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U.S.Virgin Islands

Organized unincorporated island territory of the United States, at the eastern end of the Greater Antilles, about 40 miles (64 km) east of Puerto Rico, in the northeastern Caribbean Sea. Composed of three large islands, St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas, and about 50 small islets and cays, the islands cover 136 square miles (352 square km). The population in 1990 was estimated at 105,000, and the capital is Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas.

The land

Geologically, with the British Virgin Islands, the islands are an extension of the central fault-block mountain ranges of Puerto Rico and part of the Greater Antilles. Composed of metamorphosed igneous and sedimentary rocks overlain in parts by limestone and alluvium, they rise off the continental shelf to maximum heights of 1,556 feet (474 m) at Crown Mountain on St. Thomas, 1,277 feet (389 m) at Bordeaux Mountain on St. John, and 1,088 feet (332 m) at Mount Eagle on St. Croix (the largest of the islands, with an area of 84 square miles [218 square km]). St. Thomas and St. John are very rugged, but St. Croix's mountains are confined to the north, with a large rolling-to-level plain opening to the south. All the islands are surrounded by fringing coral reefs, and ancient elevated reefs ring the main islands.

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destroyed the islands' tropical forest, which is now found only in a few places on St. Thomas and has elsewhere been replaced by secondary woodland and scrub.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.

The people

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.

The economy

The U.S. Virgin Islands have a developing free-enterprise economy based on tourism and manufacturing. The gross national product (GNP) is growing faster than the population; the GNP per capita is the highest in the Caribbean region. About one-fifth of the total land area is farmland, most of it on St. Croix. Agricultural production in the 1970s through the '80s underwent transition from the traditional reliance on sugarcane to more diversified crops. Citrus fruits, tamarinds, mangoes, bananas, sorghum (for animal feed), and vegetables, all for internal consumption, are the main crops grown. Cattle (ranched on St. Croix), goats, sheep, and pigs are the main livestock. St. Croix produces milk, sufficient for island needs. The government has built dams on St. Croix and St. Thomas to improve farmers' water supply.

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.

Government and social conditions

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.


The islands probably were originally settled by Arawak Indians, but they were inhabited by the warlike Caribs when Christopher Columbus landed on St. Croix in 1493. They had extensive farms and settlements on the island. Columbus named the islands Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgenes, in honour of the legendary St. Ursula and the 11,000 martyred virgins. In 1555 a Spanish expedition defeated the Caribs and claimed the islands for Spain, but by 1625 English and French settlers were farming on St. Croix, and it had become a haven for pirates. In 1650 the Spaniards evicted the remaining English settlers, but the French took the islands later that same year. St. Croix was willed to the Knights of Malta in 1653, but they sold it to the French West India Company. Dutch buccaneers had established themselves on Tortola, but the English evicted them in 1666, while Denmark claimed St. Thomas and St. John. Dividing the islands into plantations, the Danes began growing sugarcane, first using convicted criminals and, after 1673, African slaves for labour. Commerce developed from the triangular trade in slaves brought from Africa, rum and molasses sent to Europe, and European goods shipped back to the islands. St. Thomas became a major slave market for the Caribbean. Denmark purchased St. Croix in 1733, and it became a major centre of sugarcane production. Alexander Hamilton, the U.S. statesman, was born on Nevis Island in 1755, brought to St. Croix in 1765, and worked there as a countinghouse clerk. By the early 19th century the sugar industry began to decline and two slave revolts had shaken the plantation economy. Slavery was abolished in 1848, and the United States began negotiations to purchase the islands from Denmark. The sale was made in 1917 for U.S. $25,000,000. Administered by the U.S. Navy, they were transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1931, and civilian governors appointed by the president ruled the islands. Tourism began to develop in 1945. In 1954 the Organic Act of the Virgin Islands was revised and created the current governmental structure. In 1970 the first popularly elected governor took office, and in 1976 the islands were given the right to draft a constitution, subject to approval by the U.S. Congress and president. Completed in 1978, the islands' constitution was rejected in a referendum (1979) and again rejected after amendment (1981). Substantial immigration from the mainland United States, the eastern Caribbean, and Puerto Rico (1960-75) produced social tension between islanders and the new settlers.

British Virgin Islands

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 land

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 people

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 economy

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.

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