Christopher Columbus first encountered this magnificent archipelago of volcanic islands in 1493, but other people had discovered it centuries before. Historians and archeologists vary in their opinions of exactly when the Amerindians arrived (from 500AD to 1000AD). The Amerindians were native to Venezuela, specifically abundant in the Orinoco Delta region. The Tiano and Arawak were mostly a peaceful race of Indians and many tribes were nomadic seafarers as well as hunters and gatherers. They traveled in “dug out” canoes that were carved and burned out of large logs. We have one of these antiques on display at the shop of Jost Van Dyke Scuba & BVI Eco-tours in Great Harbour (come see for yourself this age old antique).
These Amerindians navigated from South America throughout the entire chain of the Caribbean: Windward Islands, Leeward Islands, and the Greater Antilles, to Cuba, Central America, and Florida. The fact is documented that the Arawaks and Carib Indians were still living in these islands when Columbus arrived in 1493. Amerindian archeological sites have been uncovered and researched in many parts of the BVI: East End, Jost Van Dyke and Long Bay, Tortola, among many others. Demi-gods, pottery, crude tools, and other evidences of their civilizations have been unearthed and testify to their long time occupation of the area. Petroglyphs are also prolific evidence on other islands. They preferred to live near the water and in many cases close to mangrove colonies. This would provide them more than just shade for their families. The mangroves are home to many varieties of birds and were full of fish and crustaceans that would be easy for the Indians to catch and eat.
After Columbus landed on the islands, he met with resistance from the Carib Indians. The Caribs were far different than their peaceful distant relatives, the Arawaks and Tiano Indians. The Caribs were known to be aggressive and ruthless fighters even among themselves and other tribes. They presented an aggressive hold on their islands and made it nearly impenetrable for the Spanish conquistadors. Spain’s determination to gain control, however, eventually led to the near-extinction of the Caribs through massive slaughters and brutal dominance. In other groups of islands the more peaceful Indians that were immediately enslaved by the Spaniards died off of simple viruses and sicknesses as unlikely as the common cold. They simply did not have the same antibodies in their systems to fight the most common of Western illnesses. News of Spain’s success in the Caribbean traveled throughout Europe. Soon England, France, Portugal, Denmark and Holland were competing for a foothold in this New World and the pirates as well.
Columbus’ states in his ship’s log that he was influenced by the raw beauty and unusually large number of islands and rocks. He named the entire archipelago the “Virgin Islands,” alluding to the legend of St. Ursula and her 11,000 martyred virgins. In Spanish it’s known as “Las Once Mil Virgenes.” Many historians also believe that Columbus used the story of the 11,000 virgins to exaggerate his find to Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to seek their approval for an additional voyage.
With European settlers seeking a better life and arriving continually throughout the Caribbean, pirate’s had the opportunity to claim boats full of cargo, money, and people’s worldly possessions. The pirate’s looting of Tortola’s Dutch and eventually English villages and trading ships lasted until around 1725. After this, many of the English planters from nearby Anguilla moved to Tortola and Virgin Gorda to build new cane plantations. Throughout the later part of the 1600’s, the Spanish continually raided Tortola causing much distress and misery to the struggling farmers. In 1699 the British Governor of the nearby Leeward Islands finally receive notice from England to “Assert Her Majesty’s Title on the Virgin Islands” and thus our modern day Union Jack flies high.
The British Virgin Islands, like most of the Caribbean, was considered a poor sustenance farming and fishing territory until the boom of tourism in the 1960‘s began to vitalize the economy. Many thousands of BVIslanders had immigrated to nearby St Thomas, Santo Domingo, and the U.S. to seek work and a better way of life. Many of these expatriates and their families have now returned to what is now considered one of the most exotic and safe Caribbean destinations: the British Virgin Islands.
History of Jost Van Dyke
The island of Jost Van Dyke is rich in history as well. Captain ‘Jost Van Dyke’ was a 17th Century Dutch pirate who used its harbours as a safe hideout and to attack ships passing North of the island on way to Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Cuba. Jost 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. There are overgrown ruins of Quaker buildings and burial sites in different parts of the islands. Historically in the Caribbean, with the exception of the Amerindians, most people just started living near the water in the last 50-75 years. Before that, settlers, planters, and freed slaves made their homes in the safe, harder to reach highlands and valleys. This gave them a certain degree of added safety being able to spot thieves, pirates, or foreign Navy ships approaching.
The flora and canopy today in the British Virgin islands is not what was here when the Amerindians originally settled or what Columbus saw when he sailed into the territory in 1493. The indigenous Caribbean Semi-Tropical Forests that existed then consisted of Mahogony, Green Heart, Purple Heart, Lignum Vitae, Bulletwood and White Cedar, among others. Nations had different priorities as they sailed on their voyages of discovery. The Spanish, of course, were looking for natural resources and material wealth (sound familiar?). They mostly settled only when they found gold, silver, copper, gemstones, etc. Other nations like the French and British were more interested in setting up communities, ports, and areas of commercial trade, fueled by their agricultural efforts, fishing, and potential exports. The primary cash crops of the era were sugar cane, cotton, and indigo.
The various nations settling the Caribbean desired to clear the land of these dense natural forests to have room to plant their crops. They were clearing large tracts of native virgin forests and hardwoods using the only affordable method of their day: the horrible slave labor. As the settlers used this wood in some housing and mill applications, most of the hardwood was left to rot or was being burned. However, other nations such as the Danish and Dutch, in addition to some of those same planting and settling interests, saw other opportunities as well. These countries had a long tradition as expert furniture makers and wood workers. Their ancestors had helped clear out large parts of Europe’s hardwoods and the furniture industry was slowing down for lack of material. These entrepreneurs looked at those Mahogony trees as the Spanish looked at the gold. They willingly dumped their ballast stones overboard to load up their vessels with these Caribbean hardwoods on each voyage back to Europe; in addition to carrying their sugar, molasses, rum, cotton, and indigo, they were loaded up with lumber. To this day most of the antique 17th, 18th, and 19th century antique furniture that claims Dutch or Danish origin, although indeed crafted in Europe, is most probably hardwood originally from the tropical Caribbean.
Jost Van Dyke was primarily an agricultural island through the 1800’s as the British and later the Quakers became prominent. During the very early 1900’s there was a lucrative trade in producing charcoal and exporting it to St Thomas and the Dominican Republic. This also contributes as one of several factors to the indisputable fact that most of these islands no longer carry their indigenous canopy or forest. Whereas, the trees and land that weren’t cleared in the 1600’s and 1700’s for planting crops, met it’s fate in the West Indian charcoal pits in the early to mid 1900’s. The reason that “land” is mentioned is because of the snowball effect that was created by deforesting and stripping the land of its indigenous flora and root system. When the land was worked using the slave labor, there was at least a root system in place for holding the topsoil; however, after the emancipation of slavery in 1834, other factors came into play. Upon emancipation, the slaves, whom worked the fields all day and had food provided for them, immediately were forced to become sustenance farmers and fisherman to survive once the plantation owners left. Being that the indigenous canopy, forest, and flora were gone; and the crops were no longer being planted and tendered, the seasonal rains that come upon us every year slowly eroded the topsoil.
Now, 172 years after slavery was emancipated, it s hard to find prolific topsoil in places where crops at one time flourished. In its stead, we now have a more drought resistant type of flora (sage, caccia, and cactus, for example) and smaller scrag brush and trees have become the dominant species. In many of these past agricultural areas the volcanic rock is exposed and predominant. Nonetheless, our tropical climate has maintained more than it’s fair share of fruit trees and ecologically diverse flora. In fact, biologists from all over the World visit these islands to categorize, survey, and research our diverse eco-system. As these are all interesting historical facts, it is but a brief sample of spending a few hours with one of our Eco-tour guides as they share ’Nature’s Little secrets’ with you on one of our trails or reefs.
As strange as it sounds, Jost Van Dyke was known through parts of the Caribbean in the early to mid 1900’s as a cattle exporting island. Tales of the older and recently bygone generation talk of the fact that everyone lived up in the hills. Almost every month or so, a large wooden schooner from St Maarten would sail into Great Harbour. When the people saw this, they would start the slow process of herding up there cattle and working them down to the bay. It would have been something to witness to see these Islanders getting these beasts tied down and loaded on the beach into large wooden row boats, approach the side of the large schooner, whereas they would winch them up the side of the ship using large blocks and tackle! Prices were not negotiated in money, gold or currency, because the people of Jost Van Dyke had more immediate needs. Tools, clothing, fishing hooks, dry food goods and the like, were what the people wanted… and the sailors were happy to give in their bartering way of doing business. Jost Van Dyke has come a long way in the last decade and now we have desalination plants, generators, cell phones, appliances, icemakers, luxury powerboats, fine houses, and many other ‘things’ of our modern civilized World. Nonetheless, the Caribbean charm is here as we do lead a simple life, barefoot and free. Jost Van Dyke still welcomes travelers looking for a remote, rustic retreat, first-rate hiking trails, and unlimited water sports opportunities.
Jost is located just 3 miles from Tortola, 5 from St John, and 9 from St Thomas. This island has a small population, but is visited by several hundred people a day, mostly from the charter sailboats anchored through our several harbours that help make the BVI the sailing capital of the world. Overnight accommodations are limited and therefore our restaurants depend mostly on the yachting aficionados. However, there are a limited number of first class rental properties/villas, beachside bungalow cabins, smaller hotel facilities and campsites available. Due to the fact that many of our sailing friends are just here for a day and night, once the locals find out that you are actually staying on Jost, you’ll be treated like a long lost relative!
Jost Van Dyke may be the most interesting island to talk to the locals, who are even more friendly and easy-going than other places in the BVI. In this decidedly offbeat but friendly community made up of West Indians and expatriates of many countries, you’ll never have to look for a new local to meet to find yourself in interesting conversations. We would truly love to have you stay with us on Jost and you will see, like so many before you, that you‘ll have many friends here after just one week! If this island sounds like the type of place that suites your needs, let us know. We will do everything possible to make your stay a truly memorable adventure. If you’re looking for a one of a kind tropical vacation experience, Jost Van Dyke is still frozen in time and waiting for you… 100% Pure Caribbean!
Little Jost Van Dyke is located just a few hundred feet East of JVD and was the birthplace of two notable gentlemen. Dr. John Lettsome’s 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 one of a seventh set of male twins and the only surviving pair. After an English medical education he returned to the British Virgin Islands in 1776 and became the Territory’s Chief Physician to about 12,000; however, this was not a long-lived position as his popularity decreased rapidly upon promptly freeing all his slaves to free his conscience and the cruel bondage of the displaced Africans. Later, after returning to England, he founded the London Medical Society and the Royal Humane Society in London.
Another colonist born on Little Jost Van Dyke to a Quaker family was William Thornton. Although he had no former architectural training, he won a worldwide competition to design the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and went on to design many other buildings in the U.S. He now has a floating pirate ship/bar named in his honor permanently anchored and ‘open‘ in Norman Island (better known as the Willy-T). His family also had a large Estate on Tortola.