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The British Virgin Islands are a British overseas territory in the Caribbean. They comprise over 60 islands and reefs in the north-eastern part of the Virgin Islands archipelago at the northern end of the Lesser Antilles archipelago. The population, which is growing rapidly due to immigration in particular (net migration in 2012: 18.56 per 1000 inhabitants, third highest figure worldwide), lives on 16 of the islands located about 100 km east of Puerto Rico.

The economy is closely linked to the more populous American Virgin Islands, so the official currency is the US dollar. The service sector dominates, especially tourism and offshore finance.

History

In the 1st century B.C. Arawak settled the islands, but in the 15th century they were subdued by Caribbeans. In 1493 Christopher Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands for the Europeans. In 1555 Spanish troops defeated the indigenous population and exterminated them in the following decades.

Until the beginning of the 17th century, the islands were visited several times by Spanish and English ships on their expeditions to South and Central America, but colonization did not take place for the time being. It was not until 1615 that a permanent settlement of the Dutch buccaneer Joost van Dyk on Tortola appeared in Spanish records. Soon afterwards, the Dutch West India Company recognized the strategic importance of the Virgin Islands. Dutch settlers built several entrenchments and small forts in the following years, leading to numerous armed conflicts with Spanish troops.

After the outbreak of the Third English-Dutch War, the area was annexed by England in 1672 and incorporated into the colony of the British Leeward Islands. The British planted sugar cane plantations, for which they needed a growing number of slaves deported from Africa. In the middle of the 18th century there were already over 6000 slaves here. Today about 75 % of the population is of black African descent. At the beginning of the 19th century there were several slave revolts; in 1834 slavery was officially abolished.

The Leewards Islands Federation, founded in 1871, was dissolved in 1956. The British Virgin Islands formed their own crown colony from 1960 and gained a stronger internal autonomy with the constitution of 1967. Since 1946, the territory has been on the UN list of territories without self-government.

Population

The British Virgin Islands have 28,054 inhabitants (as of 2010) The majority of the population is of African descent, in whole or in part. 17.6 % are Methodists, 10.4 % are members of the Church of God, 9.5 % Anglicans, 9 % Seventh-day Adventists, 8.9 % Catholics, 8.2 % Pentecostals, 7.4 % Baptists, 6.9 % belong to the New Testament Church of God, 2.5 % are Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1.9 % Hindus, 17.7 % profess another or no religion (all 2010 figures).

Geography

The Political Division of the Virgin Islands into (from left to right) Spanish Virgin Islands, American Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands

The area covers 150 km² and consists of 16 inhabited islands and over 20 uninhabited islands. The four main islands are Anegada, Jost Van Dyke, Tortola and Virgin Gorda.

The island of Anegada is made up of coral reefs and limestone and is relatively flat; the other islands are volcanic and mountainous. The highest point of the islands is the Mount Sage with 523 m on Tortola.

The climate is tropical and humid, the temperatures are moderate due to winds. There are hurricanes and tropical storms from July to October. The natural freshwater resources are limited. Apart from some springs and periodic water courses on Tortola, which dry up in summer, the islands’ water supply is based on wells and rainwater cisterns.

Politics

The British Virgin Islands are associated members of the Caribbean Community and the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States. They are among the sponsors of the University of the West Indies.

Queen Elizabeth II holds the supreme executive authority of the British Virgin Islands. In this capacity, she is represented by the Governor, who is appointed by her on the proposal of the British Government. The United Kingdom is responsible for foreign and defence policy.

The Constitution of the Archipelago was last adopted in 2007. The head of government is the Prime Minister, until 2007 Chief Minister, who is appointed by the Governor together with the four other members of the Government from the members of the Legislative Council. The House of Assembly consists of 13 elected representatives, the Speaker and the non-voting Attorney General.

Augustus Jaspert has held the office of governor since 2017. Orlando Smith, National Democratic Party (NDP), who replaced Ralph Telford O’Neal, Virgin Islands Party (VIP), whose predecessor he was from 2003 to 2007, has been acting prime minister since November 2011.

Infrastructure

The road network comprises 200 km of paved roads (as of 2007), with left-hand traffic. Road Town has a harbour.

In the British Virgin Islands there are five airports: Auguste George Airport on Anegada Island (IATA airport code: NGD), Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport on Beef Island (EIS), Virgin Gorda Airport on Virgin Gorda Island (VIJ) and the two seaports North Sound Water Aerodrome north of Virgin Gorda Island (NSX) and West End Seaplane Base north of Tortola Island (TOV).

Economy

The economy, one of the most stable and prosperous in the Caribbean, is largely dependent on tourism. The direct contribution of tourism to the gross domestic product in 2016 was about 34 %; the total contribution to the country’s economic power, which also takes into account the indirect effects on other sectors of the economy, exceeds 95 %. Approximately 825,000 tourists, including more than 440,000 cruise passengers mainly from the USA, visited the islands in 2006. The main source of income for the local tourism industry is the chartering of yachts.

Agriculture, whose main activity is livestock breeding, is of comparatively minor importance. The poor soil quality allows only a limited supply of the local population. The economy is closely tied to that of the American Virgin Islands. The US dollar has been the official currency since 1959.

Tax haven

Since the mid-1980s, the government has offered companies the opportunity to be based on the islands with a letterbox company. Fees for setting up such companies now account for more than 50% of government revenue. Around 450,000 letterbox companies were registered on the islands in 2012. By 2015 there were already 800,000 companies. In a ranking of the most important financial centres worldwide, the British Virgin Islands ranked 60th (as of March 2018).