15 Things You Might Not Know About the U.S. Virgin Islands

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iStock

There’s a lot more to these Caribbean islands than cruise ships and gorgeous beaches. Read on to learn more about the U.S. Virgin Islands’ rich history, customs, and a thing or two about pirates.

1. THE U.S. PAID $25 MILLION IN GOLD FOR THEM.

The islands of St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix fell under a rotating cast of European rulers in the span of three hundred years, including Holland, Spain, France, the Knights of Malta, Britain, and Denmark. After negotiating for 50 years, in 1917 the United States—seeing the islands’ strategic positioning, and worried that Germany might scoop them up first—officially bought in, purchasing what was then known as the Danish West Indies for $25 million in gold.

2. A FOURTH ISLAND RECENTLY JOINED THE PARTY.

Most visitors know the USVI’s three main islands, but many don’t know there’s a recently added fourth: tiny Water Island, located off the south coast of St. Thomas. Covering just 492 acres, and so named for its collection of fresh water ponds, Water Island fell under private ownership until 1944, when the U.S. bought it for a cool $10,000. In 1996, the U.S. transferred the island to local jurisdiction, making it what locals playfully call “The Last Virgin.” 

3. THE CAPITAL’S ORIGINAL NAME MEANT “TAP HOUSE.”

Settled by the Danish in 1666, the capital city today known as Charlotte Amalie, located on St. Thomas, was home to so many taverns that it was originally given the name Taphus, or “Tap House”. After nearly 30 years and much merriment, the Danes changed the name to honor King Christian V’s wife, Charlotte Amalie.

4. SUGAR AND RUM PRODUCTION MOVED THE CAPITAL.

After the Danish crown took control of the islands in 1754, it moved the capital 40 miles south, from Charlotte Amalie to Christiansted, located on St. Croix. The island was the main economic force in the region, with thriving rum and sugar industries that were driven by slave labor. After slavery was abolished in 1848, production declined steeply, and the crown moved the Danish West Indies capital back to Charlotte Amalie.

5. CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS GAVE THE ISLANDS THEIR NAME.

The famed explorer landed at St. Croix on November 14, 1493, and was promptly chased off by the Caribs, an indigenous tribe. Sailing north, Columbus surveyed the islands that today include St. Thomas and St. John. In admiration of their beauty, he named them “Las Once Mil Virgenes,” for the 11,000 virgin followers of St. Ursula—soon shortened to “Las Virgenes.”

6. A SLIPPERY GOVERNOR MADE THEM A PIRATES’ REFUGE.

In the late 17th century the Virgin Islands, and particularly St. Thomas, were known as a haven for pirates. Adolph Esmit, an early governor of St. Thomas, helped establish this reputation by offering safe harbor in exchange for favorable trade. In 1683, he helped the infamous Jean Hamlin escape capture by English forces, and even secured a getaway boat for the French pirate. After word of his misdeeds reached Denmark, Esmit was recalled—then reinstalled just three years later, after he promised authorities he knew the location of a sunken treasure.

7. IT HAS AN OFFICIAL SOUNDTRACK.

Quelbe, a style of folk music that originated in the Virgin Islands, developed as a way for islanders to preserve their rich storytelling traditions. Also called “scratch band music,” Quelbe players have been known to turn all kinds of random household objects into instruments—from car mufflers to plywood, anything they can “scratch off” is considered fair game. In 2003, the U.S. Virgin Islands legislature passed a bill making Quelbe the official music of the Islands.

8. A FATEFUL CRUISE LED TO THE FOUNDING OF VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK.

One of America’s first venture capitalists (and the son of John D. Rockefeller) stopped off in St. John while cruising around the Caribbean. Struck by the island’s natural beauty, he began looking for ways to ensure its preservation. He came across an obscure report from the National Park Service concluding that the area was ideal for a national park, and so in 1956 he bought 5000 acres on St. John that became Virgin Islands National Park. Today, the park takes up more than two thirds of the island.

9. ST. JOHN WAS THE SITE OF A FAMOUS SLAVE REBELLION.

Slavery was a major industry in the Virgin Islands for more than two hundred years. For a brief period, though, the brutal institution was turned on its head. In 1733, enslaved individuals belonging to the Amina peoples of Ghana’s Ashanti empire, including several tribal leaders, defeated a garrison of Danish soldiers stationed at a fort on Coral Bay. The action sparked an uprising, and for six months St. John’s slaves controlled the island. In May 1734, French troops arrived and regained control. It would be more than a century before slavery was outlawed in the Virgin Islands. 

10. BLACKBEARD NEVER SET FOOT IN BLACKBEARD’S CASTLE.

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Charlotte Amalie is a cylindrical stone fort known as Blackbeard’s Castle. Despite its name and local lore, there’s no evidence that Blackbeard, a.k.a. Edward Teach, ever used the structure. Danish soldiers built the fort in 1679 and called it Skytsborg Tower (“Sky Tower”). Name confusion aside, tourists flock to the structure for its 360-degree views of the city, and for access to the nearby swimming pools.

11. TWO WORDS: BIOLUMINESCENT BAY.

At a couple spots throughout the Virgin Islands, the water lights up at night as if electrified. Known as bioluminescence, this rare phenomenon is caused by the blooming of millions of tiny plankton called dinoflagellate. Conditions have to be just right, and one of the best places in the world to find them is Salt River Bay, located on St. Croix. There, outfitters offer night tours, often in glass bottom boats so tourists can get a close look at the light show.

12. CHARLOTTE AMALIE IS HOME TO ONE OF THE OLDEST SYNAGOGUES IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE.

Built in 1833, the Synagogue of St. Thomas is the second-oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere, and the longest continuously run congregation amongst American states and territories. Perched on a hill in the center of town, it features sand floors and walls made from a mortar comprised of lime, sand, and molasses.

13. ALEXANDER HAMILTON SPENT PART OF HIS YOUTH IN CHRISTIANSTED.

The founding father and Broadway inspiration moved to the island of St. Croix with his family in 1765. In 1768, Alexander and his mother, Rachael, came down with a tropical fever that killed her, and nearly claimed his life, as well. Orphaned, Hamilton began working as a clerk at an import-export firm in Christiansted, where he quickly gained a reputation for being competent and highly literate. After publishing an essay in the Royal Danish-American Gazette about the experience of living through a hurricane, Hamilton gained local funding to further his education in New Jersey.

14. THE CUBAN EMBARGO SPURRED TOURISM TO THE ISLANDS.

After the U.S. instituted its embargo of Cuba in 1960, American tourists flocked to the Virgin Islands as a tropical alternative. Today, tourism is the USVI’s number one industry.

15. THERE’S A NATIONAL HOLIDAY CALLED ‘TRANSFER DAY.’

Every March 31st, the U.S. Virgin Islands commemorate their transfer from Danish to American authority. Transfer Day festivities typically include a ceremonial lowering of the Danish flag and raising of the U.S. flag, along with the serving of Red Grout, a Danish-inspired pudding made from guavas and tapioca. Next year’s centennial will be observed with festivals, concerts and parades throughout the islands.

What better way to explore the U.S. Virgin Islands’ rich history than in the Islands themselves? Learn more about the upcoming Centennial at VisitUSVI.com.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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6 Effective Tips for Coping With Panic Attacks

Photo by RF._.studio from Pexels
Photo by RF._.studio from Pexels

If you suddenly find yourself having an abrupt feeling of fear paired with anxiety or an overwhelming sense that you are losing control, you might be experiencing a panic attack. A panic attack, which can last for minutes or hours, can manifest in physical symptoms that some sufferers compare to a heart attack. And if you've ever had one, you're far from alone.

Each year, up to 11 percent of Americans experience panic attacks—though that percentage could rise in 2020. Using Google Trends, researchers have noted a significant increase in searches related to panic attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it’s not entirely conclusive, it's clear that people need to be paying attention to their mental health right now as much as they are their physical well-being.

“I have seen a huge increase in those experiencing panic attacks and other forms of anxiety during lockdown,” psychotherapist and coach Sarie Taylor tells Mental Floss. She attributes it to the uncertainty and unpredictability of the pandemic.

If you're prone to panic attacks, here are several methods you can use to help cope. Keep in mind that these techniques are not mutually exclusive, so you might find that practicing two or three of them at once is the fastest way to alleviate the symptoms brought on by a panic attack. Nor should you become frustrated if they don't always work for you. Every person and every panic attack is different. “Do not be disheartened if they do not always seem to work for you," Taylor says. "Your mind will always eventually settle regardless.”

1. Control your breathing.

Changes in breathing patterns and shortness of breath during panic attacks are common, but it can heighten the feeling of suffocation that some people experience. To address this, try common breathing techniques such as the 4-7-8 exercise [PDF] or roll breathing (also known as abdominal breathing). Deep breathing, or breath focus, is a great strategy to lower your heart rate, stabilize your blood pressure, and lower your stress levels. If you can control your breathing, the panic may subside and you can reduce some of your other symptoms.

2. Connect with your current environment.

To de-escalate the overwhelming emotions that often come with a panic attack and bring your focus to the present, it helps to engage your senses. You may be able to do this through visualization exercises, like imagining yourself sitting by the ocean or wherever you're happiest. Another effective method is the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique, where you acknowledge five things you can see around you, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This can be a great way to distract yourself from intrusive thoughts and focus on the sensations you can physically experience in that moment instead.

3. Grab an ice cube.

If you feel that breathing and relaxation exercises don’t bring enough relief, some people are able to lessen the effects of a panic with ice cubes. Holding an ice cube in your hand for as long as you can, or putting it inside your mouth until it melts, brings enough discomfort to divert your body’s response away from panic. If you put the ice cube in your mouth, it forces your body to produce more saliva, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and halting the fight-or-flight response that panic attacks typically trigger.

According to Taylor, when you hold something stimulating, it appeals to the senses and becomes difficult to ignore. This means that your attention goes to the ice’s temperature and texture. Like all methods, it’s not equally effective for everyone and experiences may vary.

4. Relax your muscles.

Progressive muscle relaxation is an anxiety and stress management technique that relieves tension from the body [PDF]. The practice is done by lying down, tensing a muscle group for up to 10 seconds, relaxing it, then moving on to another muscle group. You can start from head to toe or vice versa, or begin with your hands and then work your way through your body. Concentrating on how your muscles tense and relax helps you let go of the negative feelings a panic attack brings on.

5. Challenge your brain.

It’s not easy to shake off negative thoughts, especially as they increasingly worsen. To force your brain to think of something else, engage in small mental exercises. This includes anything from counting backward from 100 in threes or reciting the alphabet backward to counting how many letters there are in your full name or reciting all the colors you can think of or see. By completing these exercises, even imperfectly, you can distract yourself enough to potentially reduce your symptoms.

The effectiveness of such exercises depends on how invested you are in your anxious thoughts. “The earlier you notice your mind getting busy, the easier these techniques may be,” Taylor says.

6. Take your prescribed medications.

Seeing a doctor and getting treatment for frequent panic attacks is important because they can become worse over time. There are a variety of medications that can help with panic attacks, but according to the Mayo Clinic, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most effective choice for panic attacks. Take your medication(s) as prescribed, and try to be aware of how well and quickly they work for you, so that you can talk with your doctor to make sure you're taking the best medication for your symptoms.