Monday, January 19, 2009

Tortola, British Virgin Islands - December 2008

Christopher Columbus, in 1493, is believed to have been the first European to come across the archipelago that includes what is now Tortola. With typical flair, he named the group Santa Ursula y las Once Mil VĂ­rgenes (Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins) after the legend of Saint Ursula, hence the Virgin Islands. Once squabbled over by the Spanish, British, French, Danish and Dutch as strategic possessions, the islands are now split between the British and the US who bought the few remaining Danish islands in 1917.
The British Virgin Islands (BVI) consist of more than fifty islands, the largest of which, Tortola, contains the capital Road Town. Tortola is approximately 12 by 3 miles and is home to about 18,000 of the total 22,000 population. Although the entire region was a notorious haunt for pirates, the Brits introduced sugar cane which became the main source of foreign trade until the middle of the 1800s. BVI gained separate colony status in 1960 and complete autonomy in 1967.
Since the 1960s, the islands have diversified from an agricultural economy into
tourism and financial services with the hugely popular International Business Companies Act, passed in the early 1980s, leading to massive growth in government revenue. With more than 50,000 companies worldwide having an offshore presence there, the U.S. dollar is the official currency even though the Islands are under the British flag, and BVI residents are amongst the most affluent in the Eastern Caribbean. Affluence of course, is a relative term - the entire Eastern Caribbean exudes an air of abandonment from past Empires and Tortola is no exception. See here for more pictures.

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