Virgin Islander Americans
VIRGIN ISLANDER AMERICANS
by Lolly Ockerstrom
Known until 1917 as the Danish West Indies, the U.S. Virgin Islands rise out of the Caribbean waters 1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers) south of Miami and 40 miles (64 kilometers) east of Puerto Rico. They cover a total of 165 square miles. To the north lie the Bahamas, while to the south rests Haiti. Part of the Greater Antilles chain, the Virgin Islands are composed of 68 volcanic islands and cays, which are small islands made chiefly of coral. The three main islands are St. Thomas, St. John's, and St. Croix. All are rugged and mountainous. The British Virgin Islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Jost Van Dyke are located farther east and cover 59 square miles.
Since the end of World War II, tourism has been the most important industry on the islands. Renowned for their breathtaking white sandy beaches, numerous cays, and exotic fauna, the Virgin Islands are a popular tourist destination, particularly for those interested in diving, sailing, and sport fishing. The average yearly temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees centigrade); trade winds help to keep the temperature moderate. By the late 1990s the population totaled 102,000, with the majority living in the capital city of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. The annual rate of population growth is 2.5 percent. The population density is 76 persons per square mile.
Island mythology abounds with tales from pirate days, of Bluebeard and island ghosts, which are exploited to promote tourism. The islands also have had a long and painful history of colonialism and slavery under Danish rule. One result is that the majority of Virgin Islanders are of African descent, while the rest are of European or mixed heritage. The United States purchased the Virgin Islands in 1917 from Denmark for $25 million. The official language is English, although Spanish and Creole are also widely used. The currency is the U.S. dollar. Known as "America's Paradise," the Virgin Islands claim a culture that is Afro-Euro-Caribbean.
Native peoples inhabited the Virgin Islands thousands of years before Christopher Columbus came to the islands on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. The Arawaks are thought to have arrived on the islands about 100-200 a.d., while the Ciboneys came between 300 and 400 b.c. The Caribs arrived much later, about 100 to 150 years before Columbus. The Arawak and Carib Indians originated in Central America and traveled to the Virgin Islands through what is now Trinidad and the Lesser Antilles. It is not known where the Ciboneys originated. Various theories hold that they moved south from Florida, north from South America, or east from Central America. There was no firsthand contemporary study of any of these people, but twentieth-century archaeological studies have made it possible to reconstruct the social and cultural patterns of the first Virgin Islanders. Ancient petroglyphs, or rocks incised with figures hundreds of years ago, exist throughout the region. They have provided the only written record of these earlier times.
The Arawaks, Caribs, and Ciboneys crafted articles from stone, shell, bone, and wood. They also worked with other natural materials from the local environment, including hemp, fiber, grass, cotton, and skins, to fashion such everyday items as bowls, mortars and pestles, flints, and celts. The Arawaks and the Caribs produced pottery from yellow and red clay, although the Ciboneys do not appear to have worked in clay at all. Only the Caribs made mats from grasses. All three tribes were fish-eating cultures, and all were hunters and gatherers who crafted dugout canoes from cedar and silk-cotton trees to use for transportation. The Arawaks were the most skilled in cultivating the soil to grow crops. Of the three groups, the Caribs were the most warlike. Their principal weapons were bows used with poisoned arrows. The Arawaks preferred spears. Both the Carib and the Arawak tribes used javelins and clubs as well.
Around 1550, the native tribes were forced off the islands when Charles V of Spain declared them enemies. By the time the Danes arrived on St. Thomas in 1672, very few natives remained. The Danes established trade and commerce on the islands, developing plantations for growing sugar, cotton, coffee, and livestock, which demanded a continuous supply of cheap labor. This led to the use of indentured white servants and black slaves brought in from Africa.
The Danes ran a flourishing slave trade that began in 1672 and continued until a massive uprising on St. Croix in 1848 that ended slavery in the Virgin Islands. During that period, 100,000 people of African descent were forcibly transported to work as field laborers on Danish plantations. While most came directly from Africa, others came from neighboring Caribbean islands. It is estimated that in 1778, the slave population on St. Croix was 22,867, with another 4,634 on St. Thomas and 2,454 on St. John. Referred to as "kamina folk," they labored in the plantation fields. The Creole word kamina signified both the piece of land being cultivated and the black people who performed the work. Historian Isaac Dookhan theorized that had the Spanish not driven the native peoples from the Virgin Islands, enslaved Africans might never have been forced to come to the Virgin Islands. But the Arawaks, Caribs, and Ciboneys did vanish, and African slaves were captured and brought to the islands. As a result, as Dookhan noted, every aspect of life in the Virgin Islands was dominated by slavery. Class distinctions developed based on degrees of color, wealth, and education; a white ruling class emerged and suppressed the black laboring class; and the economy became dependent on the presence of slaves to work the plantations to produce food commodities for trade. The slave history of the Virgin Islands created difficult social conditions for all residents well into the twentieth century. However, in rereading Virgin Islands history, historians are recognizing a strong tradition of protest and resistance from which the kamina folk created a distinct culture of survival.
Competition from other sugar-producing nations, including European sugar-beet growers, began to have a negative impact on the Virgin Islands' plantation-based economy during the nineteenth century. Following the abolition of slavery, plantation growers hired indentured servants and other laborers. To reduce operating expenses in order to remain competitive, growers began to exploit their workers, leading to a massive labor revolt on St. Croix in 1878. Despite attempts by the Danish government to improve conditions, agriculture and trade continued to decline. At the outbreak of World War I, Denmark could no longer afford to maintain the islands. Denmark and the United States began discussions regarding the purchase of the Virgin Islands as early as 1863, but negotiations broke off when the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the purchase proposal. Talks resumed in 1914. Denmark and the United States signed treaties, and on March 31, 1917, control of the Virgin Islands was transferred to the United States.
The United States wanted the islands chiefly to defend access to the Panama Canal and to prevent the Germans from acquiring a strategic position in the Caribbean during the World War I. U.S. naval officers governed the Virgin Islands from 1917 until 1931, when the United States appointed Dr. Paul D. Pearson as the first civilian governor. He set up ambitious programs to invigorate the islands' economy. The Virgin Islands Company was established to encourage homestead farming, revive the sugar-cane industry, and improve the port of St. Thomas. But while social services improved during the first years of U.S. ownership, the Virgin Islands remained impoverished as a result of continued failures in trade and agriculture since the nineteenth century. When Herbert Hoover became the first U.S. president to visit the Virgin Islands in 1931, he characterized the islands as the "effective poor-house" of the United States.
During World War II, the U.S. Virgin Islands took on strategic military importance as the United States routed convoys through the Caribbean. Military bases were constructed on the islands, warships were anchored in the Virgin Islands' harbors, and roads were built. Agricultural laborers left farming first for construction, then for jobs relating to tourism. Sugar production was phased out in 1966, and the Tourist Development Board was established in 1952. By 1954 more than 60,000 tourists visited the Virgin Islands, spending an estimated $4 million. When Cuba was closed to Americans in 1959, the number of tourists coming to the Virgin Islands rose to 200,000. By 1999 the number rose to two million. Tourism transformed the islanders' way of life, not always in positive ways. The rapid rise in tourism during the 1960s placed strain on the existing infrastructure, which was unable to keep up with new demands. Traditional ways of life were severely disrupted. Inadequate planning for future needs resulted in damage to the environment, racial tension, and rising crime rates. During the 1970s Virgin Islands' Governor Juan Luis and the Virgin Islands Chamber of Commerce identified crime as the islands' most severe problem. The crime rate did not begin to fall until the late 1970s.
Tax laws and subsidies favorable to industry have attracted new businesses to the islands. These include watch assembly operations, textile manufacturing, and oil refining. Immigrants from other Caribbean islands have come to the Virgin Islands seeking employment. Other newcomers, from the U.S. mainland, have come to retire. Between 1950 and 1970, the population of the Virgin Islands mushroomed from 26,665 to 63,200. By the end of the twentieth century, it had reached 102,000.
THE FIRST VIRGIN ISLANDERS IN AMERICA
The 1920s, the first full decade of U.S. ownership, were economically depressed years in the Virgin Islands. Lacking a viable economic system following the decline of plantation agriculture and trade, the islands remained impoverished. The U.S. prohibition act, in effect from 1919 to 1933, had been extended to the Virgin Islands and had hurt the rum production industry. Even after the appointment of a new governor in 1931, and the establishment of new programs to stimulate economic growth, unemployment was still widespread. In 1934 rioting broke out in St. Thomas. Whites continued to be assigned to positions of leadership and power, while black Virgin Islanders remained unemployed, adding more stress to already strained race relations. As a result, many Virgin Islanders emigrated to New York and other eastern seaboard cities in search of employment and relief from oppression.
SIGNIFICANT IMMIGRATION WAVES
As a slave-trading colony of Denmark during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Virgin Islands, then known as the Danish West Indies, were a destination for slaves and slaveowners. People who came to the islands rarely left unless they were returning to Denmark or another part of Europe. Not until after the United States purchased the islands did Virgin Islanders come to the U.S. mainland. Many Virgin Islanders who emigrated settled on other Caribbean islands such as Puerto Rico, where they found employment. Later emigrants from the Virgin Islands to the mainland United States were often students enrolled in colleges and universities. The number of Virgin Islanders coming to the continent was small. Government statistics on immigration and the Virgin Islands concentrate on the number of alien workers brought to the islands, especially during the 1970s economic boom, rather than the number of Virgin Islanders emigrating to the mainland.
Acculturation and Assimilation
As citizens of a U.S. territory, Virgin Islanders have a relationship to the United States unlike that of other immigrant groups. Islanders claim allegiance to two distinct cultural identities, as they are simultaneously Virgin Islanders and U.S. citizens. Culturally, Virgin Islanders have developed art forms, clothing, cuisine, and traditions unique to their region and its Caribbean and African history. Economically, the Virgin Islands remain dependent on the United States. Politically, the relationship is troubled. The United States granted the islanders citizenship in 1927, but did not allow them a delegate to the U.S. Congress until 1972. Although Virgin Islanders are U.S. taxpayers, they are unable to vote in presidential elections because the Virgin Islands are not a state.
During the late 1960s, issues of acculturation and assimilation for many black Virgin Islanders became a reversal of the usual immigrant experience. Large numbers of whites from the U.S. mainland migrated to the island, threatening to overwhelm Virgin Islanders and their culture. Marilyn Krigger, a professor at what was then the College of the Virgin Islands, maintained that black students at the college experienced a serious crisis of identity as a result of this migration. Chief among the students' observations was that faculty members were mostly white Americans from the mainland. Public school teachers, also from the mainland, were largely unaware of local history, customs, foods, and other aspects of island life. The distinctive history and culture of the Virgin Islands became endangered. Unlike immigrant ethnic groups struggling to maintain a balance between their cultural past and their new homeland in the United States, U.S. Virgin Islanders had to struggle for cultural survival on their own land.
Separate black and white communities began to emerge as a result of economic disparities. There were great discrepancies between blacks' and whites' wages and status in business. Educational segregation developed as whites sent their children to expensive private schools out of the reach of most black Virgin Islander families. All-white residential areas appeared as well. An atmosphere of distrust and hatred arose.
For those Virgin Islanders who came to the U.S. mainland, cultural identity remained a troublesome issue. They have struggled to balance their identity as U.S. citizens with memories of Virgin Islands life. Because most black Virgin Islanders are descendants of slaves, they have tended to identify with black mainlanders.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
Culturally, Virgin Islanders belong to the larger group of Caribbean islands, which for centuries have been a crossroads for trade, commerce, and military maneuvers for people from all over the world. Many different cultures from Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia have brought their own traditions to the Virgin Islands. These have further enriched the already complex tapestry of Caribbean island traditions.
Virgin Islanders are fond of the saying, "What a kallaloo !" The word kallaloo actually means a soup of seaweed and greens, but islanders use the word to refer to any kind of mess. Another word frequently invoked is limin', which means lying back and enjoying the day.
Several different cultures have left an imprint on the Virgin Islands, producing a national cuisine that represents a wide range of tastes and traditions. Seafoods, chutneys, and curries are all typical of Virgin Islands fare. Baked plantains are common, as are chicken legs, kallaloo, johnny cakes (unleavened fried bread), and cassava bread. Souse, a stew served at all festivities, is made of a pig's head, tail, and feet and flavored with lime juice. Fish is either fried or boiled and eaten with fungi, a cornmeal dumpling. Conch is cooked in garlic sauce and served hot or cold in salads or as a main dish, as well as in chowder or as a fritter. The native tannia root is cooked into a soup. Paté turnovers, pastries filled with spiced beef or salt fish are served at sidewalk stalls. Sugar cakes, desserts of sugar and fresh coconut, are very popular among natives and tourists alike.
More than 250 species of plants, exotic fruits, nuts, and vegetables are produced on the Virgin Islands. Among them are coconuts, grapes, soursop, mamee, custard apple, sugar apple, cashew, and papaya. Cassava, arrowroot, and sweet potatoes are also native to the Virgin Islands, as are several species of squash, beans, and cacao.
When Columbus and the Spaniards arrived in 1493, explorers introduced new foods to the islands, including sugar cane, which became one of the most important trade crops during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Oregano and cumin arrived from Europe; lemons, oranges, and bananas came from the Canary Islands. The British introduced fruit buns, ginger beer, and breadfruit. The Dutch brought with them from Indonesia more spices: nutmeg, mace, cloves, and cinnamon. The French contributed methods of preserving fruits using rum, which became the drink of the Caribbean. Virgin Islands' bay rum became one of the most important export products for Islanders.
Other drinks of the Virgin Islands include maubi, made from the bark of the maubi tree with herbs and yeast added. Cruzan rum, one of the Virgin Islands' biggest exports, has been distilled on the island of St. Croix since the seventeenth century. Other popular island drinks are soursop, made of this fruit plus milk, water, sugar, and spices, and the piña colada.
African slaves who worked the plantations were granted plots of their own on which to grow food, and they began to incorporate food from the Virgin Islands into more familiar recipes from Africa. They cooked with plantains, yams, beans, and okra, as well as salt pork and salt fish. To add flavor, they used chili peppers, which are high in vitamins A and C. The scotch bonnet, a type of pepper grown on the Virgin Islands, is said to be more than 50 times hotter than a jalapeno. When slavery was abolished, indentured servants were brought from Asia, and they brought with them curries from East India and stir-fried cuisine from China.
Caribbean calypso music, steel drums, and reggae are well-known to music lovers throughout the world. The precursor of the calypso was known as kareso, a term most likely derived from the African word kaiso, which means "bravo." The word is used to signify approval for a singer. Quelbe, which is unique to St. Croix, is a percussion music made by scraping corrugated gourds. It is sometimes referred to as scratch music.
DANCES AND SONGS
The most famous folk dance of the Virgin Islands is the quadrille. A square dance of French origin, it was changed to fit local musical rhythms and tastes. The quadrille is performed by four couples and danced in rhythms of 6/8 and 2/4 times. Dancers wear period costumes: for women, dresses with layers of ruffles; for men in dark pants, white shirts, and cummerbunds. A scratch band provides music, and dancers respond to the commands of a caller. The quadrille is considered the true folk dance of the Virgin Islands. It declined in popularity during the fifties and sixties, but regained favor during the 1970s, partly through the performances of the Milton Payne Quadrille Dances of Christiansted, in St. Croix. This group formed in 1969. One year later the Mungo Niles Cultural Dancers were founded, and their goal was to promote the culture of the Virgin Islands. The group provided free weekly dance instruction throughout the Virgin Islands and went on tour to New York and Washington, D.C., during the 1980s. Other well-known dance groups include the St. Croix Heritage Dancers and the St. Croix Cultural Dancers.
The major holiday in the Virgin Islands is Carnival, which occurs during the last two weeks of April on St. Croix and during June on St. Thomas. It has been a Caribbean tradition for many years. In the Virgin Islands, Carnival devotes the first week to calypso song competitions and the second to community activities, which include parades, marches, singing, and dancing. Streets are filled with stalls selling local foods, drinks, and produce. The festivities begin with the opening of the Calypso Tent, where song competitions take place. At the end of the first week, judges announce the new calypso king or queen, a much-sought-after honor. During the second week, attractions include the Children's Village, offering ferris wheel, merry-go-round, and other rides, and J'ouvert, a 4:00 a.m. tramp through town ending with fireworks at the harbor. A children's parade traditionally takes place on the Friday of the second week, lasting from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. An all-day adults' parade is held the following day. Each parade is filled with dance troupes, floats, music, and exotic costumes that reflect the year's chosen theme. The famed Mocko Jumbi Dancers, wearing elaborate costumes with headdresses, perform traditional African dances on 17-foot-high stilts. They are thought to represent spirits hovering over the street dancers.
Carnival is cultural rather than religious. It boosts both local pride and the local economy, and it is financed by a government grant. The holiday's popularity waned during the first half of the twentieth century, but was revived in 1952 by a radio personality known as Mango Jones, who later served as delegate to Congress. American novelist Herman Wouk wrote of Carnival in his famed Don't Stop The Carnival: "Africa was marching down the main street of this little harbor town today; Africa in undimmed black vitality, surging up out of centuries of island displacement, island slavery, island isolation, island ignorance; Africa, unquenchable in its burning love of life."
Other Virgin Islands holidays are related to hurricane season. The fourth Monday in July is Hurricane Supplication Day, and it is marked by special church services in which celebrants pray for safety from the storms that at times have ravaged the islands. The holiday is thought to have originated from fifth-century English rogation ceremonies, which followed a series of storms, although Rogation Day is also a Christian feast day preceding Ascension Day. The word rogation, coming from the Latin rogare, means to beg or supplicate. Islanders mark the end of hurricane season in October with Hurricane Thanksgiving Day, featuring church services in which participants express thanks for having been spared during the season.
Christmas and Easter are important holidays in the Virgin Islands, as Christianity is predominant among the islands' many religious traditions. Other holidays include New Year's Day, January 1; Three Kings' Day, January 6; and U.S. Independence Day, July 4. Holidays with variable dates include Martin Luther King Day in January; Presidents' Day in February; Memorial Day in May; Labor Day in September; Columbus Day in October; and Veterans' Day in November. Residents celebrate Virgin Islands Thanksgiving in October and the U.S. Thanksgiving in November.
Several holidays honor Virgin Islands' history. During the 1990s, islanders observed Emancipation Day on July 3 to mark the date Virgin Islands slaves gained freedom from Danish colonists on St. John. The festivities, held at Coral Bay, St. John, included storytelling, games, and music, along with sales of native foods and plants. Participants characterized the celebration as a cultural and spiritual gathering. They expressed a desire to emphasize local culture and history rather than entertainment. March 31, Transfer Day, marks the day ownership of the Virgin Islands passed from Denmark to the United States. June 16 is Organic Act Day, recognizing the islands' constitution. Liberty Day, which celebrates freedom of the press, is on November 1.
The majority of Virgin Islanders speak English, although the 1990 census reported that more than 25 percent spoke a language other than English in the home. Spanish and Creole are widely spoken. Linguistic field workers also reported that islanders speak several varieties of Dutch, English, and French Creole.
Family and Community Dynamics
The 1990 census found that family size in the Virgin Islands was 3.1 persons, typical of family size in the United States. The total number of households was 32,020; 23,012 of these were classified as "families." Of these, 13,197 were reported to be families in which both husband and wife were present. Family structure tends to be traditional, with men considered heads of families and women in charge of child care. Although an increasing number of women engage in paid employment, they tend to work part-time or in cottage industries, allowing them to work at home and take care of small children. Virgin Islanders have worked hard to overcome social problems related to the rapid rise in tourism and have retained pride in their distinctive history and culture. They have struggled to gain more political autonomy, but have expressed their desire for the islands to remain part of the United States.
The Virgin Islands ranks among the world's most literate regions, with a 98 percent adult literacy rate, although this was not always the case. The 1990 U.S. Census reported that of 55,639 resident Virgin Islanders over the age of 25, 14,021, or 25 percent, held a high school diploma. Fifteen percent, or 8,421, held a bachelor's degree or higher. In 1995, enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools numbered almost 40,000. School attendance is compulsory between the ages of five and 16; the government provides free public education for these students. The Department of Education also provides free lunches for all public school students. In conjunction with New York University, schools of the islands conduct a teacher training program.
The College of the Virgin Islands was founded in 1962 as a junior college. In 1972 it became the University of the Virgin Islands. Located on St. Thomas, it is the only university in the islands. In 1996 the university reported enrollment of 2,949. Seventy-six percent of the students were female. This prompted discussion among islanders over why young Virgin Islands men were not seeking higher education. Jessica Dinisio reported in Uvision that many Virgin Islanders attributed the low number of enrollments among young men to cultural and societal pressures. Young men were expected to enter the work force and earn money. Others felt that the numbers represented a growing desire among young women to attain economic independence.
The university offers programs in agriculture and natural resources and in home economics, among other subjects. The Cooperative Extension Service produces publications and coordinates television and radio programs. Late 1990s' publications included Agriculture and Food Fair Bulletins; Eco-Educational Tours; Protecting Your Water Quality Through a Home and Farm Assessment; Recipes for a Non-Toxic Household; Traditional Medicinal Plants of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John; Growing Mangoes; A Bibliographic Guide to Agriculture in the U.S. Virgin Islands, including Danish West Indies: Origins to 1987.
THE ROLE OF WOMEN
As in other parts of the world, gender roles in the Virgin Islands are changing as more women join the labor force. As Hilde Kahne and Janet Z. Giele have reported in Women's Work and Women's Lives: The Continuing Struggle Worldwide, important socioeconomic transformations have taken place in Latin America and the Caribbean since the post-World War II period, resulting in the emergence of new roles for women. Women have benefited from lower fertility rates, smaller family sizes, increased educational opportunities, and greater participation in the labor force. However, despite some gains, women in the Virgin Islands have also suffered from poverty and inequities in income. Islanders have continued to view women's earnings from work outside the home largely as supplemental income. They also continued to regard uncompensated work such as child care, cooking, and cleaning as women's work.
The rapid shift from rural to urban communities between 1940 and 1970 in the Virgin Islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean slowed somewhat in the 1970s, although by then major social and economic changes had occurred. Domestic service remains the largest occupation for Caribbean women generally, although street peddling, known as "higgling," has become more prominent in the eastern Caribbean. Higglers travel among the islands to sell fresh produce or to market handcrafted items. Women with small children frequently become employed doing piecework at home, which allows them to remain with their children, though it also enables employers to exploit women. Whatever their employment, women in the Virgin Islands are contributing increasingly to the economies of their households.
The Virgin Islands are primarily Christian and Protestant, but have many religious denominations, a legacy of having received many waves of immigrants from Denmark, Holland, England, France, and Africa. The principal Christian denominations are Anglican, Christian Mission, Wesleyan, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Reformed and Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic, Salvation Army, Seventh Day Adventist, Church of God in Christ, and the Apostolic Faith. Danish Lutheranism has a particularly large number of adherents. Chapels and churches representing many different faiths exist side by side in the islands. When Puerto Ricans began to come to the Virgin Islands to seek employment, they brought Catholicism with them. Moravian missionaries arrived during the colonial period of the seventeenth century, and their presence is still felt. Many Virgin Islanders are faithful readers of the Bible. Attending church services on Sundays is very much a part of island life. Gospel singing is a much-loved activity that expresses the spiritual dimensions of islanders. There is a sizable Jewish population in the islands as well.
Employment and Economic Traditions
Although their economy is historically agricultural, the Virgin Islands lack sufficient rain and high-quality soil to support large-scale agricultural production. On St. Croix and St. John, sorghum, fruit, and vegetables are produced, and leaves from the bay tree forest on St. John are used for making bay rum. Cattle raised on St. Croix are exported to Puerto Rico. These are small-scale operations, however. Agriculture has not supported the Virgin Islands economically since the nineteenth century. Tourism is the mainstay of the economy, with 30 percent of Virgin Islanders working in the tourist trade. The territory's largest single employer, though, is Hess Oil Virgin Islands, the biggest oil refinery in the world, located on St. Croix. Otherwise, manufacturing is on a small scale, and most products are exported to the continental United States. Exports include petroleum products, alumina, chemicals, clocks and watch parts, meat, and ethanol. Fishing in island waters is for sporting rather than commercial endeavor. The median income for Virgin Islanders in 1990 was $24,036. Virgin Islanders who come to the U.S. mainland frequently do so for the purposes of furthering their education or to seek employment in fields not found on the Virgin Islands.
Politics and Government
The United States granted residents of the Virgin Islands citizenship in 1927. From 1917 to 1931, the islands were under the authority of the U.S. Navy. In 1931 the U.S. Department of the Interior took administrative responsibility, with the president appointing a governor. A legislature of 15 locally elected members from the three main islands has been in place since 1954. Members are elected for two-year terms. Virgin Islanders won the right to vote for their own governor in 1970, and the governor is elected for a four-year term. Since 1972 islanders have elected one delegate to the U.S. Congress. The delegate is allowed to vote on House of Representatives committees and speak in debate on the floor of the House, but is not allowed to vote on bills. Virgin Islanders may not vote in U.S. presidential elections.
Several constitutional conventions have dealt with Virgin Islands voting and legislative rights. The Organic Act of 1936, which established constitutional government for the islands, granted universal suffrage. Also in 1936, the first political party on the islands was organized. Since the purchase of the Virgin Islands by the United States, islanders have continued to agitate for more home rule. While expressing their opposition to any form of annexation by a U.S. state, islanders have also made it clear they are opposed to independence from the United States. The Virgin Islands remain an unincorporated territory rather than an autonomous territory.
Virgin Islanders tend to view themselves as islanders. Those who come to the mainland United States often think of their move as temporary. Students in particular anticipate returning to the Virgin Islands once they have completed their education, even though many express concern that employment prospects in the islands are limited.
Individual and Group Contributions
Virgin Islander artists as a whole are identified with Caribbean arts, literature, and music. Notable contributors are performing artists living in the Virgin Islands rather than on the mainland and are known locally for folk music, calypso, jazz, and blues. Studies of Caribbean literature do not concentrate on Virgin Islanders, instead offering critical readings of work by such well-known writers as Derek Walcott of St. Lucia; V.S. Naipaul of Trinidad; and Jamaica Kincaid of Antigua. Anthologies such as The Routledge Reader in Caribbean Literature (1996, edited by Alison Donnell and Sarah Lawson Welsh) and the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories (1999, edited by Stewart Brown and John Wickham) have not included Virgin Islanders among their collections. The Virgin Islands Humanities Council has published short, amateur collections of Virgin Island poetry, but Virgin Islands writers have not yet drawn critical attention to their work.
Tim Duncan (1976– ) made a strong impression in his first two years of play for the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association. Only a year after graduating from Wake Forest University, Duncan won Rookie of the Year honors in 1998. In 1999 he helped lead his team to the NBA championship en route to receiving the Finals Most Valuable Player award. Other significant professional honors include: unanimous Rookie of the Year (1998), All-NBA First Team (1999), All-NBA Defensive First Team (1999).
Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912) was one of the leading figures in the formation of the Pan-Africanism movement. Blyden was born in the Virgin Islands and later moved to Liberia. He served as a government official in various roles and his writings helped to form the basis of the movement.
Almeric Christian (1919– ) is a pioneering lawyer and judge. Christian, born in the Virgin Islands, moved to the United States and attended Columbia University and later its law school. Upon passing the bar, Christian established a successful private practice. Eventually he was appointed a circuit court judge for the Third Circuit, and then to chief judge.
Kelsey Grammer (1945– ) is one of the most popular television stars in the United States. Grammer, born in the Virgin Islands, made his television breakthrough as Dr. Frasier Crane on the hit show Cheers. Grammer received an Emmy Award nomination for his work on Cheers, and when the show ended its successful run in 1993, Grammer and NBC collaborated on the show Frasier. The show was a continuation of Grammer's Cheers character and won him several Emmy Awards.
Camille Pissaro (1830-1903) was one of the leading Impressionist painters of the late nineteenth century. Pissaro was born in the Virgin Islands, traveling to Paris for schooling. His parents eventually conceded to let him pursue his interest in painting, and in 1855 he returned to France. In the 1860's Pissaro began to paint in the Impressionist style, participating in all of the Impressionist shows between 1874 and 1886. Pissaro achieved high critical acclaim by the 1890s.
Roy Innis (1934– ) is one of the foremost civil rights leaders in the United States. Innis, born on St. Croix, came to the United States and was educated at the City College of New York. In the early 1960s Innis became involved in the Civil Rights Movement and joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1968 he became the head of the group.
St. Thomas This Week (Including St. John).
Free guide published weekly by the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism.
Organizations and Associations
Association of Virgin Islanders Abroad (AVIA).
Shomari A. Moorehead developed the association in 1999 to provide nonresident Virgin Islanders with a way to network with one another.
U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism.
Government office to distribute information about the Virgin Islands to tourists.
Address: 444 North Capitol Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.
Telephone: (202) 624-3590.
Sources for Additional Study
Boyer, William W. America's Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1983.
Dinisio, Jessica. "More Women Seek High Education than Males Including at UVI." Uvision. Vol. 2, no. 5. April 30, 1996.
Dookhan, Isaac. A History of the Virgin Islands of the U.S. Second edition. Kingston, Jamaica: Canoe Press, 1994.
Tyson, George F. and Arnold R. Highfield, eds. The Kamina Folk: Slavery and Slave Life in the Danish West Indies. U.S. Virgin Islands: Virgin Islands Humanities Council, 1994.
Ockerstrom, Lolly. "Virgin Islander Americans." Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. 2000. Encyclopedia.com. (July 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3405800163.html
Ockerstrom, Lolly. "Virgin Islander Americans." Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. 2000. Retrieved July 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3405800163.html
The Virgin Islands are two groups of islands governed by two separate powers, the United States and the United Kingdom. The British Virgin Islands are known by that name, while the U.S. Virgin Islands are often known simply as the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands are an unorganized and unincorporated U.S. territory, and the British Virgin Islands are formally known as a Crown Colony of the U.K. The U.S. Virgin Islands are three large islands and fifty or so smaller islands with a total area of 352 square kilometers, located between Puerto Rico and the Leeward Islands. The British Virgin Islands consist of forty or so mountainous islands to the north of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The origin of the 101,809 people who lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1990 is predominantly West Indian (74 percent), with most of the rest coming from the U.S. mainland (13 percent) and Puerto Rico (5 percent). Racially and ethnically, the population is mixed. Eighty percent of the people are Black, and 15 percent are White. The Hispanic population is 14 percent of the total. The official language is English, but Spanish and a creole are also spoken. The most prevalent religious denominations are Baptist (42 percent), Catholic (34 percent), and Episcopalian (17 percent); 7 percent adhere to other faiths.
The 12,258 (1990) people of the British Virgin Islands are predominantly Black (more than 90 percent). The people speak English, and most are Methodists.
The Virgin Islands were inhabited by the Carib Indians when Columbus first sighted them during his second voyage in 1493. Columbus named the islands after Saint Ursula and her martyred virgins. Spain claimed ownership of the islands at the time, but it was the Dutch, English, and French who began to settle what are now the U.S. Virgin Islands in the 1600s; the British Virgin Islands were first settled by Dutch farmers. Eventually, the Danish government laid claim to the U.S. Virgin Islands and used the islands for transshipment and to raise sugarcane. Shipping improved, the price of sugar fell, and in 1917 the Danish government sold the islands to the United States, which wanted to locate a naval base there. The U.S. Virgin Islands became tourist destinations early in the twentieth century, with the result that the average income on the islands is among the highest in the Caribbean. The destruction caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 led to looting and rioting, which was not effectively restrained by the local government and had to be stopped by the U.S. army. Local political pressure then developed for a more responsive territorial government. Presently, the government consists of an elected governor and unicameral legislature, as well as two U.S. district courts. The economy is centered around tourism, but there is also manufacturing (watches, textiles, electronics, and rum) and oil refining.
The British Virgin Islands came under British control in 1666 and have remained a colony since. Most of their trade is with the U.S. Virgin Islands, not with other British colonies. A constitution came into force in 1967 and was amended in 1977 to grant greater local authority. The government consists of a governor, a cabinet, and a legislature with nine elected members. The colony's monetary unit is the U.S. dollar. Many offshore corporations have located in the British Virgin Islands to escape taxes and the unstable politics of Panama and Hong Kong. The major industries are tourism, construction, and rum, although there is some export of fish, gravel, sand, and fruits. The British Virgin Islands are far less economically developed than the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Boyer, William W. (1983). Americas Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press.
Creque, Darwin D. (1968). The U.S. Virgins and the Eastern Caribbean. Philadelphia: Whitmore Publishing Co.
Dookhan, Isaac. (1975). A History of the British Virgin Islands. Epping, Essex: Caribbean Universities Press.
Cibson, Margaret A. (1976). Ethnicity and Schooling: A Caribbean Case Study. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International.
Moll, Verna P. (1991). Virgin Islands. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio.
Pickering, Vernon W. (1983). Early History of the British Virgin Islands: From Columbus to Emancipation. New York: Falcon Publications International.
Pickering, Vernon W. (1987). A Concise History of the British Virgin Islands: From the Amerindians to 1986. New York: Falcon Publications International.
Varlack, Pearl I., and Norwell Harrigan (1977). The Virgins: A Descriptive and Historical Profile. St. Thomas: Caribbean Research Institute, College of the Virgin Islands.
"Virgin Islanders." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. 1996. Encyclopedia.com. (July 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3458001428.html
"Virgin Islanders." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. 1996. Retrieved July 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3458001428.html
VIRGIN ISLANDS. The Virgin Islands of the United States, formerly known as the Danish West Indies, are located fifty miles east of the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean Sea. Their 108,612 inhabitants (2000 census) live primarily on St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John, the largest of the sixty-eight islands composing the archipelago.
Before their acquisition by the United States, the islands belonged to the kingdom of Denmark, the ruling power since 1754. American interest in the islands can be dated much earlier than their acquisition in 1917. During the Civil War, Secretary of State William H. Seward, who wanted to secure naval bases for the defense of the American coastline and U.S. interests in the Caribbean, and prepare for the control of major maritime routes to Central and Latin America, made the first official openings to Denmark over a possible purchase.
Because of internal difficulties in Denmark and the declining economy of the islands, Danish authorities—represented by their minister to the United States, General von Raasloff—opened negotiations leading to a treaty of purchase (for $7.5 million), which was signed on 24 October 1867. In spite of a favorable plebiscite and a speedy ratification by the Danish Parliament, Secretary Seward failed to secure the support of Congress and public opinion.
A chain of circumstances led to the treaty's defeat: a natural disaster in St. John; the 1868 impeachment of President Andrew Johnson; and debate on the treaty to purchase Alaska. Furthermore, public opinion was against foreign expansion in the context of Reconstruction and westward expansion. The treaty languished in the Senate and was eventually rejected in 1869.
Subsequent efforts to purchase the islands were led by Secretary of State John Hay in 1902, who was suspicious of German schemes to obtain naval bases in the Caribbean. However, the Danish were no longer willing to cede the islands, hoping to benefit from the forthcoming isthmian canal.
During World War I, growing concern over German expansionism in Central America prompted Secretary of State Robert Lansing to reopen negotiations. A treaty was signed on 4 August 1916 and ratifications were exchanged on 17 January 1917. After a favorable plebiscite in the islands and the payment of $25 million, the transfer became effective on 31 March 1917. Virgin Islanders were made American citizens in 1927. During World War II, St. Thomas was developed as a defense base, along with Water Island.
After a period of administration by the Department of the Navy, the islands were turned over to the Office of Insular Affairs in the Interior Department in 1931, where it remained until 1971. As an organized, unincorporated territory of the United States, the islands were given a limited form of self-government by the Organic Act of 1936. Their degree of self-rule was enhanced by the Revised Organic Act of 1954, which gave legislative power to a unicameral legislature of fifteen popularly elected senators, and by the Elective Governor Act of 1968, which provided for the election of the governor.
The economy of the islands is largely founded on tourism, with two million visitors a year. While the agricultural sector is small, the manufacturing sector is flourishing. However, the islands are subject to substantial damage from storms and other natural hazards. Their trading partners are almost exclusively the mainland United States and Puerto Rico.
The purchase of the Virgin Islands can be considered as an important step in the consolidation of American hegemony over Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Panama. It thereby helped to assure U.S. geopolitical security and economic prosperity.
Dookhan, Isaac. A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States. Kingston, Jamaica: Canoe Press, 1994.
Pedersen, Erik Overgaard. The Attempted Sale of the Danish West Indies to the United States of America, 1865–1870. Frankfurt, Germany: Haag und Herchen, 1997.
Tansill, Charles Callan. The Purchase of the Danish West Indies. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1932. The most complete study to date.
"Virgin Islands." Dictionary of American History. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. (July 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401804416.html
"Virgin Islands." Dictionary of American History. 2003. Retrieved July 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401804416.html
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 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 (2010 pop. 106,405), 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. John deJongh was elected governor in 2006 and reelected in 2010.
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 (2005 est. pop. 22,600), 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. Britain acquired the islands from the Dutch in 1666. Granted autonomy in 1967, they are governed under the constitution of 2007. 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.
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).
"Virgin Islands." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Encyclopedia.com. (July 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-VirginI.html
"Virgin Islands." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved July 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-VirginI.html
Virgin Islands (United States)
Virgin Islands (United States)
|Official Country Name:||Virgin Islands of the United States|
|Region (Map name):||Caribbean|
|Language(s):||English, Spanish, Creole|
The U.S. Virgin Islands is made up of three islands—St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John—located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean east of Puerto Rico. The islands lie along the Anegada Passage, a key shipping lane for the Panama Canal. The islands were once ruled by the Dutch then sold to the United States in 1917. The population is approximately 121,000. English is the official language, but Spanish and Creole are also spoken. The chief of state is the President of the United States. A governor acts as the head of government, presiding over a unicameral, 15-seat Senate. The Virgin Islands also has a non-voting representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. The most important economic sector is tourism, which accounts for more than 70 percent of the gross domestic product. Manufacturing, including petroleum refining, is also important, and the country boasts one of the world's largest petroleum refineries.
The media enjoys freedom of speech and press under the U.S. Constitution. The Virgin Islands Daily News maintains offices on St. Thomas and St. Croix. The St. Croix Avis publishes daily on St. Croix and can also be found on St. Thomas. On St. John, the Tradewinds news-paper appears bi-weekly, with select stories appearing online, and the St. John Times publishes monthly in print and online. The Virgin Islands Business Journal appears on Wednesday in print and online. The Thomas Source, St. Croix Source, St. John Source and the humorous Island Melee are free, alternative online news sources operated by the online publisher One Paper.
There are 16 radio stations, five AM and 11 FM, serving 107,000 radios. There are two television stations broadcasting to 68,000 televisions. There are 50 Internet service providers.
"Facts About the U.S. Virgin Islands," University of the Virgin Islands Library (n.d.). Available from http://library.uvi.edu .
St. Thomas Source (n.d.). Available from http://new.onepaper.com.
St. John Times (2001). Available from http://www.stjohntimes.com.
St. John Tradewinds (2000). Available from http://www.stjohntradewindsnews.com.
"Virgin Islands," CIA World Fact Book (2001). Available from http://www.cia.gov.
Virgin Islands Business Journal (n.d.). Home Page. Available from http://www.vibj.com.
Jenny B. Davis
Davis, Jenny B.. "Virgin Islands (United States)." World Press Encyclopedia. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. (July 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3409900239.html
Davis, Jenny B.. "Virgin Islands (United States)." World Press Encyclopedia. 2003. Retrieved July 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3409900239.html
TOM McARTHUR. "VIRGIN ISLANDS." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. 1998. Encyclopedia.com. (July 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O29-VIRGINISLANDS.html
TOM McARTHUR. "VIRGIN ISLANDS." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. 1998. Retrieved July 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O29-VIRGINISLANDS.html
Virgin Islands, US
"Virgin Islands, US." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Encyclopedia.com. (July 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O142-VirginIslandsUS.html
"Virgin Islands, US." World Encyclopedia. 2005. Retrieved July 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O142-VirginIslandsUS.html
Virgin Islands National Park
Virgin Islands National Park, 14,689 acres (5,949 hectares), St. John, Virgin Islands; est. 1956. The park, with beaches, coves, and headlands, is rich in tropical-plant, animal, and marine life. Bordeaux Mt., 1,277 ft (389 m) high, is the highest point on the island. Remains of prehistoric settlements and of Danish colonial sugar plantations are in the park. See National Parks and Monuments, table.
"Virgin Islands National Park." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Encyclopedia.com. (July 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-VirginINP.html
"Virgin Islands National Park." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. 2016. Retrieved July 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1E1-VirginINP.html
JOHN CANNON. "Virgin Islands." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. Encyclopedia.com. (July 30, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O110-VirginIslands.html
JOHN CANNON. "Virgin Islands." The Oxford Companion to British History. 2002. Retrieved July 30, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O110-VirginIslands.html