Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: English
Main religions: Christianity (majority Protestant)
Main ethnic groups: African/Black (78.5 per cent), Hispanic/Latinos (5.6 per cent), White/Caucasian (5.4 per cent), Mixed (5.4 per cent), Indian (2.1 per cent), East Indian (1.6 per cent), Filipinos (0.7 per cent) and smaller groups of Chinese, Lebanese and Syrians. The 2010 Census identified at least 15 ethnic groups on the islands. The original population of the Virgin Islands consisted of Arawaks (Taíno) and Caribs (Kalinago), but they were largely decimated during the European colonization process: only 120 identified themselves as Carib and 57 as Amerindian in the 2010 census.
Updated March 2018.
The majority of the population of the British Virgin Islands is of African descent, many of whose ancestors were slaves emancipated following the abolition of slavery in 1834. Liberated from their work on colonial sugar plantations, they and their descendants then relied on a precarious livelihood of small-holding subsistence agriculture.
Tourism and latterly the influx of wealthy, largely white expatriates now sustain the economy. Large numbers of immigrants from neighbouring islands have also moved to the British Virgin Islands to work in the construction, health care and other sectors. There are therefore significant economic disparities between local black islanders, white residents and immigrant Caribbean workers, who frequently face social stigmatization.
While its reputation as a de facto tax haven has attracted many affluent expatriates, its location has also resulted in the British Virgin Islands becoming a major hub for traffickers and drug smugglers.
In September 2017, the British Virgin Islands were devastated by Hurricane Irma. Winds averaged 185 mph, with gusts up to 215 mph. Four people were killed, and thousands of residents were displaced; there was massive damage to property and businesses.
Updated March 2018.
The British Virgin Islands are a group of forty islands located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. They form part of the Lesser Antilles. The islands are generally mountainous and around 16 are inhabited.
The British Virgin Islands were originally occupied by Arawaks, who may have settled there as early as 100 BC and remained until the fifteenth century, when many were displaced by the arrival of Caribs. In 1493, Christopher Colombus sighted the islands on his second voyage.
Despite Spain subsequently claiming the islands as their territory, the Dutch were the first to settle there permanently, by 1615. Dutch control was challenged, first by repeated Spanish raids and then by English settlers establishing themselves on the island of Tortola in 1666. In 1672, the islands were taken over by England at the beginning of the third Anglo-Dutch War.
The British introduced sugar cane and brought in thousands of African slaves who were forced to provide labour on the plantations. From around 1790, a series of slave revolts took place, all of which were put down with force. In 1807, the trade in slaves was abolished, and slavery itself was banned in 1834. However, the impact of abolition was not immediate as former slaves were required to serve a forced apprenticeship for a number of years afterwards. Nevertheless, abolition continues to be celebrated through an annual festival in August. From 1871 to 1956 the islands existed as part of the Federation of the Leeward Islands. In 1960 they gained the status of a separate colony and in 1967 were granted autonomy.
British Virgin Islands are a British overseas territory with a large degree of internal self-government. The governor represents the British crown, and a premier and ministers comprise the Cabinet along with the Attorney-General. The current premier is Orlando Smith, who has been serving since 2011. He previously served as Chief Minister (2003-2007) and heads the National Democratic Party.
Following changes to the Constitution in 2007, the House of Assembly (previously the Legislative Council) consists of 15 elected members. Thirteen members are elected for a four-year term, nine of whom come from single-seat constituencies while four are ‘at large’. There are also an ex-officio member and a speaker. The most recent constitutional amendments introduced a chapter on the rights and freedoms of individuals.
The British Virgin Islands is a member-state of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court; any final appeal is to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.
In May 2017, the government presented a long-awaited human rights bill before the House of Assembly. The proposed legislation is intended to establish a national human rights commission, with a mandate to conduct human rights education as well as promote reconciliation. While generally welcomed, Assembly members called for more time in order to conduct further public consultation.
While a taxation system is technically in place in the British Virgin Islands, it is effectively set at zero in most areas, including capital gains tax, corporation tax, inheritance tax and profit tax.
Updated March 2018.