History in the British Virgin Island starts with the Carib Indians, who had killed off most of the Arawak earlier inhabitants and were in the Virgin Islands the day Europeans led by Columbus landed on its shores. Columbus chose not to stay long, however, and his decision to move on led to an international argument about who the Virgin Islands really belonged to, then chaos, and then a rich piracy, privateer, and smuggler history.
Exploring the history of the British Virgin Islands by yacht, you’re moving in the wake of pirates from the Golden Age on through the much-later pirates of the early 18th century. One of the best places to explore for piratical history is Norman Island, the probable inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal Treasure Island. On this island in the southern tip of the Virgin Island archipelago you’ll find all the piratical features you might imagine: Spyglass Hill, sea caves accessible by boat, welcoming open ports and coves, and for lunch Pirates Bight Bar and Restaurant, clearly marked not with an X but with the word “Pirates” laid out in white on the red roof.
Dead Chest Island in Deadman’s Bay, off Peter Island, is probably the inspiration for the “15 men on a dead man’s chest” song, also from Treasure Island. Legend has it that Blackbeard marooned fifteen crewmen on this dry and deserted shore with only a bottle of rum to sustain them; when the desperate men tried to swim the wide strait across to Peter Island, they were swept away by the current and drowned. Today, it’s still dry and barren, but it’s also surrounded by excellent diving spots for snorkelers and scuba divers.
All around Tortola you’ll find spots, mostly in ruins or with only the foundations left, where forts were raised by Dutch and British soldiers, and sometimes by the pirates themselves. The area passed from Spanish to Dutch to British hands over and over throughout the two centuries between about 1550 to 1750, finally winding up a British colony. Fort Recovery, for instance, was first built by Dutch explorer Joost van Dyk (after whom an island is named) to defend against possible Spanish incursions in the early 1600s. It was abandoned in 1672 when the British took the island, but then was rebuilt in the late 1700s, when the British were worried about the newly-formed United States and, later, Napoleon. Today, a two-story ruin is left, and Fort Recovery Beachfront Villas dominates the shoreline instead of a hardened fortress.
Later, the history of Tortola and the British Virgin Islands took a decidedly cruel turn, as slaves imported from Africa were made to farm sugarcane throughout the islands. They toiled in the hot fields through about the mid-19th century, when slavery was abolished in all British territories. You can see a little of this history if you visit Sugar Mill Hotel, which is built inside a 370-year-old sugar mill ruin, and much more in some of the small museums in Road Town, Tortola.
Piracy, war, slavery, and now a premier tourism spot for yachters and the preeminent financial market in the Caribbean – the British Virgin Islands have come a long way through history, and you’ll feel it as you sail between the exotic islands, where pirates once navigated and wars were waged.