1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Virgin Islands

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VIRGIN ISLANDS, a group of small islands in the West Indies, about 100 in number, for the most part uninhabited. They extend E. from Puerto Rico, lying between 17° and 18° 50' N., and 64° 10' and 65° 30' W., their total area being about 465 sq. m. The islands are mostly rocky, or sandy and barren, but such portions as are under cultivation yield sugar, maize, coffee, cotton and indigo. Guinea grass grows abundantly on the hillsides, affording excellent pasturage; the forests, though few, include the mahogany and other useful trees. The coasts abound with fish. The climate is more healthy than that of the other West Indian islands, and the heat is not so great. Some of the islands belong to the United States, some to Denmark and some to Great Britain. The United States' possessions (once dependencies of Puerto Rico, but ceded by Spain in 1898) have an area of about 150 sq. m. and include Culebra or Snake Island, and Vieques or Crab Island. The chief Danish islands are St Thomas (q.v.), St Croix (q.v.) and St John (q.v.), the total area being about 240 sq. m. Of the British portion of the group the principal are Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda, Jost van Dyke, Peter's Island and Salt Island, in all numbering 32, with an area of 58 sq. m. With the exception of the island of Sombrero they form one of the five presidencies in the colony of the Leeward Islands. The inhabitants are peasant proprietors, mainly engaged in raising cattle and in burning charcoal, but some are fishermen and boatmen. The chief town is Roadtown (pop. 400) at the head of a splendid harbour on the S. of Tortola, and what trade there is is mostly with St Thomas. Sombrero is maintained as a lighthouse by the British government. Population of the presidency, mostly negroes (1891) 4639; (1901) 4908.

The Virgin Islands were discovered by Columbus in his second voyage, in 1494, and named Las Virgenes, in honour of St Ursula and her companions. In 1666 the British 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. The Danish islands of St Thomas and St John were taken by the British in 1801, but restored in the following year. In 1807 they surrendered to the British, and continued in their hands till 1815, when they were again restored.