Virgin Islands History

A Brief History of the U.S. Virgin Islands

Historians document that the first inhabitants, the Ciboneys, arrived on the islands during what is considered the Pre-Ceramic Culture. Arawaks were the next to arrive, establishing sites on St. John and St. Croix around 100 AD. Probably the best-known inhabitants, and those to arrive next, were the fierce Caribs and the more peaceful Tainos. Evidence of their time in the islands has been unearthed in recent years, and includes stone griddles, zemis (small carvings depicting the faces of their gods) and petroglyphs which are rock carvings visible on St. John’s Reef Bay Trail.

The Caribs had taken control of St. Croix, then called Ay Ay, when Christopher Columbus sailed into Salt River on his second voyage in 1493, claiming the islands for Spain. The battle between the Indians and Columbus is considered the first insurgence in the New World. After renaming the island Santa Cruz, Columbus headed north where he spotted a chain of islands. He proclaimed they would be called Las Once Mil Virgenes (11,000 virgins) in honor of Ursula, martyred by the Huns for refusing to marry a pagan prince.

The demise of the islands’ first residents, the Indians, was evident when the first Europeans after Columbus arrived in the late 1500s. Many countries expressed interest in the islands in the 1600s, including Holland, France, England, Spain, Denmark and the Knights of Malta. But it was the Danes who established the first settlement on St. Thomas in 1672, expanding to St. John in 1694. St. Croix was added to the Danish West India Company in 1733, and plantations soon sprung up all over the islands.

A treaty with the Dutch of Brandenburg in 1685 established St. Thomas as a slave-trading post. More than 200,000 slaves, primarily from Africa’s west coast, were forcibly shipped to the islands for the backbreaking work of harvesting cane, cotton and indigo. St. John and St. Croix maintained a plantation economy, while St. Thomas developed as a trade center. Stripped of their dignity and freedom and fed up with the harsh conditions, in 1733 slaves attacked St. John’s Fort Frederiksvaern in Coral Bay, crippling operations for six months. In 1792 Denmark announced the cessation of the trade in humans. Freedom was not granted to slaves until 1848, when Moses “Buddhoe” Gottlieb led a revolution on St. Croix, 17 years before emancipation in the United States.

After the freeing of slaves and the discovery of the sugar beet, agriculture in the islands declined. The industrial revolution ended the need for the islands as a shipping port, thus changing the economic environment. Little was heard of the islands until World War I, when the United States realized their strategic position and negotiated the purchase of the islands from Denmark for $25 million in gold. Although the islands were purchased in 1917, it wasn’t until 1927 that citizenship was granted to Virgin Islanders. The Organic Act of 1936 allowed for the creation of a senate, and from there the political process evolved. In 1970, the U.S. Virgin Islands elected its first governor, Melvin H. Evans.

Culture and Customs

The U.S. Virgin Islands is a paradise with so much more to offer than the traditional beach vacation. Visitors wishing to immerse themselves in a profound cultural experience can enjoy historical tours, culinary encounters, artisan fairs, parades, storytelling and other special presentations.

Walking tours on St. Thomas and St. Croix feature the diverse architecture, evidence of nations that colonized the islands in the 17th and 18th centuries. If you’re feeling energetic, walk one of the many street steps, the most famous being the 99 steps on St. Thomas, a common way of getting to higher ground.

Your cultural journey continues with a look at the life and creations of artisans and crafters who earned a living creating functional and decorative pieces. Restored greathouses now serving as museums, like Haagenson House on St. Thomas and Whim Museum on St. Croix, preserve this past, displaying masterfully created mahogany pieces, delicate linens and original art. Local craft cooperatives, art galleries and artist colonies present the works of today’s tradition-bearers. Annaberg Plantation ruins in St. John’s National Park offers daily cultural demonstrations, including cooking the old-fashioned way – on a coal pot over an open flame.

The Unique Sound of the U.S. Virgin Islands ... and the Accompanying Dance

In 2003, the Legislature passed a bill proclaiming "Quelbe, the vocal and instrumental style of the Virgin Islands' folk music which traces its ancestry to Africa and Europe. Quelbe is a fusion of bamboula rhythms and chants, cariso songs and melodies, and the official traditional music of the Virgin Islands."

Historically speaking, the scratch band sound that is Quelbe was created by slaves, self-taught musicians who made their own instruments and who lived and worked on sugar plantations. Since strict Danish laws forbade drum beating and dancing, slaves incorporated European sounds and dance steps into their practices. The newly created rhythmic styles produced “persuasion bands” that used homemade bamboo flutes, bass drums, steel triangles and squash (a dried gourd, grooved and scraped with a wire prong) to produce the sound. As they evolved musically and instrumentally, a new kind of music was born. Instruments changed through the years, including the addition of a guitar, tambourine, the "pipe" (an old tail pipe) which replaced the bass drum and the ukulele. The music offers commentary on such things as current events, cheating spouses and rum smuggling in ladies pantaloons. Modern-day Quelbe or scratch bands have an additional instrument or two and enjoy more popularity today.

Since African dance was also prohibited by plantation owners, slaves copied and adopted the Europeans' quadrilles, lancers, jigs, mazurkas, schottisches and other dances, giving them their own interpretation. The popular French quadrille was loved because of its hip swaying and rhythmic steps. Today’s dancers wear madras costumes and handmade head ties. Groups like the St. Croix Heritage Dancers, who dance the French form of quadrille, perform with local Quelbe bands at special events and dances.

Carnival

It's the biggest party of the year, and each island has its own. St. Croix's Christmas Festival starts in December with an adult's parade on Three Kings Day. St. Thomas's carnival culminates in the final week of April. St. John’s celebration is Fourth of July week.

The first carnival was staged in 1912 during the final years of Danish occupation and lapsed during World War I. Revived in 1952, carnival has become the second largest festival in the Caribbean. A month-long series of dazzling pageants and talent shows is held to choose royalty to rein over the festival. Fun events such as a boat race, Greased Pig Contest and Toddlers Derby entertain everyone at the festivities. A series of elimination contests to crown top performers are called Calypso Tents. Calypsonians offer satirical commentary on the state of the islands, oftentimes mocking the shenanigans of politicians. Other popular events held during Carnival is J’ouvert, a morning jump up, a food fair presenting the islands’ best traditional eats and a competition to crown the King and Queen of the parade troupes. A children's and adult’s parade close the lively month with brilliantly costumed and decorated troupes and floats.

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