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.