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History of US Virgin Islands
 
 
 

Early History

Although not much is known about the Ciboney people who inhabited the islands during the Stone Age, archaeological evidence seems to indicate that they were hunter-gatherers. They made tools of stone and flint but left few other artefacts behind.

Experts at canoe building and seamanship, the Arawaks migrated from the Amazon River Valley and Orinoco regions of Venezuela and Brazil, settling on the islands near coasts and rivers. These peaceful people excelled at fishing and farming. They grew cotton, tobacco, maize, yuca and guava as well as a variety of other fruits and vegetables.

The Arawaks developed intricate social and cultural lives. For recreation, they held organised sporting events. They also valued artistic endeavours, such as cave painting and rock carving, some of which have survived to the present. Religion played a large role in their daily lives, and through ceremonial rituals they asked their gods for advice to help them through troubled times. Their civilisation flourished for several hundred years until the Caribs invaded.

While the Caribs came from the same area as the Arawaks and may have been distantly related, they did not share the Arawaks' friendly nature. Not only were they fierce warriors, they supposedly feasted on their adversaries. Their bloodthirsty reputation spawned the English word cannibal, derived from the name the Spanish gave them, Caribal. This is what has been published in our history books, but many believe this to be a myth.

Whether or not they actually ate their victims, the Caribs did destroy numerous Arawak villages, murdering as many as they could. By the mid 15th century, the Caribs had slashed the Arawak population from several million to a few thousand.

Colonisation

Blown off course during his 1493-1496 voyage, Christopher Columbus landed on Saint Croix, then continued his explorations on Saint Thomas and Saint John. He gave the islands their original Spanish names (Santa Cruz, San Tomas, and San Juan), focusing on religious themes. The collection of tiny islets, cays, and rocks dotting the sea around them reminded Columbus of St Ursula and her 11,000 virgin martyrs, inspiring the name Las Once Mil Virgenes.

The first encounter Columbus had with the Caribs quickly erupted into a battle. When Columbus and his crew decided to move on to other islands, they kidnapped six Arawaks to guide them. Although Columbus left without founding a colony, many more battles between the Spanish and Caribs followed over the next century.

Other European explorers finished the job the Spanish had begun. They tried to convert the Caribs and Arawaks to Catholicism, which largely failed. They also enslaved the native populations to work on plantations. With tobacco having already been cultivated on the islands, it made a good cash crop. Later on, coffee, sugar, and cotton also were grown.

Danish West Indies

Diseases, coupled with murder and slavery, took a large toll on both the Arawaks and the Caribs. Several groups of Arawaks committed mass suicide rather than submit to foreign rule. By the late 17th century, the Arawaks had been completely exterminated and few Caribs remained.

With only a small population on the islands, there was a great demand for labour. The trans-Atlantic slave trade to the islands began in 1673. The difficult conditions and inhumane treatment slaves were subjected to bred discontent. Moravian Brethren missionaries from Herrnhut, Saxony, arrived in St Thomas in December, 1732. Objects of great distrust from the slave holders, they lived with the slaves and won their confidence. In 1733, a long drought followed by a devastating hurricane pushed slaves in St John to the breaking point. Members of the Akwamu tribe from modern Ghana staged a massive rebellion, seizing control of the island for six months. The Danish, who controlled the island at that point, enlisted the help of French authorities from Martinique to regain control.

A non-violent slave revolt in 1848 proved more successful. The governor at the time, Peter von Scholten, faced with thousands of enslaved Africans with burning torches threatening to burn down the town of Frederiksted, freed the slaves, even though the Danish Crown decreed that slaves would be emancipated in 1859. Von Scholten would later be jailed in Denmark by the Danish Crown for this action.


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