The first inhabitants of Tortola, around 300 B.C., were Amerindians from the Ciboney tribe of Venezuela. Around 200 A.D., they were overthrown by the Taino Arawaks. In the 1300s, the fierce Caribs invaded the British Virgins and enslaved the Arawaks.
Columbus was the first European visitor to the islands, in 1493. Impressed by the number of islands and by their plentiful cays, he named them after Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. Since they couldn’t find gold there, the Spanish quickly moved on.
Buccaneers (a.k.a. pirates) were attracted to the islands as their hidden coves and complex reef system made them the ideal spot for ravaging passing ships transporting riches from the new world back to Europe. Blackbeard, one of the most infamous buccaneers in Virgin Islands history, made his base of operations at Soper’s Hole on Tortola’s west end in the early 1700s. He and his crew would lay in wait for an unsuspecting trade ship, then quickly pounce on it, killing the crew and claiming the ship and its cargo.
At about the same time, aided by slavery, the sugar plantation system became the backbone of Tortola’s economy. Over the next half century or so, colonization grew to the point where the pirates were, for the most part, driven out of the islands. 1774 is considered the official date of settlement of the British Virgin Islands, as the House of Assembly met for the first time in Road Town, Tortola. Plantations thrived until slavery was abolished in 1838, at which time many European settlers returned home.
Things were very quiet on the islands as the British Virgin Islanders were forced to support themselves by any means possible. Some learned to build boats or sail, while others farmed. Government was very unsettled as many different forms were tested.
The 1960s brought change to the British Virgins as Laurence Rockefeller and Charlie Cary saw the potential for tourism on the peaceful islands. Rockefeller developed Little Dix resort on Virgin Gorda, and Cary created a marina complex on Tortola.
At about the same time, the current form of government was established, with a British Virgin Islands constitution and a local legislative council to handle island affairs. There is also a governor, selected by the Queen, who deals in external affairs and island security.
Thankfully, the islands have kept growth in check, with no building “taller than a palm tree,” no fast food restaurants, and no stop lights. The islands have maintained their charm and continue to enjoy low unemployment and a healthy economy.