History of the USVI

The Virgin Islands have overcome a history of pain and strife to become a beautiful vacation spot

Photo credit: © U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism

The History of the Virgin Islands

Some of the same themes run through the history of the Virgin Islands as they do in the rest of the Caribbean, but despite the similarities, these islands are standouts in the region. Vacationers who are interested in visiting these islands are in for a treat, and not just when it comes to crystal-clear water and lush natural beauty. The unique heritage of the Virgin Islands is just as interesting to explore. Knowing a little historical background about the area can greatly enhance your appreciation of your island getaway.

Early Inhabitants

Historical accounts of the Virgin Islands begin with the islands' first inhabitants, a group of people now called the Ciboney. Because these indigenous people left no artifacts behind, little is known about them except that they were Stone Age hunters and gatherers who used stone and flint for tools. The Ciboney were succeeded by the seafaring Arawaks, who traveled from the Amazon River Valley and Orinoco - modern-day Venezuela and Brazil - by way of the Caribbean Sea.

A predominantly peaceful people, the Arawaks, were fishermen and farmers who lived near the sea or by rivers and participated in organized sporting events and ceremonial rituals. Unlike their predecessors, the Arawaks left behind many artifacts, including paintings on cave walls and artistic rock carvings. The Arawaks' craftsmanship wasn't limited to petroglyphs and other implements of stone. They also shaped and milled canoes, and they were master sailors. Other areas in which the Arawaks excelled were in the growing of cotton, tobacco, and various fruits and vegetables including maize, yucca, and guava fruit.


For centuries, the Arawaks lived undisturbed, until the arrival of another seafaring group called the Caribs who were also from the Orinoco region of South America and were possibly distant relatives of the Arawaks. But any potential relation did not stop the Caribs from conquering the Arawak people and destroying entire villages. It is even said that the Caribs ate their enemies, and in fact the word cannibal is a derivative of Caribal, which is the Spanish word for the Caribs. By the middle of the 15th century, the Caribs had diminished the population of the Arawaks from about 2 to 3 million to just a few thousand.

European Exploration

During the rise of the Caribs, events were shaping up in another part of the world that would forever change the course of Caribbean history. Contemplating fantasies of riches and a possible route to the New World, the infamous explorer Christopher Columbus prepared for his four historic journeys to the Americas, which took place from 1492 to 1493; 1493 to 1496; 1498 to 1500; and 1502 to 1504. The Spaniards were driven to explore uncharted territory by the incentives of finding the fastest way to reach the Indies to gain riches and claim undiscovered land in the name of Spain. Columbus proposed reaching the Indies by way of a westward ocean route from Spain, which was supposed to be shorter than taking dangerous, time-consuming, and costly overland routes.

What's in a Name?

During his 1493 to 1496 voyage, Columbus was blown off his northbound course and landed on a small island that he named Santa Cruz, which is known today as St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Columbus' expedition to St. Croix is the only recorded instance of the explorer landing on U.S. soil. After St. Croix, Columbus then found San Tomas (St. Thomas) and San Juan (St. John). When Columbus found islands and charted them, he enjoyed naming them after religious icons and saints. The Virgin Islands got their name from the hundreds of rocks, cays, and islets set amid the larger islands that Columbus called Las Once Mil Virgenes, which means the 11,000 virgins in honor of the British St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin companions.

Effects of European Exploration

The explorations of Columbus paved the way for other Europeans to set out on voyages to the New World, which was a disastrous turn of events for the aboriginal people of the Caribbean. With the arrival of European explorers, the history of the Virgin Islands starts to sound the same as the majority of surrounding Caribbean islands - with slaves and slave masters, the wealthy and the destitute, and with two clashing cultures: Europeans and Africans. The drive for the attainment of riches fueled the rise of the sugar industry, which in turn fanned the flame for the economics of slavery.

When Columbus discovered the Arawaks, he described them as friendly people who "love their neighbors... and always speak with a smile." In spite of their neighborly hospitality, Columbus kidnapped six Arawaks to act as his island guides, with intentions of returning to the island to enslave the rest of its inhabitants. This was only the beginning. Later, European explorers enslaved, murdered, and infected with disease the Arawaks and the Caribs. These explorers also tried to convert the islands' native people to Catholicism, which most rejected vehemently. There are even several recorded instances of mass suicide by the Arawaks, who would rather have died than be subjected to the rule of the Europeans. In the end, the Arawaks were decimated, and only very few indigenous Caribs still inhabited the islands.

The Start of Slavery in the Virgin Islands

Tobacco was the first major cash crop in the Virgin Islands, and then coffee, sugar, and cotton were introduced causing the settlements on the islands to grow. With this new growth, and the absence of Amerindian slaves, African slaves were brought to the islands around 1673, and the slave trade continued to escalate from then on. In 1733, more than 50 years after the establishment of slavery on the islands, two important events would shape the history of the Virgin Islands. First, the island of St. Croix was sold by the French to the Danish West India Guinea Company. Second, as a result of terrible treatment and harsh labor conditions combined with the effects of a drought and a devastating hurricane, a massive slave revolt was launched on St. John, which gave the African slaves control over the island for six months. The island was regained by the Danes with the help of French forces.

The Virgin Islands Today

Today, both the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands have some degree of self-rule, but neither is an independent nation. The British Virgin Islands have retained its British identity for all of modern history. In 1932, the U.S. Virgin Islands imposed the Organic Act, which introduced citizenship, suffrage, and limited self-government.


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