John Everitt
Before the Wave
Building Tortola's "Patchwork Quilt"
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Background: The BVI in the mid-1950s

“a knot of little islands, wholly uninhabited, sandy, barren craggy.” Earl of Cumberland, 1596.

Four hundred years after the Earl of Cumberland sailed through what would become the British Virgin Islands (BVI), finding information on the BVI can still be challenging. Modern day technology does provide some help, of course (see Web Links on the Home Page), but historical data have not often been included, at least to any significant extent. (There is, however, a nice Wikipedia summary, along with some useful links, which seem to be accurate. ) Some useful documents do exist though, that give us some insights into the background of the country and one of these, British Virgin Islands 1957 and 1958 (BVI 1957-58)  gives an excellent snapshot of pre-recent conditions on these islands – although unfortunately it appears to have been a ”one-off” publication written after a specific survey of the Colony’s situation. Significantly, the data is all given in US dollar values, which currency was made the legal tender of the BVI in 1958. When compared to contemporary information, BVI 1957-58 shows quite clearly how far the BVI has come in the past 50 years. Much of the following discussion in based upon this publication, which sets the scene for a country about to enter the “take-off” stage of development models and the exploration stage of Richard Butler’s classic tourism model.


Population data can be very informative but are always subject to debate, and this is certainly true of the information available for the BVI in the 1950s. In the 1946 census there were 6,505 inhabitants recorded. Officially, in 1957 there was an estimated population of 7,760, but the fluid movement between the BVI and the USVI meant that only approximations were possible. “To record (population data) with any accuracy would impose a burden beyond the financial resources of the Colony” (BVI 1957-58: p.8). More definitive was the fact that only thirty of these were “white persons of European or American origin”. The balance was of “African extraction.” In 1946 Tortola (5,421) had, then as now, the bulk of the residents (Roadtown 1,500, East End/Long Look 1,800); there were 504 on Virgin Gorda, 274 on Anegada, 238 on Jost Van Dyke and 68 on “Other Islands”. Tortola now has some 20,000 inhabitants, Virgin Gorda about 3,500, Anegada 180, Jost Van Dyke 200, and the “Other Islands” have 86. It is clear from this where most of the change has taken place over the past six decades.

Fertility and mortality data, along with migration data, are used as ways of demonstrating population changes in a country. These are all influenced by biological, economic and cultural factors and thus give indications of  ‘development’. The 1957 Crude Birth Rate (CBR) in the BVI was 40.9 per 1000, which was fairly characteristic of the less developed world of the time, but today such numbers are only found in a few countries, primarily in Africa. Today the CBR is 14.6 in the BVI, 10.7 for the UK, and about 21 for the world as a whole.  A lowering of the CBR is usually seen as a positive sign, reflecting improvements in health care and economic circumstances.

The Crude Death Rate was 13.7 per 1000 in 1957: fairly high compared to Europe and North America, but a long way off the extremes. Today it is 4.4 for the BVI and 10.0 for the world (and for the UK). The drop in the death rate is also usually seen as a positive sign.  The Infant Mortality Rate (91.5 in 1957 and 136.9 in 1958), which is very sensitive to cultural and economic conditions, was quite high in 1957-58 (there had recently been a ”sharp increase” in the rate) and reflected the poor health services in this basically agricultural country. It is now14.65 in the BVI, 5.0 in the UK, with a world average of 54. Unsurprisingly, BVI 1957-58 called for improvements in the health field in a variety of ways.

As mentioned earlier the ‘wild card’ in BVI demography was migration. As the USVI was developing it had an increased demand for labour (in agriculture, tourism etc.) and much of this came from the BVI – which acted as a sort of safety valve for the USVI. When workers were needed they were allowed in; when not needed they were restricted or barred. Hundreds of people (mostly working-age males) moved from the BVI to the USVI weekly when jobs became available. At the end of 1958, some 900 BV Islanders were employed as contract labourers in the USVI. This was a phenomenal number for a country with such a small population. Its importance can be seen impacting a number of sectors of the economy.


The picture painted in BVI 1957-58 booklet is of a pre-industrial, marginal agricultural country (which was still a colony –The Colony of the Virgin Islands - of the UK at this time) with a limited economy that had limited opportunities – mostly for self-employed small-scale farmers and fishermen. There was little employment for wages although BVI 1957-58 clearly and importantly indicated that were signs of change. Waged employment was becoming more commonplace (in the BVI and for BV Islanders in the USVI), although wage rates were low: an unskilled labourer got a maximum of $2.50 for an 8-hour day in 1958. Housing improvements were rapidly taking place in the BVI, largely paid for by money remitted from abroad (where wages were higher). In particular this improvement in conditions was a result of economic development in the USVI, which called for labour inputs from the BVI. There was also an impact from development programmes in the BVI and the expansion of public services – still a major employer in the islands. To help offset the adverse trade balance of the Colony, between 40 and 50% of the total revenue of the Colony came from grants-in-aid from the UK, a sum, which the British government hoped, would be reduced by increasing economic development. Remittances from overseas workers (principally in the USVI) also added ‘invisible income’ to the Colony.

Despite the incipient changes, the major exports in the mid 1950s were still (ranked in value from 1-5) livestock, fish, vegetables, fresh fruits and charcoal. The dependence upon primary products in production and export was and is characteristic of a pre-industrial country. Economic geographers generally believe that a country is better off if it has secondary (manufacturing), tertiary (the moving, selling and trading of goods) or quaternary sectors characterizing its economy – with more ‘value added’ activities. The BVI had a “lack of factors which could support industrialization” and manufacturing was limited to little other than rum production. Fortunately, quaternary activities include tourism and finance and these proved to be important in the country’s future! In addition it was hard to run the economy in the 1950s. In 1958 there was a Government Savings Bank but no financial institution that offered current accounts or credit. Even the Government was forced to bank in St. Thomas or Puerto Rico!

The livestock produced in the 1950s, as well as most of the other exports, were principally (over 80%) bound for St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands where they got a better price than at home. Most of the balance – and particularly cattle - went to the “French West Indies” where BVI cattle were prized. Although generating income for the BVI, unfortunately this was a mixed blessing, and had a short-term negative effect on the BVI as foodstuffs were directed away from the home market. Even at this time, most of the imports (73% of total value) also came from Puerto Rico and the USVI. Less than 15% came from the UK. Although politically a British Colony, it was already clear that the BVI was within the ‘neocolonial’ realm of the USA and its dependent territories. As BVI 1957-58 put it (p. 4), “The Colony is within the economic orbit of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands of the United States.” It was also clear at this time that the UK saw this as a good thing as it reduced British responsibilities for its poor colonial territory.

Import duties were the biggest revenue-earning item for the BVI. But, significantly, in the mid-1950s, just over one third of the locally generated revenue of the colony came from the Post Office. This was not because the 7,760 residents in 1957 were avid letter writers, but because the postage stamps produced in the colony’s name were coveted by collectors. The first (British) Virgin Islands stamps were produced in London in 1866,  and for many years they were, for the most part, unremarkable. However, for the past forty-fifty years several series of thematic stamps have “stamped their presence in philately” and brought much needed income to the BVI including much of the US$54,430 income accrued by the Post Office in 1957. The estimates for 1958 indicated just $16,429 indicating the variable nature of this resource.

Tourism was being seen by Britain as a possible source of income for the BVI, despite the perceived danger of over-dependence upon this potential economic pillar that “is so controlled by fluctuating external influences”. The airport at Beef Island, begun in 1956, had just been constructed to accommodate small aircraft (originally by using an ‘angledozer’ borrowed from Puerto Rico, then buying their own in 1958) and daily motorboat service (using the new, Scottish-built, M.V. Youth of Tortola) was inaugurated with St. Thomas. A third hotel was projected in Roadtown to add to the Fort Burt Hotel and Treasure Isle (opened in 1958). But infrastructure was still far too unsophisticated for tourism to develop on a large scale. In 1958 the Colony floated its first loan, to provide 24-hour electricity to Road Town and the surrounding area.

Other Characteristics of the mid-century BVI

  • Agriculture had always been marginal and in 1958 was in decline. The BVI had never been a major producer of agricultural products and subsistence crops were characteristic throughout he islands. Even the plantation economy had been a poor relation to many other parts of the Caribbean due to the poor quality of the soils, the scattered nature of the islands, and the paucity of flat land. But the increase in alternative employment opportunities both at home and abroad, coupled with new sources of “mass-produced, fresh and processed American foods” and drought conditions in 1957 led to increased challenges in this economic sector.  BVI 1957-58 listed five major crop groupings. First, sugar cane, which was only being grown for the rum industry (there were then many more distilleries than today). Second, limes, which gave exports of $383! during 1958 (my emphasis). Third, coconuts for both export and home consumption. Fourth, bananas, which had been dropping in significance for some time. Fifth, food crops including ground provisions and vegetables with “fair quantities” being exported in 1958.
  • Crop production mostly involved “shifting cultivation” with hand tools. Farms were “peasant-owned” and operated on a family basis. Two Ferguson tractors had recently been purchased by the government to hire out to farmers, but had “not materially affected” agriculture in any way.
  • Livestock production was more successful, as discussed earlier, and pasture management programmes had been successfully introduced.
  • Fishing was mostly coastal and small scale - although fish was “the chief source of protein in the diet of the local population”. Plans were being proposed for developing the industry.
  • Manufacturing was limited to rum production, concrete block manufacture, straw and basketry production, and the making of “aerated drinks”.
  • Educational services were, not surprisingly, at a fairly low level. Students often had to travel long distances and stay overnight when going to school. Resources were few, as were qualified teachers. At the end of 1958 the Secondary School Principal was the only graduate in the teaching staff. But BVI 1957-58 reported that the Colony was becoming “really concerned about the system of education”.
  • Public Health was a problem with malnutrition and poor sanitation being important issues. Qualified staffing was limited. Although there was a “Cottage Hospital” (Peebles) in Roadtown, most places only had occasional clinics. The outer islands, for instance, only had monthly clinics.
  • Housing was improving with an increasing percentage made of concrete blocks.
  • There was a limited police force, but of course, less crime – in 1957 there were 29 convictions, (24 imprisonments) and in 1958, 26 convictions (11 imprisonments). At the end of 1958 the force comprised one inspector, two corporals and three constables. There were also 27 unpaid ‘local constables’ have different duties and responsibilities.  The Main Street prison could hold five male and three female prisoners.
  • There 12 miles of “motorable road” connecting Road Town with East End/Long Look and Sea Cows Bay” in 1958. These roads were not artificially surfaced, but some of the steepest hills were concreted. Work was in progress to extend the road to West End. There were also 60 miles of “unsurfaced earth roads” throughout the BVI, suitable for “land rover and jeep”. But foot, horse, mule or donkey was still the most common form of overland transport. In a moment of understatement, the author of  BVI 1957-58  noted that “inaccessibility is one of the Colony’s major problems”.
  • There were no newspapers in the Colony. But the Tortola Times was supposedly about to begin publication. There was no radio or TV station.
  • A recent survey showed that the Colony had an area of 59 square miles, not the 67 square miles previously thought. Washington D.C. is 61.4 square miles. Greater London is 659 square miles.
  • In another moment of understatement, the author of  BVI 1957-58 noted that “the Colony’s communications … cannot be said to be adequate”.
  • The shooting of a film, “Virgin Island” in 1957 was a major event, both in itself and because of its stimulus effect upon the economy, increasing air traffic and putting money into circulation. It was based upon Robb White’s Book “Our Virgin Island”.

Sailing the Virgin Islands in mid-Century

A second useful source on the pre-global BVI, in part because of its contemporaneity with the UK government data, is a book written by George T. Eggleston entitled Virgin Islands (Princeton, NJ: D Van Nostrand and Co. 1959) that resulted from a “month’s cruising in the Virgins” (both USVI and BVI) in late 1958. The book is written, of course, from the sailor’s point of view, and thus says little about the cultural landscapes of the islands visited. It does give a good picture of how people used to use, and misuse, the waters round the islands. But some useful, if unsurprising, observations can be gleaned from the chapters in it on the BVI:

  • Norman Island (Chapter III) was deserted.
  • There was no “Willy T” and no “Pirates Bight” bar and restaurant.
  • The “eerie” caves at Treasure Point were, of course, there, and stories of treasure discoveries in the past are recounted. But there were no mooring buoys or other tourism embellishments.
  • The book has numerous references to anchoring and the damage caused to coral by this process.
  • Peter Island (Chapter IV) “denuded of its timber sometime in the distant past” had “a single householder”, Sir Brundel Bruce (sic) and his family, who was reputedly “quite a character”.
  • It looked “uninviting and uninhabitable”, a judgment which might dismay the many people who now pay hundreds of dollars to overnight on it.
  • Dead Chest (Chapter IV) where Edward Teach marooned his fifteen men with “one bottle of rum and a cutlass” was then as now, a ‘small and very ordinary rock” with a “fair anchorage off its northwest tip”.
  • Salt Island (Chapter IV) had what appeared to be a “picturesque” settlement from afar. However, upon close inspection it was judged to be “very impoverished-looking”.
  • One inhabitant said that two thousand bags of salt worth $2.00 each were shipped out each year. The salt was gathered from three salt ponds.
  • The wreck of the Rhône was a topic of conversation but was not then a tourist site.
  • Tortola (Chapter V).
  • Government House was set in a “lush garden” with a “prominent water catchment area” above it. This concrete catchment has sine been removed. Fort Burt Hotel (operated “by the Hammersleys”) was in operation with The Tortola Boatyard below it.
  • Eggleston reported a new full time electricity plant, a motion picture theatre (“The Tortola Theater”), a newspaper (“The Tortola Times”) that was about to make its debut, and a bank that was about to be opened (The Tortola Trust Co.”). There were the first signs of a commercial revival (said Eggleston) since a hurricane “laid the waterfront low” in 1924. All three of the new commercial enterprises were owned by an American, Norman Fowler.
  • There was a horseracing track (as is still the case today) at Sea Cows Bay.
  • There was a weekly market near the town dock. Farming and cattle production were dominant “in the mountains”.
  • There were only a few miles of road to the east and west of town.
  • There were “only a few whites on Tortola and about six thousand negroes” (sic).
  • Road Town was a “dilapidated little town”.
  • There were Methodist and Anglican churches but no Roman Catholic Churches. From Eggleston’s description the Anglicans were more “urban” and the Methodists dominated the rural areas.
  • Eggleston reports that there were once about one hundred and thirty sugar estates on the island (of Tortola) owned by ”one thousand whites and worked by seven thousand slaves”.
  • Beef Island (Chapter VI)
  • Bellamy Cay had a small hotel on it (the Trellis Bay Club)
  • Trellis Bay had the only marine railway between Martinique and Puerto Rico capable of hauling vessels drawing over six feet. The one at Tortola Boatyard could only haul vessels of up to six feet.
  • Club and boatyard were run by Americans (Ed Karkow and Dick Newick). They were building four rental cottages on the shore. These buildings are, I believe, still there.
  • The former owner-manager was Wladyslau Wagner who was then in the US and had leased the operation to Ed Karkow for two years. His cottage was on what Eggleston called Buccaneer Point that on my map is called Sprat Point.
  • Bulldozers were working on the Beef Island airstrip.
  • Guana Island (Chapter VII)
  • Guana was owned by Americans, Louis and Beth Bigelow, since the 1930s (until the 1970s). It is now owned by Henry and Gloria Jarecki.
  • There was a cluster of cottages on the hill in White Bay –built for the Bigelows’ friends to stay in. (Now upgraded into a luxury resort.)
  • For more information see: and see  for information on the current Guana Island resort.
  • Marina Cay (Chapter VIII). The “Robb White” house was still there, being leased by Americans, Bob and Nancy Scanlon.
  • Virgin Gorda (Chapter IX)
  • Virgin Gorda had little “modern” development in 1958. “The Baths are so inaccessible that only an occasional yachting party visits them.”
  • Little Dix Bay was mooted as the site of a Rockefeller Hotel. It opened in 1964.
  • No tourist facilities were reported at Biras Creek, Mosquito Island, and Saba Rock. Bert Kilbride did not arrive (and buy the latter two islands) until 1964. They found, unlike Sir Richard Branson, “nothing inviting about Necker” Island. Eggleston says that Branson bought its 72 acres for $180,000 in 1979 from Lord Cobham.
  • There was a fishing/farming village at Gun Creek (along with a Methodist Church), but no roads in the area. Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins planned their attack on San Juan, in this area, in November 1595. Both Drake and Hawkins died of sickness during this expedition.
  • People communicated ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore by radiotelephone.
  • Anegada Island (Chapter X)
  • Anegada looked “bleak and uninviting”.
  • Norman Fowler (see Tortola Chapter) had tried to promote a shark hides/meat cooperative on Anegada. It had failed.
  • Eggleston tells a tale of a yacht being freed from the Horse Shoe Reef by dynamiting the reef to open a passage.
  • Little Thatch (Chapter XI)
  • American Burwell “Bob” Fox bought the island from seven (local) brothers.
  • There was a beach bar under construction and Fox was planning to build four rental bungalows.
  • Jost Van Dyke (Chapter XII)
  • Most of its “two hundred natives” were engaged “in fishing or raising a few cattle”.
  • “ Princess Alexandrine Sewer” of  “Great Bay (sic)”, owned most of the cattle on Jost Van Dyke, and also owned Little Tobago Island.
  • The Methodist Church was reputedly built on the foundations of an old “Great House”.


Profiles of People in the British Virgin Islands

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