, indigo, and tobacco. Guinea grass grows abundantly on the hillsides, and the rich natural grass affords excellent pasturage; the forests include many useful trees, among which are mahogany and fustic. Fish are very plentiful on the coasts. The westerly portion of the group belongs to Spain, the central to Denmark, and the easterly to Great Britain. The chief of the Spanish islands are Culebra or Snake Island, and Bieques or Crab Island; they have in all an area of about 150 square miles, with a population of 2600. The Danish Virgin Islands, which include St Thomas (q.v.), St Croix (q.v.), and St John, have a total of about 240 square miles, with about 34,000 inhabitants. The principal of the British portion of the group are Tortola, Anegada, and Virgen Gorda or Spanish Town, and Jost van Dyke (total area 57 square miles, and population 5287 in 1881, of whom more than one-half are in Tortola). They are subject to a lieutenant-governor, under the governor-in-chief of the Leeward Islands, and are governed by an administrative council of six elective and three non-elective members, presided over by the governor for the time being. In 1886 the revenue and expenditure were respectively £1448 and £1676. The customs revenue was £823, and there was no public debt. In the same year 1710 vessels entered, of 10,764 tons burden (exclusive of coasting trade), and 1779 vessels cleared, of 8444 tons; the total value of the imports was £3603, and of the exports £4103.

The Virgin Islands were discovered by Columbus on his second voyage, in 1494, and named Las Virgenes, in honour of St Ursula and her companions. In 1666 the English established themselves on Tortola, which has ever since remained in their possession. In the 17th century the Virgin Islands were favourite resorts of the Buccaneers (q.v.). The Danish islands of St Thomas and St John were taken by the British in 1801, but restored the following year. In 1807 they surrendered to the British, and continued in their hands till 1815, when they were again restored. The constitution of the British Virgin Islands was amended in 1854.