The British Virgin Islands (BVI)

The British Virgin Islands are a group of sixty islands located east of Puerto Rico. The islands were named by Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage to the Americas, after the legend of Saint Ursula and the Eleven Virgins. “Virgen Gorda”, which means “fat virgin” in Spanish, referred to Virgin Gorda, considered the largest of the islands by Columbus.

The BVI is known for its numerous white sand beaches, hospitable people and multiple religious backgrounds which result from the islands’ diverse ethnic groups, constituted of persons of African, East Indian and European descent. Roughly 86% of the islands’ religious community is made up of Protestant Catholics, while Methodists, Anglicans and Catholics represent 33, 17 and 10% respectively.

The BVI is comprised of several islands, often considered islets or cays, such as Ginger Island, Great Camanoe, Necker Island, Peter Island, Salt Island, Beef Island and Mosquito Island, among others. The four main islands in terms of economic development and population include Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke; and although similar in geographical landscape, each island presents its own unique features and “nature secrets”.

Tortola is mountainous with an area of approximately 21.5 square miles and a population of 23,908 inhabitants. Tortola’s capital is Road Town. From the onset of the 1990’s began to grow through tourism, the hotel industry and the provision of financial services, particularly in the offshore sector. This was strengthened by the enactment and amendment of various offshore statues and the formation of the Financial Services Commission mandated to oversee, supervise and regulate the provision of financial and offshore services on the island.

Anegada is situated about 15 miles north of Virgin Gorda and is the second largest with a superficial area of 15 sqaure miles. Unlike other British Virgin Islands which are of volcanic origin and hilly, Anegada is the flattest and lowest lying island which is fully formed by coral and limestone. This feature has greatly influenced the tourism and commercial fishing industries, which have for the past several years been the mainstay of the island’s economy.

Virgin Gorda is special. At the end of an unspoilt white sand beach lies a number of enormous granite boulders referred to as “The Baths”, while the ruins of the abandoned Copper Mine is a landmark in the BVI’s colonial history and is designated a National Park by the BVI authorities. Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda’s capital is located on the south of the island, is the second largest to Road Town, Tortola ad has its own ferry service and airport with regularly scheduled trips.

Jost Van Dyke, is named after the Dutch privateer who was responsible for the first trading activities in tobacco and cotton that were conducted with Spanish settlers in Puerto Rico and establishing the very first settlements in the BVI, particularly in Soper’s Hole on the West end of Tortola, during the 17th century. settled on the small island during the 17th century. Jost Van Dyke is located towards the north of the Virgin Islands, about five miles northwest of Tortola. Despite its small size, the island is a wonderful hang out spot for tourists, has proper boat and ferry services and bars.

Political Evolution

Constant Spanish raids and little arable land caused the islands to be abandoned by virtually all of its inhabitants, diminishing the population to a mere 2 persons between 1685 and 1690, 14 after that, then a recorded 50 persons from 1696 onwards.

The BVI were won over by the British in 1672 during the Anglo-Dutch War, however, governing the islands during the colonial proved to be complicated. In 1678, although a deputy-governor was appointed by the Crown, his role was vague and did not involve any legislative, judiciary or executive powers, while a legislature was not put established until 1773. In 1778, George Suckling was appointed Chief Justice of the Territory but the establishment of a legislative framework for the Legislative Assembly that was created in 1774 took place some 10 years later due to the islands’ small population which made the formation of a governing body a difficult task.

The islands’ Legislative Council was officially dissolved in 1901, transferring administrative powers to the Governor of the Leeward Islands. However, with the collapse of the Leeward Islands Federation, the newly reinstituted and reformed Legislative Council of 1951 chose to stand on its own and refused to join the Federation of the West Indies. Upon being granted greater administrative powers by the new constitution enacted in 1966, elections were called the following year and the first Chief Minister, Lavity Stout of the Virgin Islands Party, was elected.

Interior Politics

The British Virgin Islands are a British Overseas Territory with the Queen of England as the Head of State and internal self-autonomy. The Crown is represented by the Governor, an appointee that exercises the power to appoint the Chief Minister and the Cabinet. The Chief Minister of the British Virgin Islands is appointed from the political party with the majority of seats in the legislature, while the Cabinet comprises of the Executive Council. The Legislative Council is unicameral and consists of 13 seats and its members are elected for a term of 5 years by direct popular vote, with 1 member representing each of the 9 electoral districts and four at-large members.

The concept of “at large” seats or “at large” members was introduced in the mid-1990s, whereby any citizen of the British Virgin Islands could represent a constituency without necessarily being part of a political party. This adds to the number of persons who may represent the interests of the various constituencies in the Legislative Council as voters are allowed four “at large” votes in addition to the regular constituency vote.

Today, the two major political parties are the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Virgin Islands Party, which won the 2007 general elections. The United Kingdom is responsible for mi