The history of the British Virgin Islands is one rich in piracy, privateering, and territorial disputes. Although Arawak and Carib Indians inhabited the islands as far back as 100 BC, none of the Europeans, who started arriving here in the 1500s, ever reported encountering indigenous peoples. (Unlike the more contentious reports from the neighboring islands.)
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After Columbus' early sighting, the Spanish Empire claimed the islands and sent copper miners to Virgin Gorda in the early 1500s. The Dutch built the first permanent settlement here in the mid 1600s; the Dutch government considered these islands strategically important because of their location between the Dutch colonies in North America (now New York) and South America (now Suriname). They were not alone; in the years that followed, many parties laid claim to the islands, including the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, the French, and many pirates. (In the 1700s Tortola was home to the famous British pirate Edward Teach, or Blackbeard.) But, by 1672, the islands were under British control, where they have since remained.
During these years, the islands moved from a cotton-based economy to one based on sugarcane. In the 1800s, the abolition of slavery, followed by a succession of violent hurricanes that destroyed the sugarcane plantations and mills, brought an end to the industry. At that point, many planters left the island, and either sold or gave their land to the slaves who had worked it. As a result, much of the British Virgin Islands is owned by the people who live there, rather than by an elite few (as is the case on many of the other Caribbean islands).
The Leeward Islands Colony, of which the British Virgin Islands were originally a part, along with Anguilla, St. Kitts, and Nevis, was abolished in 1959; the British Virgin Islands achieved separate colony status in 1960 and became autonomous in 1967. Today, the British Virgin Islands are a self-governing Dependent Territory of the United Kingdom.
In the latter half of the 20th century, development on the islands was driven largely by the involvement of Laurence Rockefeller. In the 1960s, he built the BVI's first luxury resort at Little Dix Bay, a successful endeavor that many credit with inspiring the islands' economy's turn toward tourism. Tourism is now the islands' main industry, along with offshore company registration.
Local culture here is derived from a mix of African and European influences. Since the 19th century, an English-based Creole and English are the dominant languages.