British Virgin Islands

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British Virgin Islands
Flag of British Virgin Islands Coat of arms of British Virgin Islands
Flag
Motto: "Vigilate"  (Latin)
"Be Watchful"
Anthem: " God Save the Queen"
Location of British Virgin Islands
Capital Road Town
Official languages English
Ethnic groups  83.36% African,
7.28% British, Portuguese,
5.38% Multiracial,
3.14% East Indian,
0.84% Others
Government British Overseas Territory
 -  Head of State Queen Elizabeth II
 -  Governor David Pearey
 -  Premier Ralph T. O'Neal
British Overseas Territory
 -  Separate 1960 
 -  Autonomous territory 1967 
Area
 -  Total 153 km² ( 216th)
59  sq mi 
 -  Water (%) 1.6
Population
 -  2005 census 22,016 
 -  Density 260/km² ( 68th)
673/sq mi
Currency U.S. dollar ( USD)
Time zone Q ( UTC-4)
 -  Summer ( DST) not observed ( UTC-4)
Internet TLD .vg
Calling code +1 284

The British Virgin Islands (BVI) is a British overseas territory, located in the Caribbean to the east of Puerto Rico. The islands make up part of the Virgin Islands archipelago, the remaining islands constituting the U.S. Virgin Islands. Technically the name of the Territory is simply the "Virgin Islands", but in practice since 1917 they have been almost universally referred to as the "British Virgin Islands" to distinguish the islands from the American Territory. To add to the regional confusion, the Puerto Rican islands of Culebra, Vieques and surrounding islands began referring to themselves as the " Spanish Virgin Islands" as part of a tourism drive in the early 2000s.

The British Virgin Islands consist of the main islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke, along with over fifty other smaller islands and cays. Approximately fifteen of the islands are inhabited. The largest island, Tortola, is approximately 20  km (approx. 12  mi) long and 5 km (approx. 3 mi) wide. The islands have a total population of about 22,000, of whom approximately 18,000 live on Tortola. Road Town, the capital, is situated on Tortola.

History

The Virgin Islands were first settled by the Arawak from South America around 100 BC (though there is some evidence of Amerindian presence on the islands as far back as 1500 BC). The Arawaks inhabited the islands until the fifteenth century when they were displaced by the more aggressive Caribs, a tribe from the Lesser Antilles islands, after whom the Caribbean Sea is named.

The first European sighting of the Virgin Islands was by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the Americas. Columbus gave them the fanciful name Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes (Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins), shortened to Las Vírgenes (The Virgins), after the legend of Saint Ursula.

The Spanish Empire claimed the islands by discovery in the early sixteenth century, but never settled them, and subsequent years saw the English, Dutch, French, Spanish and Danish all jostling for control of the region, which became a notorious haunt for pirates. There is no record of any native Amerindian population in the British Virgin Islands during this period, although the native population on nearby St. Croix was decimated.

The Dutch established a permanent settlement on the island of Tortola by 1648. In 1672, the English captured Tortola from the Dutch, and the British annexation of Anegada and Virgin Gorda followed in 1680. Meanwhile, over the period 1672–1733, the Danish gained control of the nearby islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.

The British islands were considered principally a strategic possession, but were planted when economic conditions were particularly favourable. The British introduced sugar cane which was to become the main crop and source of foreign trade, and slaves were brought from Africa to work on the sugar cane plantations. The islands prospered economically until the middle of the 1800s, when a combination of the abolition of slavery in the Territory, a series of disastrous hurricanes, and the growth in the sugar beet crop in Europe and the United States significantly reduced sugar cane production and led to a period of economic decline.

In 1917, the United States purchased St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix from Denmark for US$25 million, renaming them the United States Virgin Islands.

The British Virgin Islands were administered variously as part of the British Leeward Islands or with St. Kitts and Nevis, with an Administrator representing the British Government on the Islands. Separate colony status was gained for the Islands in 1960 and the Islands became autonomous in 1967. Since the 1960s, the Islands have diversified away from their traditionally agriculture-based economy towards tourism and financial services, becoming one of the richest areas in the Caribbean.

Geography

Map of British Virgin Islands
Map of British Virgin Islands

The British Virgin Islands comprise around sixty semi-tropical Caribbean islands, ranging in size from the largest, Tortola 20  km (approx. 12  mi) long and 5 km (approx. 3 mi) wide, to tiny uninhabited islets. They are located in the Virgin Islands archipelago, a few miles east of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The North Atlantic Ocean lies to the north of the islands, and the Caribbean Sea lies to the south. Most of the islands are volcanic in origin and have a hilly, rugged terrain. Anegada is geologically distinct from the rest of the group and is a flat island composed of limestone and coral.

In addition to the four main islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Jost Van Dyke, other islands include:

  • Beef Island
  • Cooper Island
  • Ginger Island
  • Great Camanoe
  • Great Thatch
  • Guana Island
  • Mosquito Island
  • Necker Island
  • Norman Island
  • Peter Island
  • Salt Island



See also Islands of the British Virgin Islands.

Climate

The British Virgin Islands enjoy a tropical climate, moderated by trade winds. Temperatures vary little throughout the year. In the capital, Road Town, typical daily maxima are around 32 ° C (90 ° F) in the summer and 29 °C (84 °F) in the winter. Typical daily minima are around 24 ° C (75 ° F) in the summer and 21 °C (70 °F) in the winter. Rainfall averages about 1150 mm (45 in) per year, higher in the hills and lower on the coast. Rainfall can be quite variable, but the wettest months on average are September to November and the driest months on average are February and March. Hurricanes occasionally hit the islands, with the hurricane season running from June to November.

Politics

The British Virgin Islands is an associated member of the OECS.
The British Virgin Islands is an associated member of the OECS.

Executive authority in British Virgin Islands is invested in The Queen and is exercised on her behalf by the Governor of the British Virgin Islands. The Governor is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the British Government. Defence and Foreign Affairs remain the responsibility of the United Kingdom.

A new constitution was adopted in 2007 (the Virgin Islands Constitution Order, 2007) and came into force when the Legislative Council was dissolved for the 2007 general election. The Head of Government under the new constitution is the Premier (prior to the new constitution the office was referred to as Chief Minister), who is elected in a general election along with the other members of the ruling government as well as the members of the opposition. An Executive Council is nominated by the Premier and appointed by the Governor. There is a unicameral Legislative Council made up of 13 seats.

The current Governor is David Pearey (since 2006). The current Premier is Ralph T. O'Neal (since August 22, 2007).

Subdivisions

Economy

Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands
Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands

The British Virgin Islands enjoys one of the more prosperous economies of the Caribbean region, with a per capita GDP of around $38,500 (2004 est.)

In the British Virgin Islands it has long been fashionable to talk about the "twin pillars" of the Territory's economy – tourism and financial services. Politically, tourism is the more important of the two, as it employs a greater number of people within the Territory, and a larger proportion of the businesses in the tourist industry are locally owned, as are a number of the highly tourism-dependent sole traders (e.g. taxi drivers and street vendors). Economically, however, financial services are by far the more important. Nearly 50% of the Government's revenue comes directly from licence fees for offshore companies, and considerable further sums are raised directly or indirectly from payroll taxes relating to salaries paid within the trust industry sector (which tend to be higher on average than those paid in the tourism sector).

Tourism accounts for 45% of national income. The islands are a popular destination for U.S. citizens, with around 350,000 tourists visiting annually (1997 figures). Tourists frequent the numerous white sand beaches, visit The Baths on Virgin Gorda, snorkel the coral reefs near Anegada, experience the well-known bars of Jost Van Dyke, or charter yachts to explore the less accessible islands. A substantial number of the tourists who visit the BVI are cruise ship passengers, although they produce far lower revenue per head than charter boat tourists and hotel based tourists. They are nonetheless important to the substantial (and politically important) taxi driving community.

Substantial revenues are also generated by the registration of offshore companies. As of 2004, over 550,000 companies were so registered. In 2000 KPMG reported in its survey of offshore jurisdictions for the United Kingdom government that over 41% of the world's offshore companies were formed in the British Virgin Islands. Since 2001, financial services in the British Virgin Islands have been regulated by the independent Financial Services Commission.

Agriculture and industry account for only a small proportion of the islands' GDP. Agricultural produce includes fruit, vegetables, sugar cane, livestock and poultry, and industries include rum distillation, construction and boatbuilding.

Since 1959, the official currency of the British Virgin Islands has been the US dollar, also used by the United States Virgin Islands.

The British Virgin Islands are a major target for drug traffickers, who use the area as a gateway to the United States. According to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, drug trafficking is "potentially the most serious threat to stability in the BVI".

Demographics

Tortola, British Virgin Islands
Tortola, British Virgin Islands

The population of the Islands is around 21,730 at 2003. The majority of the population (83%) are Afro-Caribbean, descended from the slaves brought to the islands by the British. Other large ethnic groups include those of British and other European origin.

The 1999 census reports:

83.36% Black
  7.28% White*
  5.38% Mixed
  3.14% East Indian
  0.84% Others

* includes British, Portuguese, and Syrian/Lebanese.

The islands are predominantly Protestant Christian (86%). The largest individual Christian denominations are Methodist (33%), Anglican (17%), and the Catholic (10%).

Transport

There are 113 kilometres (70 mi) of roads. The main airport ( Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, also known as Beef Island Airport) is located on Beef Island, which lies off the eastern tip of Tortola. Virgin Gorda and Anegada have their own smaller airports. The main harbour is in Road Town. There are also ferries that operate within the British Virgin Islands and also to the neighbouring United States Virgin Islands. As in the rest of the UK traffic in the British Virgin Islands cars drive on the left side of the road.

Education

The British Virgin Islands operates several government schools as well as private schools. There is also a community college, Hamilton Lavity Stoutt Community College that is located on the eastern end of Tortola. This college was named after the late Honourable Lavity Stoutt (chief minister).

Sport

Music

The traditional music of the British Virgin Islands is called fungi after the local cornmeal dish with the same name, often made with okra. The special sound of fungi is due to a unique local fusion between African and European music. It functions as a medium of local history and folklore and is therefore a cherished cultural form of expression that is part of the curriculum in BVI schools. The fungi bands, also called "scratch bands", use instruments ranging from calabash, washboard, bongos and ukulele, to more traditional western instruments like keyboard, banjo, guitar, bass, triangle and saxophone. Apart from being a form of festive dance music, fungi often contains humorous social commentaries, as well as BVI oral history.

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