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Virgin Islands, group of about 100 small islands, West Indies, E of Puerto Rico. The islands are divided politically between the United States and Great Britain. Although constituting the westernmost part of the Lesser Antilles, the Virgin Islands form a geological unit with Puerto Rico and the Greater Antilles; they are of volcanic origin overlaid with limestone. The islands are subject to sometimes severe hurricanes between August and October—in 2017 St. Thomas and especially St. John as well as the British Virgin Islands suffered significant damage from Hurricane Irma, as did St. Croix from Hurricane Maria—and suffer from light earthquakes. The water supply is almost completely dependent on rainfall and is preserved in cisterns; some water also comes from desalinization plants. The tropical climate, with its cooling northeast trade winds, and the picturesque quality of the islands, enhanced by their Old World architecture, have encouraged a large tourist trade. The population is predominantly of African descent and the main religion is Protestantism. English and some Spanish and Creole are spoken. The islands were first visited by Europeans when Columbus landed on St. Croix in 1493.
The Virgin Islands of the United States
The Virgin Islands of the United States (2015 est. pop. 105,000), 133 sq mi (344 sq km), are a U.S. territory. Although 68 islands comprise the group, only the three largest—St. Croix (80 sq mi/207 sq km), St. Thomas (32 sq mi/83 sq km), and St. John (20 sq mi/52 sq km)—are of importance. St. Thomas is mountainous and encloses many snug harbors and bays. Charlotte Amalie, the capital and the chief port, is on St. Thomas; it has one of the finest harbors in the Caribbean. Tourism, especially the cruise-ship trade, is the main source of income on St. Thomas. St. Croix, with less mountainous terrain, has an economy that depends in large part on tourism. Food crops are raised; sugarcane is no longer grown, but rum is still distilled. The towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted are on St. Croix. The Virgin Islands National Park covers much of St. John. Cattle are raised on all three islands. The Univ. of the Virgin Islands has campuses on St. Thomas and St. Croix. Under a law passed in 1954, the islands are administered by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior. There is a 15-seat Senate, whose members are elected for two-year terms, and a governor, who is elected for a four-year term.
Settlement of St. Thomas was begun by the Danish West India Company in 1672; St. John was claimed by Denmark in 1683, and St. Croix was purchased from France in 1733. The islands became a Danish royal colony in 1754. In 1801, and again from 1807 to 1815, the islands were in British hands. They were purchased from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million because of their strategic position alongside the approach to the Panama Canal. Since 1927, residents have enjoyed U.S. citizenship, and since 1973 they have been represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by a nonvoting delegate. Albert Bryan was elected governor in 2018.
The British Virgin Islands
Immediately to the northeast of the U.S. Virgin Islands are the British Virgin Islands, officially the Virgin Islands, a British dependency (2015 est. pop. 30,000), 59 sq mi (153 sq km). There are more than 30 islands; 16 are inhabited. The principal ones are Tortola, Anegada, and Virgin Gorda. Road Town, the capital, is on Tortola. Tourism, light industry, and offshore financial services are the most important economic activities; the dependency is the nominal home of more than 600,000 offshore corporations. Tortola was devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
Britain acquired the islands from the Dutch in 1666. Granted autonomy in 1967, they are governed under the constitution of 2007, which increased their responsibility for internal self-government. There is a unicameral House of Assembly whose 13 voting members are elected to four-year terms. The government is headed by a premier, and the monarch of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, represented by a governor, is the head of state. Andrew Fahie, of the Virgin Islands party, became premier in 2019.
See H. W. Hannau, The Virgin Islands: St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John (1965); E. A. O'Neill, Rape of the American Virgins (1972); W. W. Boyer, America's Virgin Islands (1983); I. Dookhan, A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States (1974, repr. 1994).