The climate is pleasant, with temperatures at St. Thomas averaging a maximum of 82º F (28º C) during the day in January and 88º F (31º C) in July and being tempered throughout the year by northeasterly trade winds. Nighttime minimum temperatures are about 11º F (6º C) cooler, and the relative humidity is low for the tropics. Rainfall averages 45 inches (1,100 mm) annually, with a marked rainy season from September to December. Droughts occur periodically, and hurricanes may strike the islands on rare occasions. Early plantation clearance destroyed the islands' tropical forest, which is now found only in a few places on St. Thomas and has elsewhere been replaced by secondary woodland and scrub. Island fauna is sparse, save for birds, but the surrounding seas abound in commercial and game species.
About 80 percent of the population is black or mulatto, and most of the remainder are Hispanic (mainly Puerto Rican) or recent white immigrants. Less than half of the population is native-born. English is the official language, but some French is spoken on St. Thomas, and Spanish on St. Croix among Puerto Ricans. The population is predominantly Christian, but there is also an Orthodox Jewish community. The population increased rapidly from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s primarily because of substantial immigration from the U.S. mainland, the eastern Caribbean, and Puerto Rico. Since the mid-1970s population growth has been slower than average for the West Indies, largely because of the territory's comparatively low birth rate. The infant mortality rate and overall death rate are also comparatively low, while life expectancy, at 69 years, is among the highest in the region. Charlotte Amalie, the capital, is also the only town with a population of more than 10,000.
Only 6 percent of the land is forest, but the government has planted large areas of St. Croix with mahogany and also has reforested parts of St. Thomas. A bay-tree forest on St. John supplies leaves for the bay-rum industry.
Fishing is restricted to supplying local needs and to sportfishing. A marine-biology laboratory has been established on St. John.
Manufacturing has diversified beyond the traditional rum-distilling industry to include petroleum refining, watch assembly, and the manufacture of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and clothing. Electrical energy is produced by thermal-power plants. The U.S. government has encouraged industry by allowing certain manufactures to enter the United States duty-free, and the local government has offered tax incentives.
Tourism, based on the pleasant tropical climate, attractive scenery, good fishing, proximity to the U.S. mainland, and free-port status, has rapidly expanded and dominates the economy. The Virgin Islands National Park, covering two-thirds of St. John, and the Buck Island National Monument, set on the islet's coral reef, are other major attractions. Souvenir and handicraft industries have developed for the tourist market.
The leading sectors in employment are government service; retail trade, including personal, business, and domestic services; manufacturing; agriculture and self-employment; and hotels.
The islands' extensive road network is mostly paved. St. Croix and St. Thomas have scheduled bus service. Charlotte Amalie, on St. Thomas, and Frederiksted and Limetree Bay, on St. Croix, are deep-water ports. A new container port on the southern coast of St. Croix handles most of the islands' cargo traffic. There is ferry service between the three main islands and also to the British Virgin Islands. There are two international airports, on St. Thomas and on St. Croix. Interisland seaplanes serve the islands and also Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands, and Saint Martin.
Exports total more than four-fifths of imports in value annually. Refined petroleum, clothing, watches, and rum are the main exports, shipped mainly to the United States, Puerto Rico, and the British Virgin Islands. The main imports are crude petroleum, food products, and semimanufactures and components.
The government is organized under the Organic Act of the Virgin Islands, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1936, amended in 1954 and subsequently. The governor, elected by universal suffrage to a four-year term, appoints heads of the executive branches and administrative assistants for St. Croix and St. John with approval of the unicameral legislature, or Senate; its 15 members are elected by universal suffrage to four-year terms. The people are U.S. citizens and elect a nonvoting representative to the U.S. House of Representatives but do not vote in U.S. national elections. The U.S. Department of the Interior appoints a federal comptroller who supervises revenue and expenditure. There are three political parties, the Democratic and the Republican, affiliated to the U.S. parties, and the Independent Citizens Movement. The District Court of the Virgin Islands operates under federal law, and the judges and district attorney are appointed by the U.S. president with the advice and approval of the U.S. Senate. There is also a territorial court. St. Thomas and St. Croix have hospitals, and the Public Health Service operates mobile medical units for outlying areas, as well as a program for immunization, clinical services, home-care services, and special programs. Health conditions are excellent, as improved housing and sanitation have eradicated tropical diseases.
Education is compulsory and free for children between ages 5 1/2 and 16 in public primary, secondary, and vocational schools. Higher education and teacher training are available at the University of the Virgin Islands, a U.S. land-grant institution with campuses on St. Thomas and St. Croix. The main public library, located on St. Thomas, has branches in St. Croix and St. John. The Department of Conservation and Cultural Affairs administers museum and library services.
dependent territory of the United Kingdom in the eastern Caribbean Sea. It is part of an island chain collectively known as the Virgin Islands, which makes up the northeastern extremity of the Greater Antilles. Puerto Rico lies to the west. The Virgin Islands are divided administratively between the United Kingdom and the United States, the British territory lying to the north and east of the U.S. islands. The British colony consists of four larger islands ( Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda, and Jost Van Dyke) and 32 smaller islands and islets, of which more than 20 are uninhabited. The chief town and port is Road Town on Tortola (21 square miles [54 square km]), the largest of the islands. The total area of the colony is 59 square miles (153 square km). Pop. (1993 est.) 18,000.
|The British Virgin Islands are a geologic extension of the central fault-block mountains of Puerto Rico and present a variety of physical features, including low mountains, lagoons with coral reefs and barrier beaches, and landlocked harbours. Except for Anegada, the islands are hilly. The highest point is Mount Sage on Tortola, reaching an elevation of 1,709 feet (521 m). The long and narrow Virgin Gorda, with an area of approximately 8 square miles (21 square km), rises to an elevation of more than 1,300 feet (400 m). Jost Van Dyke is a rugged island only about 3 square miles (9 square km) in area. Anegada, the northernmost extension of the colony, is a flat coral island surrounded by dangerous reefs. The British Virgin Islands have no rivers. Their subtropical climate is pleasant and healthy for most of the year, a factor in the islands' important tourist industry. The climate is unvaryingly warm and mild, with temperatures averaging 78º F (26º C) annually. The average annual rainfall is about 50 inches (1,300 mm), much of it occurring from September to December. Hurricanes are infrequent. Much of the islands' original tropical vegetation has been replaced by secondary scrub growth.|
|The great majority of British Virgin Islanders are blacks and mulattoes, the descendants of African slaves. Whites constitute a small minority, although their number has grown markedly since 1960. Tortola, of all the islands, has by far the largest population, some four-fifths of the total. About a fourth of all Tortolans live in Road Town. English, the official language and the chief tongue of the people, is often spoken in a Calypso dialect. Religious affiliations are mostly with Protestant denominations, the Methodists being the largest single group.|
|The economic mainstay of the British Virgin Islands is tourism, based on the nearly perfect climate, sparkling beaches, tropical vegetation, and undersea coral reefs. Tourism provides about half of the colony's income and is the largest employer in the islands. Agriculture was the backbone of the economy until tourism replaced it in the 1970s. The most important agricultural activity is livestock raising. The main crops are bananas, sugarcane, citrus fruits, coconuts, mangoes, and various root crops. Some fruits and vegetables continue to be exported, but most crops are grown for local consumption. Fishing in the well-endowed coastal waters is a growing industry, and fresh fish have also become a significant export. Manufacturing is restricted to the production of rum, paint, and building materials (sand and gravel). Cottage industries produce woven baskets and other items that appeal to the tourist trade.|
|A bridge connects Tortola on the east to Beef Island, site of the main airport. Direct flights from the Virgin Islands of the United States, Puerto Rico, and the eastern Caribbean are accommodated. Road Harbour on Tortola is a deepwater port.|
Government and social conditions.
|The British Virgin Islands are a colony of the United Kingdom. The country is administered under the constitution that came into effect in 1977. The chief executive officer is the governor, who is appointed by the British monarch. The governor is advised by an Executive Council and by a Legislative Council, most of whose members are elected. The general health of the population is good, and literacy is almost 100 percent.|
|The Arawak Indians who probably initially occupied the Virgin Islands had been expelled by the warlike Caribs by the time Christopher Columbus arrived at the islands in 1493, naming them Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgenes ("St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins"). In 1555 the Habsburg Holy Roman emperor Charles V sent a Spanish invasion force to claim the islands, and by 1596 most of the Caribs had fled or been killed. The islands were an early haunt for buccaneers and pirates. Dutch buccaneers held Tortola until it was taken over in 1666 by English planters. Tortola was annexed by the British-administered Leeward Islands in 1672. The English planters' slave-based sugar plantations declined after slavery was abolished in the first half of the 19th century. In 1872 the islands became part of the Colony of the Leeward Islands, retaining that status until the colony was defederated in 1956. Thereafter, the British Virgin Islands became a separate colony. The colony was given a ministerial form of government in 1967, which was continued under the new constitution of 1977.|