British Virgin Islands: What Is British about Them and What Is Not
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) are identified by two important features which do not necessarily complement each other:
- Politics: The group of islands is a British dependent territory.
- Geography: The islands are located within the Caribbean region with the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) as their closest neighbor.
The BVI is comprised of more than 50 islands and cays within an area of 153 kilometers or 59.07 square miles. Only 15 of the islands are inhabited, some privately owned. They are situated to the east of the USVI which includes St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John.
In the table below, the four largest islands are ranked in descending order. Some of the other islands are listed on Wikipedia.
Area in Kilometers
Area in Square Miles
Population in 2010
Jost Van Dyke
Don’t be fooled by the sizes of the BVI. Beside the super-steep hills rising out of the ocean (except on Anegada which is flat) and the powdery-white sand on their pristine beaches, many other aspects of their life are fascinating.
However, given the oddity of a British territory, with American territory as its closest neighbor, and situated within the Caribbean region, it is reasonable to wonder what’s British about the BVI and what’s not.
A brief look at six aspects of BVI after a very brief history, will help us decide.
A Brief History
- 1493. Christopher Columbus sailed into the islands during his conquests for Spain.
- 1602. The Dutch challenged the Spanish and set up the first European settlement.
- 1666. The British gained control of the BVI from the Dutch.
- 1672. The islands were established as British colony and later administered by the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands.
- 1967. Constitutional reform established the BVI as a British dependent territory.
Government is one certain area in which the islands are firmly British. Their official national anthem is God Save the Queen.
From 1672, when the group became an English colony, they remained British. The Governor is appointed by Britain; is the Queen’s personal representative; is responsible for external affairs and internal security; and heads the Executive Council which is locally elected and is responsible for formulating the government’s policies. English is the official language.
Censuses taken in 2004 and 2008 affirm that blacks comprise more than 80% of the population. The other less than 20% is comprised of Amerindians, East Indians, Middle Easterners and European whites.
According to Claudine Colli in her book British Virgin Islands, "Ask an islander where he or she is from and the answer may be, ‘My mother was born here, but my father is from Grenada—or Antigua, Dominica or St Vincent.’ ”
The currency is the American dollar—an accommodation for daily commerce with the USVI.
Tortola in the BVI and St. Thomas in the USVI are 16 km or 10 miles apart. Daily ferry rides between the islands take 45 minutes, the same amount of time it takes to get to a shopping destination in some large cities.
The BVI launched its international financial services sector in 1980. The International Business Companies (IBC) ordinance exempts offshore companies from the local business tax; consequently, the BVI has more than half a million offshore businesses on its IBC register. It has anti-money laundering legislation modeled after the British system.
Driving in the BVI is a 50-50 British American experience.
Generally, cars are imported from the United States, so the steering wheels are on the left. However, residents drive on the left in keeping with the British traffic system.
British residents and visitors may find a taste of Britain on menus prepared especially for them at some hotels.
Local restaurants and caterers serve johnny cake, fried dough (a traditional English food which was convenient when people travelled by foot) and salt fish (also standard for English sailors before refrigeration). The rest of the menu lists a variety of dishes: American, Mediterranean, Indian, Latin, but mostly Caribbean cuisine—rice and beans; fungi and fish; “ground provisions” such as sweet potatoes, yams, tania and other roots; meat stews made with bullfoot, goathead, oxtail; soursop, passion fruit and mauby beverages.
A brief look at some of the sports played in the BVI, further affirms a multi-cultural blend with a British presence.
- Here, football means soccer, as it does in Britain and in most parts of the world. They have a national team and a junior national team, both of which compete with other teams in the region.
- Rugby is usually played by the British population.
- BVI residents are equally enthusiastic about American sports like baseball and softball.
- Horse racing, popular with the British, is part of their annual Emancipation Festival celebration.
- BVI athletes are represented at the Olympics in track and field events.
Exploring the BVI
Would You Like to Visit?
The BVI citizens are proud of their British heritage. They are more rural than their American neighbors, and some still farm and fish. However, their two main industries are tourism and financial services (mentioned under Currency).
Just in case you would like to visit, here are two reminders for tourists:
- Visitors are required to have a valid passport, and pre-arranged accommodations. For further details, see Entry Requirements.
- The electricity voltage on the island is 110 (American system). Even travelers from Britain must use an adapter with their electrical equipment.
There are no direct flights from the American mainland or Europe, but it is worth the trip to visit this multi-cultural experience.
Choose Your Route
- Tourists from the United States can fly into Puerto Rico, and hop on one of the many 30-minute inter-island flights to the BVI main airport (Terrance B. Lettsome International) on Beef Island. From Beef Island, a bridge connects to Tortola, and small ferries sail to any of the other islands.
- Travelers from the United States can also fly into St. Thomas and take a 45-minute ferry ride to Tortola.
- Travelers from Britain can fly into Antigua, and then to Beef Island.
Given the versatility of people and culture in the BVI, people from anywhere and everywhere will find something to enjoy.
- BVI Tourist Board, The British Virgin Islands, Nature's Little Secret
- Colli, Claudia - British Virgin Islands, Macmillan Publishers, Oxford, 2006
- Allerno, Colleen B et al, Countries and Their Cultures, 2006
- Country Studies/Area Handbook Series sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Army between 1986 and 1998.
© 2013 Dora Isaac Weithers