British Empire > Tortola


Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration


The island of Tortola is one of the British Virgin Islands which is part of the larger Virgin Islands that makes up part of the Lesser Antilles in the West Indies. The island gets its name according to local legends from when Christopher Columbus saw the island on his second voyage and named it "Turtle Dove". However, in actuality Columbus named the island Santa Ana and it would be later Dutch colonists who named it Ter Tholen after a coastal island that forms part of the Netherlands when the island was part of the Dutch Virgin Islands. When the British eventually took over the islands the name naturally evolved to Tortola.

The British would seize the Dutch Virgin Islands in the late 16th century and establish permanent plantation economies on the islands. Settlers developed sugar cane on the island of Tortola and the surrounding Virgin Gorda. However, these large sugar plantations were reliant on slave labor which resulted in the development of the Trans-Atlantic Triangular Trade. Most of the settlers however, arrived in the late 18th century following the victory of the Patriots in the American Revolutionary War. The British Virgin Islands along with the rest of the British West Indies became save havens for the loyalists and their slaves who were given land grants on the island to encourage development. Overall the sugar industry would dominate the island of Tortola for over a hundred years.

In the early 19th century following the British abolition of slavery the slaves on the island of Tortola were freed. The Royal Navy would regularly patrol the Caribbean Sea in order to intercept illegal slaving ships and these liberated African were eventually settled on Tortola. In fact one of the first earliest free black churches was built in the unsettled Kingstown area known as St. Phillips Church. However, the abolition of slavery had unintended consequences for the sugar cane industry had developed on the island.

Following the abolition of the slave trade in 1834 many plantation owners found it difficult to compete with neighboring Cuba and some South American countries which still employed slave labor. In addition to this there were sugar beets being cultivated in both the United States and Great Britain which made agriculture on the island less profitable than it had been in the past.

Modern Day

In the late 1970's the British government attempted to lease a large part of the island of Tortola to a businessman named Ken Bates on a 199 year lease. However, this action was blocked by Noel Lloyd who was a local activist and led a protest which forced the local government to drop their plans to sell the island. Presently there is a park and a statue featuring Noel Lloyd in his honor for defending the sovereignty of the island.

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