The Virgin Islands are two groups of islands governed by two separate powers, the United States and the United Kingdom. The British Virgin Islands are known by that name, while the U.S. Virgin Islands are often known simply as the Virgin Islands. The Virgin Islands are an unorganized and unincorporated U.S. territory, and the British Virgin Islands are formally known as a Crown Colony of the U.K. The U.S. Virgin Islands are three large islands and fifty or so smaller islands with a total area of 352 square kilometers, located between Puerto Rico and the Leeward Islands. The British Virgin Islands consist of forty or so mountainous islands to the north of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The origin of the 101,809 people who lived in the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1990 is predominantly West Indian (74 percent), with most of the rest coming from the U.S. mainland (13 percent) and Puerto Rico (5 percent). Racially and ethnically, the population is mixed. Eighty percent of the people are Black, and 15 percent are White. The Hispanic population is 14 percent of the total. The official language is English, but Spanish and a creole are also spoken. The most prevalent religious denominations are Baptist (42 percent), Catholic (34 percent), and Episcopalian (17 percent); 7 percent adhere to other faiths.
The 12,258 (1990) people of the British Virgin Islands are predominantly Black (more than 90 percent). The people speak English, and most are Methodists.
The Virgin Islands were inhabited by the Carib Indians when Columbus first sighted them during his second voyage in 1493. Columbus named the islands after Saint Ursula and her martyred virgins. Spain claimed ownership of the islands at the time, but it was the Dutch, English, and French who began to settle what are now the U.S. Virgin Islands in the 1600s; the British Virgin Islands were first settled by Dutch farmers. Eventually, the Danish government laid claim to the U.S. Virgin Islands and used the islands for transshipment and to raise sugarcane. Shipping improved, the price of sugar fell, and in 1917 the Danish government sold the islands to the United States, which wanted to locate a naval base there. The U.S. Virgin Islands became tourist destinations early in the twentieth century, with the result that the average income on the islands is among the highest in the Caribbean. The destruction caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 led to looting and rioting, which was not effectively restrained by the local government and had to be stopped by the U.S. army. Local political pressure then developed for a more responsive territorial government. Presently, the government consists of an elected governor and unicameral legislature, as well as two U.S. district courts. The economy is centered around tourism, but there is also manufacturing (watches, textiles, electronics, and rum) and oil refining.
The British Virgin Islands came under British control in 1666 and have remained a colony since. Most of their trade is with the U.S. Virgin Islands, not with other British colonies. A constitution came into force in 1967 and was amended in 1977 to grant greater local authority. The government consists of a governor, a cabinet, and a legislature with nine elected members. The colony's monetary unit is the U.S. dollar. Many offshore corporations have located in the British Virgin Islands to escape taxes and the unstable politics of Panama and Hong Kong. The major industries are tourism, construction, and rum, although there is some export of fish, gravel, sand, and fruits. The British Virgin Islands are far less economically developed than the U.S. Virgin Islands.
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