Old TORTOLA - DAYS OF YESTERYEAR

MY SINCERE THANKS TO PAUL CARRELL FOR FURNISHING ME WITH THESE PRICELESS PHOTOGRAPHS -

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Although the islands were claimed by England as early as 1628, the Dutch were the first true settlers, arriving at Soper's Hole at the West End of Tortola in 1648. In 1666 British planters took over control of the island group from the original Dutch settlers. The islands attained the status of British colony, and remained part of the Leeward Islands from 1872 until 1956, when the British Virgin Islands became a separately administered entity. To preserve its close economic ties with the U.S. Virgin Islands, the group did not join the 1958-1962 West Indies Federation of British Virgin Islands. In 1967, a new constitution provided for a ministerial system of government headed by a Chief Minister. The island group remains under British control today.

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Road Town above - 1960

HISTORY OF THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS

The British Virgin Islands were initially populated by the Ciboney Indians who arrived on stone age canoes from the Americas. A few hundred years later, the Arawak Indians arrived from South America. The Arawaks settled throughout the Virgin Islands and lead a simple agricultural lifestyle, they produced exquisite pottery and ornaments and maintained a strictly hereditary society. The Arawaks peacefully dominated the islands for many years until the arrival of the Carib Indians who worked their way north from South America about one hundred years before Christopher Columbus arrived.

The Caribs were similar in appearance to the Ciboney and Arawak Indians although they plucked their beards because they believed them to be a deformity. The Caribs also flattened the fronts and backs of their children's heads to make them beautiful and, they scarred and painted their own bodies for the same purpose. The Caribs were a fierce and aggressive bunch who terrorized the entire Caribbean with their territorial and warlike behavior. When the Caribs came upon a settlement, they would raid and pillage whatever was worth removing including women and children (they fattened up young boys for eating-the Caribs were cannibals). The Caribs practiced euthanasia and blamed all unpleasant occurrences on evil spirits. The Caribs continued their warlike behavior as late as 1620, in some ways, one could say that they were the Caribbean's first true pirates.

Colombus discovered the islands in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World and as legend would have it, named them "Las Once Mil Virgines", after the 11,000 followers of St. Ursula. Virgin Gorda was so named by Columbus because he thought the island resembled a reclining woman with a protruding belly when viewed from the sea. The Spaniards, the most powerful nation in Europe during the time began to settle and lay claim to the West Indies and in 1555 they sent forces that invaded the islands, defeated the Caribs and officially laid claim to the territory.

For almost a century the islands were considered too small and unimportant for Spanish settlement therefore, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were mainly uninhabited. As the other European countries challenged the Spaniards for control of the territory, some hearty French settlers colonialized the islands. They made their living by barbecuing beef in smokehouses called boucans which they sold to passing ships. The Spaniards drove them off the islands and in revenge, they took to the sea where they began hunting Spanish ships. The term Buccaneer became the word used for these pirates and as time passed, more joined the ranks as out of work naval crews drifted through the area. Many of these pirates terrorized the Caribbean shipping lanes with the blessing of one European country or another, provided that they only attacked ships with the Spanish ensign. The defeat of the Spanish Armada brought times of peace and settlement to the area, pirates were rounded up and punished while others settled peacefully in the territory. Many of the islands, Norman, named after a French pirate; Thatch, named after Edward Thatch (or Teach-commonly known as Blackbeard), and others still bear their names. Other notable pirates in Caribbean history include: Charles Vane, Edward England, Calico Jack and Anne Bonny!!

The British Virgin Islands History Page

Columbus was not the first man to set eyes on the British Virgin Islands - Amerindians from South America were - some 2,500 years earlier. Recent archaeological studies have concluded that there were plenty of Indians living on these shores before the Europeans arrived. As many as 20,000 may have lived on the major islands, with large communities and artifacts suggesting they were, by the time Columbus arrived, a developed agrarian society with a complex set of farming & fishing techniques, house construction and cultural rituals. The arrival of Columbus on his second expedition in 1493 marked the beginning of the end for the Indians. The initial Spanish settlers brought with them disease and slavery - shipping many of the Indians off to what is now the Dominican Republic to work in the mines. Many died of European diseases - smallpox and flu were common killers - also from working inhumanly hard.

The Virgin Islands (both U.S. and British) were named by Columbus after the 11,000 beautiful virgin followers of St. Ursula - all of whom, apparently whilst on a rather innocent pilgrimage to Cologne, met their deaths at the hands of some over-zealous Huns. Ironically, the Virgin Islands attracted a wave of Renaissance thugs, called pirates. The numerous small islands (in the BVIs alone there are 33) were ideal for concealment and stashing booty. But the islands attracted all sorts actually - from the Honourable Sir Francis Drake to the rather less principled Blackbeard. The English, Dutch, French, Spanish and Danish all jostled for control of the islands for the next two hundred years; the final act seeing the English oust the Dutch and gaining a permanent foothold in Virgin Gorda and Tortola.

By the 1600's England ended up with the BVIs and the Dutch had the other Virgin Islands (St. John, St. Thomas, St. Croix). The BVIs were more strategic than anything else but were planted when economic conditions were particularly favourable. The Dutch decided in 1917 that it was best to sell their lot to the Americans for US$17 million. Economically, this appears to have worked out rather well. The US Virgin Islands (as they were then renamed) have become bustling, busy places with a clearly americanised commercial bent and feel. The BVIs have become, by comparison, the quiet neighbours.

With the advent of tourism in the Caribbean, the BVIs have developed as a centre for those cruising around in yachts - numerous marinas and marine-related businesses attest to this. A kind of understated, sophisticated charm, pervades the islands although the prosperity of the USVIs has seen a leaning in that direction with the US$ Dollar being the accepted currency. However the appeal of these islands is timeless: a wonderful climate, unspoiled, sheltered and ideally suited for exploration by boat. Today the same coves and bays that once saw the likes of Columbus, Sir Francis Drake and the infamous pirate Henry Morgan (aka Blackbeard) provide refuge to a flotilla of modern day explorers who have come to discover, once again, the British Virgin Islands.

All At Sea - The Caribbean's Waterfront Magazine
Nancy Terrell -- September 2006 Issue

Salt Island Past and Present

Salt Island, located between Peter and Cooper Islands in the Sir Francis Drake Channel in the BVI, is an island of rare beauty and history. At one time the island supported an industrious community of over 100 people and a thriving salt industry. For decades the occupants of the island would harvest the salt, which they would sell - on both the island, in local stores, and to the British Navy. Each year the residents would pay their token tithe to the queen - one sack of salt.

In the days before commercially packaged salt and refrigeration, people from throughout the BVI would join those living on Salt Island during “dry” spring when the water, in the two shallow salt water ponds located there, would evaporate leaving a hard outer layer of salt on the bot tom and edges of the pond. After an evening “Festival” the BVI Governor, a governmental agent, and a member of the Royal BVI police force would come to the island for the “breaking of the pond”. Quite a party would also follow the harvesting.

Clementine Helena Leonard Smith was born on May 9, 1911 and grew up on Salt Island with her parents. After elementary school in Tortola, Clementine returned to Salt Island to help with the daily work of the island - fishing, salting fish and meat, butchering and tending livestock, farming, and mining salt from the famous salt pond located there. In 1935, Clementine married Gerald Smith of Peter Island, a union that produced nine children. After Clementine’s children migrated to Tortola to receive their education, she turned her full attention to the burial ground where the deceased from the shipwreck of HMS Rhone are buried.

(Most sailors and divers from our area know about the great tragedy that occurred in 1867 on the rocks of Salt Island, when the Royal Mail Ship Rhone sank in a storm, taking 125 persons with her. Today the remains of the Rhone have become a fascinating underwater habitat for marine life and are a part of the national park system where they are rated the most popular wreck dive in the Caribbean by numerous dive publications.)

With much diligence Clementine maintained the areas around the beaches and salt ponds and entertained tourists about the life and the history of Salt Island, Cooper Island, Peter Island, and surrounding isles. Her efforts on Salt Island were recognized in 1985 when she received the title B.E.M - British Empire Member Medal for her outstanding works. The Frederick Pickering Memorial Foundation also recognized her in May 1996 for her social and cultural contribution on Salt Island. Clementine died in 1998 but she left a great heritage in BVI history. She is, quite naturally, buried in the very graveyard that she used to tend.

Following Clementine’s death, Norwell Durant became the only resident left on the island. Norwell, like his father and grandfather before him, collected salt from the salt lakes and tended to its export, a family tradition. Once a week his brother, who lived on Tortola, would come by boat and bring him food as well as take back the sacks of salt that he had harvested. Norwell died in 2004 and is buried next to his father and grandfather on the island. Their graves are mounds above ground that are covered by large stones and conch shells. On the two elder graves there is a struggling cactus that was carved by Norwell into the shape of a holy cross in honor of his elders.

No one lives on Salt Island today and the salt from her two ponds is not mined, but I often see charterers anchored there enjoying a picnic or volleyball on the beach. I hope after reading this they will know a little more about the lovely island that they are visiting.

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