Charter Advisors Special Feature
BVI History From The Cockpit
by Capt. Kev
The history of the BVIs are steeped in history and legend. Christopher Columbus, Black Beard, Henry Morgan, and Sir Francis Drake are just a few of the famous names though history that became enamored with the BVIs and the "Freebooters Gangway."
Then there's the "happenings" that shaped the British Virgin Isles. The decade of the 1860s and the famous wreck of the HMS Rhone, the discovery of hidden gold on Norman, A.K.A. "Treasure Island," and the nations that fought to call these islands their own. These are only but a few.
In our "History From The Cockpit" series, the Charter Advisors crew takes you though a bit of the history, legend, and events that shaped our favorite islands in our own Charter Advisors way (of course).
The next time you're plying the waters of the BVIs and your crew asks: who discovered the Virgin Islands? Who would name an Island "The Fat Virgin" or "Dead Chest," or a bay "Dead Mans Bay?" Why did the Royal Mail Ship Rhone wreck? Were there real pirates of the Caribbean? Did they come to the BVI's? You'll have a bit of history to share from the cockpit, of course. Where else?
Some of what follows is historical fact, some is legend, but the best BVI stories are a bit of both. In this first installment of our two-part series we begin with the discovery of the Virgin Islands, the "happenings" that shaped them, and a bit of history, island by island.
British Virgin Islands Discovered! And Discovered Again!
Christopher Columbus gets the credit for discovering the Virgin Islands, though the Amerindians discovered them first around 900 BC. The "West Indies" got their name because the intrepid Christopher Columbus thought he was in some part of Asia or the Indies. His discovery of the BVIs came in 1493 during Columbus's second (and last) voyage.
The nations that could afford costly expedition voyages, sent ships off to claim new territories and their riches for their home countries. The BVIs were occupied by the Dutch, Spanish, Danish, French, and British. The Virgin Islands named by Columbus were called the Islas Virgines because of their "untouched" beauty. Likening them to the legend of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who followed her to martyrdom.
Current day, the BVI Islanders do their best to keep and protect their islands unique untouched beauty. So much so that today's building code only allows for two story buildings. No building "taller than the tallest palm."
The First BVI Settlers
The first settlers from Europe arrived in the mid-17th century. All indications suggest that the Spanish used the BVI area, but established no "real" settlement in the islands. But there may have been a Spanish encampment to protect the Copper Mine on Virgin Gorda.
The Dutch built the fort at the West End of Tortola, but their stay was short-lived as they were soon replaced by British settlers. In 1672, when the BVI were annexed by Britain. The English quickly set up plantations to grow cotton and sugar. Sugar eventually became central to the British Virgin Islands. By the end of the 18th century, sugar, molasses and rum were The BVI's main exports. The Dutch kept their presence in the Virgin Islands before selling their remaining territory to the United States in the early 20th century, who desired these Caribbean islands for the same reasons they were desired in the 17th century: strategic advantage! Some things never change.
1860's - The Decade That Changed Everything
Emancipation came early in the decade, but by the late 1860s an earthquake "the likes of which had never been experienced," a hurricane that sunk the Royal Mail Ship, Rhone (and sank more than sixty others, sparing only two ships) and a tidal wave all created hardships for this tiny Caribbean nation of free people. With determination and a sense of community, the islanders pulled together and rebuilt with what resources they had and carried on. This was quite a feat considering that few emancipated islanders we've ever taught to swim or sail (out of fear they'd escape). In fact, most were told stories to seed a fear of the sea in them. It was during the 1860s that the local Virgin Islanders went from being under the thumb of slavery to freedom to disaster to self reliance. For the next 100 years the locals would see many different forms of government come and go, but what did not change was the community spirit and togetherness that came from the decade of the 1860s.
History - Island By Island
Sir Francis Drake Channel
The Sir Francis Drake Channel didn't always carry this name. During the 1600-1700s it was known as "Freebooters Gangway," the British Virgin Islands section of the "Spanish Main." Essentially it was the pirate's highway.
It is said that the island was named after a pirate, Captain Norman, who bought it or leased it at some point during the early 18th century although little supporting evidence has been found to confirm. Captain Norman was eventually apprehended and hanged by the Spanish Puerto Rico Coast Guard.
How Norman Island got its name is only a small part of the lore that surrounds this island. Norman Island also has a documented history of pirate booty being stowed upon the island. In August of 1750 a Spanish treasure galleon named Nuestra Sesora de Guadalupe sought shelter from a storm on the North Carolina coast. The crew mutinied and the treasure, said to consist of (amongst other things) 55 chests of silver coins, was loaded into two ships, one of which was manned by Owen Lloyd. The first vessel perished, but Lloyd escaped to St. Croix. After disposing of some of the money, he proceeded to Norman Island where the remaining treasure was buried. Lloyd and his crew were later arrested in St. Eustatius, but word of the treasure spread, and residents of Tortola went to Norman Island and dug it up for themselves. Part of the booty was later recovered by Gilbert Fleming, Lieutenant-General of the Leeward Islands at the time, who traveled to Tortola with two companies of soldiers. Fleming persuaded Abraham Chalwill, the acting Lieutenant Governor of the British Virgin Islands (who had coincidentally lead the search for the treasure on Norman Island) to issue a proclamation whereby the treasure would be returned and the people who had dug it up would receive a one-third share as a reward.
This is where history meets legend and local rumors. It's said that a member of a well-known local family had been fishing near Norman Island and took shelter in one of the caves on the Western coast of Norman Island during a storm. The surge repeatedly banged his small boat against the walls of the cave, while the storm surge caused the water level to rise several feet. When the fisherman woke up the next morning, a large number of rocks had broken off into his small craft, along with a small chest said to be filled with gold doubloons. This story cannot be verified as no legal application for treasure trove was ever made, but it is known that members of this family ceased being fisherman and left Tortola for St. Thomas to open shops in Charlotte Amalie.
Rumors still persist of more pirate gold to be found on Norman Island, if more has been found, it's not known as no applications of treasure trove have been recorded.
It's this history that made Norman Island the inspiration and centerpiece for Robert Lewis Stevens novel, Treasure Island."
This little 8-acre island was uninhabited until 1937, when author Robb White and his newly married wife Rosalie Mason settled on the island. They started off settling on Tortola, but the insect problem was more than they could take. White spent weeks sailing and searching for a new island home.
The Whites spent three years on Marina Cay, building their own cistern and small but sturdy house out of the island's own resources. These first years were an adventure for the couple. They faced a hurricane, fended off a rather nasty Nazi skipper, aided Jewish refugees, and even received a surprise a visit from White's mother-in-law! The goings on at Marina Cay are well recorded in Whites own memoirs "In Privateer's Bay," "Our Virgin Island," and "Two on the Isle."
The Whites ultimately had to leave Marina Cay, but not willingly. The British government had never issued them a license to hold the land and formally refused when requested. Their reasoning was that White's published books had misrepresented what the British Virgin Islands were actually like.
Today, the house the White's built serves as part of the current day Marina Cay Resort.
Trellis Bay, Tortola - Bellemy Cay (The Last Resort)
Bellamy Cay, now more popularly known as "The Last Resort," is named after 'Black Sam Bellamy', a noted pirate who was executed for his profession at the age of 29 in 1717. His ship the Whydah, has recently been discovered in an undisclosed location. Some say it's near by!
Beef Island was the chosen settlement of Captain William Kid after he renounced his life of piracy. He named Hamm's Creek, named after one of his better-known associates.
Salt Island, located between Peter and Cooper Islands on the Sir Francis Drake Channel, is a beautiful Island, steeped in history. At one time a community of over 100 people lived on the island and created a thriving salt industry. For decades the occupants of the island harvested and sold Salt Island salt in local stores and to the British Navy. For the "privilege" of living on the island, each year the residents gave a token payment of one sack of salt to the Queen.
Salt Island salt was in especially high demand the days before refrigeration and pre-packaged salt. BVI locals would join the Salt Island community during "dry spring." This is when the water in the two shallow salt water ponds evaporate leaving a crust of dry salt on the across the ponds. The harvest was kicked off in true BVI fashion, with a "Festival" of sorts. By tradition, the "Festival" began when the Governor, a member of the government, and a representative from the Royal BVI police force did the ceremonial "breaking of the pond." Another festival followed the harvest as well.
Salt Islands Last Residents.
Clementine Helena Leonard Smith was born on Salt Island on May 9, 1911 where she lived with her parents. She attended elementary school in Tortola, but returned to the Island to help with the daily work, fishing, salting fish and meat, tending livestock, and mining salt from the salt ponds. Later in life, she turned her attention to tending the graveyard where those that lost their lives in the shipwreck of HMS Rhone were laid to rest.
She was a fixture on Salt Island, entertaining and informing tourists about the life and the history of Salt, Cooper, Peter, and surrounding islands. She received the title B.E.M - British Empire Member Medal in 1985 in recognition of her many works. Clementine died in 1998 but she left a great heritage in BVI history. She's now resting in the same graveyard she use to tend.
The last resident of Salt Island was named Norwell Durant. Like his family and residents before him, he collected salt from the salt lakes and saw that a small export went out once a week (via his brothers boat from Tortola). Norwell recently passed away in 2004.
Salt Island has no residents today and the salt from her two ponds remains untouched.
In much more recent history, Manchioneel Bay is said to be the inspiration for Jimmy Buffets famous song "Cheeseburger in Paradise." Though many locations lay claim for the inspiration, all signs point to Cooper Island Beach club at Manchioneel bay.
Peter Island / Dead Chest / Little Harbor
Deadman's bay on Peter Island is a beautiful, picture postcard kind of place. However, the name might give some pause. It is aptly named though. As the story goes, Blackbeard stranded his mutinous crew on a smaller neighboring island, Dead Chest. It's an island many of us have already heard of from the old pirate diddy, "Fifteen men on Dead mans Chest." After Blackbeard abandoned his men for dead, the crew had it in their minds that if they could only get to the larger and more hospitable Peter Island, only a sliver of water away, they might just survive. As fate would have it no man making the swim survived. They had no way to know of the strong current running between the two islands. In the end they did make it to Peter Island, just not alive. Blackbeard's men washed up on shore in what is now called, "Deadman's Bay."
Little Harbor was the home to cigars and cigarettes in the BVIs. In the 1920s Brunial Bruce grew tobacco on Peter Island, making and selling cigarette's and cigar's out of Little Harbor. He exported his own blend of tabacco down the West Indian Island chain. It wasn't long before he realized he couldn't stay competitive in the tabacco industry, so he sold everything he had built up, including land and buildings to a retiree who lived there until he died, a gentleman named Mr. Chubb. As the story goes, it was he who sold the land to the Peter Island Resort in the not so long ago 1980s.
Original Dead Mans Chest "Diddy"
Fifteen men on a dead man's chest/ Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. Drink and the devil had done for the rest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
Edited version originally created 1891 added to in 1901 and used in the original play and movie "Treasure Island."
Fifteen men on a dead man's chest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Drink and the devil had done for the rest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. The mate was fixed by the bosun's pike/The bosun brained with a marlinspike/And cookey's throat was marked belike?/It had been gripped by fingers ten/ And there they lay, all good dead men/Like break o'day in a boozing ken/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
Fifteen men of the whole ship's list/ Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum! Dead and be damned and the rest gone whist/ Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/The skipper lay with his nob in gore/Where the scullion's axe his cheek had shore/And the scullion he was stabbed times four/And there they lay, and the soggy skies/Dripped down in up-staring eyes/In murk sunset and foul sunrise/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
Fifteen men of 'em stiff and stark/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Ten of the crew had the murder mark/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Twas a cutlass swipe or an ounce of lead/Or a yawing hole in a battered head/And the scuppers' glut with a rotting red/And there they lay, aye, damn my eyes/Looking up at paradise/All souls bound just contrariwise/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
Fifteen men of 'em good and true/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Ev'ry man jack could ha' sailed with Old Pew/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/There was chest on chest of Spanish gold/With a ton of plate in the middle hold/And the cabins riot of stuff untold/And they lay there that took the plum/With sightless glare and their lips struck dumb/While we shared all by the rule of thumb/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
More was seen through a sternlight screen/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Chartings undoubt where a woman had been/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Twas a flimsy shift on a bunker cot/With a dirk slit sheer through the bosom spot/And the lace stiff dry in a purplish blot/Oh was she wench or some shudderin' maid/That dared the knife and took the blade/By God! she had stuff for a plucky jade/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
Fifteen men on a dead man's chest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/Drink and the devil had done for the rest/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum/We wrapped 'em all in a mains'l tight/With twice ten turns of a hawser's bight/And we heaved 'em over and out of sight/With a Yo-Heave-Ho! and a fare-you-well/And a sudden plunge in the sullen swell/Ten fathoms deep on the road to hell/Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
"Freebooters Point" on Anegada pretty well spells out the history of this low lying coral atoll. Old sea charts label this particular point "ye Freebooters" from the gold and silver buried here. If legend holds true, the large booty of gold taken from a Spanish galleons is still here having never been recovered.
It was common practice for these "Freebooters" or Pirates to lure ships in with signal fires and welcoming "signs." What the inbound vessels didn't know is that Anegada is ringed with one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, causing hundreds of shipwrecks in the shallow waters surrounding the island (some wrecks can still be seen sitting atop the reef). Once a ship was wrecked, there was a rush of island "locals" or "Freebooters" more specifically, in longboats to the floundering ship. These were no rescue missions, these were raids. While those onboard struggled with the sea for their lives, Freebooters (pirates) from Anegada gathered up whatever "treasure" they could find, leaving the crew to their death. Unless of course a wrecked shipmate wanted to join the Freebooters crew. Which was a risky endeavor in itself. As the story goes, there were so many shipwrecks that there must still be treasure buried in the seafloor and mixed up in all the stag horn coral that makes up the Anegada barrier reef.
Sopers Hole was founded and named by McCuthbert Soper and his family in the early 1700s. The family tombstones can still be found there. But the Sopers were not the most famous residents. Nor were the Spanish who liked to park their warships in this deep protected harbor. That honor went to Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.
Somewhere around 1715 to 1718, Blackbeard and his crew made Sopers Hole in the west end of Tortola their base of operations. It's been said that Great Thatch and Little Thatch islands, flanking Sopers Hole were named for him (or by him depending on which story you go by). Blackbeard's last name is unknown, but it is known that he used Teach and Thatch interchangeably.
Sopers Hole provided both an excellent hideout for his motley crew and a place to spot and launch attacks on ships sailing along the Sir Francis Drake channel. Blackbeard's favorite targets were treasure laden Spanish Galleons. Blackbeard and his pirates would use Sopers Hole to lay in wait for unsuspecting trade ships to approach, then pounce as they closed in. Systematically killing the crew, stealing the cargo and claiming the ship as part of his own growing fleet of pirate ships. There are many stories about Blackbeard, but not many places you too can sail out of, just as he did during the "Golden Age of Pirates." Sopers Hole in the west end of Tortola is one of those rare locations.
Virgin Gorda has a history as colorful as her larger sister island Tortola. A history that includes Christopher Columbus, Battles between the Spanish, Dutch, and English over her land and seaways, and of course pirates. During the age of sail, Virgin Gorda's protected harobrs and bays we're home to some of the most infamous pirates in history.
Virgin Gorda translates to "Fat Virgin," an odd name given to this island by Christopher Columbus when it first laid eyes on it. Perhaps it was too many days at sea, but Columbus commented about how the island resembled a "fat" woman lying on her side.
Spanish And Dutch Clash Over Copper Copper was an important find, and worth defending. The Spanish and Dutch both fought to defend their early copper mines from intruders. But it wasn't until the arrival of the British that a full fledged mine operation was erected.
In 1837 the British constructed the Virgin Gorda copper mine, the first shaft was dug a year later in 1838. By 1869 the shafts reached a depth of 40 fathoms or 240 feet, extending far below sea level.
For 24 years (not consecutive), the mined ore was sent down "Copper Mine Road" to the largest town and harbor on the island, Spanish Town. The copper was picked up in the original Spanish Town Harbor and shipped out to England. Ships returning from England would bring back provisions for the island and mining operation.
The mine on Virgin Gorda was abandoned in 1862 and has never been reopened since. Only the original stack, engine house, and the main building remain. Descendants of the miners are said to still live on Virgin Gorda today.
The North Sound / Gorda Sound
The North Sound also known as Gorda Sound, was a well known haunt for pirates and naval fleets alike during the 1600s and 1700s. It was here that the English privateer Sir Francis Drake would muster and rest the crews of his cousin, the well-known John Hawkens whose fleet he sailed in. Drake's captured Spanish Treasure galleon, the prized "Golden Hind," was often anchored in the North Sound. It was said to have sat far below its waterline, weighted with gold. It was on the "Golden Hinds" deck that Drake was knighted. It was also recorded that Drake's last rest ashore was in the North Sound, just before he joined Hawkens for their attacked on Puerto Rico. Sir Francis Drake died, but not in battle, from a tropical fever shortly after the attack.
The North Sound had everything a Pirate could want, short of a gold mine. The large deep-water anchorage had only two ways in or out, protection from the sea, look out points, and was generally hidden from view. But it had one more thing that made it extra special, an escape route, known as an "s route." This tricky S-shaped cut through the reef in Eustatia Sound gave the pirates a hidden third option for access to open waters. This was useful for evading pursuers and for escape. The route required careful helming and advance knowledge of the tricky path through the reef, a dangerous endeavor for any pursuer. This "s route" was also very handy for escaping British ships blocking the "known" entrances to North Sound. This was the pirate equivalent to "slipping out the back door."
Little Dix Bay - Laurance Rockefeller Comes Virgin Gorda
In the 1950s and 60's, Laurence Rockefeller took a liking to the British Virgin Islands and made application to the BVI government to build a resort at Little Dix Bay. He opened the original 50-room luxury resort in 1964, essentially kicking off the BVI tourism industry that accounts for more than 50% of the BVIs GDP today. Contrarry to popular belief, Rockefeller was did not establish the first vacation resort in the BVIs.
That honor went to the Guana Island Club, established in 1936. It was a small operation by comparison to Little Dix, but it earned its place in history as the first vacation resort in the BVI.
Jost Van Dyke
Jost Van Dyke was named after a Dutch Pirate of the same name. It has been home to Arawak Indians, Carib Indians, Africans, Dutch and English planters. In the 1700s, a Quaker colony settled here to develop sugar-cane plantations. Overgrown ruins of Quaker buildings and burial sites in different parts of the islands can still be found to this day. During the age of pirates and great navel battles, settlers, planters, and freed slaves made their homes in the harder to reach highlands and valleys of the island. This gave them a certain degree of added safety being able to spot thieves, pirates, or foreign Navy ships approaching. Oddly enough Jost Van Dyke was known as a cattle island. It would have been quite a spectacle when the cattle was lead to the docks for export. With the settlers high up on the island, the cattle would have to be lead down the steep hillsides to the awaiting transport ships arriving from St. Martin.
The architect of the US Capitol Building also came from Jost Van Dyke, William Thornton. He was born on the island in 1759. He was a visionary and one of the first to free his slaves well before it became the politically correct thing to do. The William Thornton (Willy T's) floating bar and restaurant located at Norman Island was named for this famous British Virgin Islander.
Little Jost Van Dyke
Just a few hundred feet East of Jost Van Dyke is the birthplace of a notable gentlemen. Dr. John Lettsome, whose family had a large cotton plantation estate on Little Jost.
The ruins are probably the most famous historical site in the area. John Coakley Lettsome was famous from birth, being that he was one of a seventh set of male twins and the only surviving pair. After attending medical school in England returned to the British Virgin Islands in 1776 and became the Territory's Chief Physician. He has been famously quoted for his musing "I lance em, bleeds em, and sweats em, if they should choose to die, I John Lettsome."
His position as Chief Physician was not a long-lived. His popularity dropped quickly when against the conventions of the time, he freed all his slaves to clear his conscience. Later, after returning to England, he founded the London Medical Society and the Royal Humane Society in London.
Next time you find yourself sitting at the helm sailing down the "freebooters gangway" you'll not only see the islands as they slip by, you'll see history coming alive, right off the starboard bow. So gather the crew, and share a few stories "from the cockpit."
Next month In our second installment we'll touch on the pirates that called the BVI waters home and famous shipwrecks of the BVIs.
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