Facts and information about U.S. Virgin Islands
U.S. Virgin Islands The United States Virgin Islands are part of the semi-circular arc of islands which starts south-east of the Florida Keys and extends as far as Trinidad off the North East coast of South America, dividing the tropical waters of the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. They are situated approximately 40 miles east of Puerto Rico, and are the first link in the chain known as the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles which makes up the north-east boundary of the Caribbean. St. Croix’s Point Udall is the easternmost point of land in the United States. St. John (20 sq. miles, population 3,504 in 1990 census) and St. Thomas (32 sq. miles, population 48,166) are volcanic in origin which gives them the appearance, seen along with the nearby British Virgin Islands just east of St. John over the Sir Francis Drake Channel, of a partially submerged mountain range: steep hills and deeply indented bays surrounded by dozens of smaller islets and cays. St. Croix (84 sq. miles) lies approximately 35 miles to the south of the other two, and is not volcanic, with rolling hills in the northwest which slope down to a coastal plain, and long straight shorelines with few sheltered bays. The group of islands was discovered by Columbus during his second voyage in 1493. He claimed the land for Spain and named it "Las Once Mil Virgenes" (the 11,000 virgins), supposedly reminded of St. Ursula’s legendary companions by the profusion of peaks. Columbus stopped first at St. Croix, naming it Santa Cruz, and sent his men ashore to look for fresh water; they were, however, soon driven off by the natives, fierce Carib Indians. For the next hundred years, the Spanish showed very little interest in the islands, apart from raiding them to carry off the natives to work in the gold mines of Santo Domingo. In fact, when European settlers arrived, after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, there were no native Indians left on the islands. The islands were, however, much used by pirates and privateers to hide their ships and their booty and to lie in wait for the treasure-laden Spanish galleons. The seventeenth century was more stormy with the British, French, Spanish, Dutch and Danish battling to possess these islands which were on the trade route of sailing ships bound from Europe to the Americas. A certain stability arrived when St. Thomas was possessed in the name of Denmark in 1666; St. John followed in 1684, though it was not colonized until 1716. St. Croix, after a violent early history being fought over by the Dutch, the English, the Spanish and the French, and a period under the Knights of Malta, was bought by the Danish West India and Guinea Company from France in 1733. The three islands became a Danish Crown Colony in 1755 and the King of Denmark made them free ports in 1764. For a long time the islands thrived: St. Thomas was a major port for trans-shipment and trade and there were sugar and cotton plantations on all the islands. In particular, the large flat plains at the centre of St. Croix proved ideal for the production of sugar cane: at the peak of its productivity this island was one of the richest sugar islands in the Caribbean, with hundreds of working plantations. Sugar, rum and the slave trade flourished until the banning of the slave trade at the end of the eighteenth century by Denmark, and the abolition of slavery in 1848 which created a difficult labour situation. This along with other factors sent the islands into a steady decline: landowners gave up and let their fields go into grass, putting in herds of cattle; between 1850 and 1930 the population dwindled by half leaving mostly the descendants of slaves. In 1917, the United States, concerned about protecting its interests in the Panama Canal, and seeing the strategic importance of the islands, which are very near the major shipping lanes to the Canal, bought the islands for $25 million as a naval base. The Danish West Indies became the United States Virgin Islands. For the next fourteen years the U.S. Navy was in charge of the islands and their economy sunk still lower; even the last rum distilleries were closed under National Prohibition. When President Hoover visited the islands shortly after, he described them as an “effective poorhouse”. In 1931 the Department of The Interior replaced the U.S. Navy as the bureaucracy in charge of the territory and the area now has a governor, elected every 2 years, and 15 senate members. The economy picked up after the 1950s with the ever growing influx of tourists. The islands enjoy a pleasant tropical climate with temperatures which vary only a few degrees during the year, averaging an all round temperature of 26°C. Even the hottest summer day however is cooled by the trade winds blowing from the east. The surface temperature of the water is little different from that of the air: 25-30°C. This climate, along with the crystal-clear waters full of marine life, coral reefs and sunken ships to explore, make the Virgin Islands a paradise for sunbathing, snorkelling, scuba-diving and, of course, sailing.