British Virgin Islands #435 (1982)

British Virgin Islands - Scott #435 (1982)
British Virgin Islands – Scott #435 (1982)

The British Virgin Islands (BVI), officially simply “Virgin Islands”, are a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, to the east of Puerto Rico. The islands are geographically part of the Virgin Islands archipelago and are located in the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles. The territory consists of the main islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Jost Van Dyke, along with over 50 other smaller islands and cays. About 15 of the islands are inhabited. The capital, Road Town, is on Tortola, the largest island, which is about 12 miles (20 kilometers) long and 3 miles (5 km) wide. The islands had a population of about 28,000 at the 2010 Census, of whom approximately 23,500 lived on Tortola. For the islands, the latest United Nations estimate (2016) is 30,661.

British Virgin Islanders are British Overseas Territories citizens and since 2002 are British citizens as well. Although the territory is not part of the European Union and not directly subject to EU law, British Virgin Islanders are deemed to be citizens of the EU by virtue of their British citizenship.

The official name of the territory is still simply the Virgin Islands, but the prefix “British” is often used. This is commonly believed to distinguish it from the neighboring American territory which changed its name from the Danish West Indies to “Virgin Islands of the United States” in 1917. However, local historians have disputed this, pointing to a variety of publications and public records dating from between February 21, 1857, and September 12, 1919, where the territory is referred to as the British Virgin Islands. British Virgin Islands government publications continue to begin with the name “The territory of the Virgin Islands”, and the territory’s passports simply refer to the “Virgin Islands”, and all laws begin with the words “Virgin Islands”. Moreover, the territory’s Constitutional Commission has expressed the view that “every effort should be made” to encourage the use of the name “Virgin Islands”. But various public and quasi-public bodies continue to use the name “British Virgin Islands” or “BVI”, including BVI Finance, BVI Electricity Corporation, BVI Tourist Board, BVI Athletic Association, BVI Bar Association and others.

In 1968, the British Government issued a memorandum requiring that the postage stamps in the territory should say “British Virgin Islands” (whereas previously they had simply stated “Virgin Islands”), a practice which is still followed today. This was likely to prevent confusion following on from the adoption of U.S. currency in the Territory in 1959, and the references to U.S. currency on the stamps of the Territory.

The Virgin Islands were first settled by the Arawak from South America around 100 BC (though there is some evidence of Amerindian presence on the islands as far back as 1500 BC). The Arawaks inhabited the islands until the 15th century when they were displaced by the more aggressive Caribs, a tribe from the Lesser Antilles islands, after whom the Caribbean Sea is named.

The first European sighting of the Virgin Islands was by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the Americas. Columbus gave them the fanciful name Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes (Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins), shortened to Las Vírgenes (The Virgins), after the legend of Saint Ursula.

The Spanish claimed the islands by original discovery, but never settled the Territory. In 1508, Juan Ponce de León settled Puerto Rico, and reports in Spanish journals suggested that the settlement used the Virgin Islands for fishing, but nothing else. In 1517, Sebastian Cabot and Thomas Spert visited the islands on their return from exploring Brazilian waters. Sir John Hawkins visited the islands three times, firstly in 1542 and then again in 1563 with a cargo of slaves bound for Hispaniola. On his third visit, he was accompanied by a young captain by the name of Francis Drake in the Judith.

Drake returned in 1585, and is reported to have anchored in North Sound on Virgin Gorda prior to his tactically brilliant attack on Santo Domingo. Drake returned for the final time in 1595 on his last voyage, during which he died. The main channel in the British Virgin Islands was named in his honor.

St Phillip's Church, Kingston, Tortola, British Virgin Island, one of the most important historical ruins in the territory.. Photograph taken by Colin Riegels, August 8, 2006.

St Phillip’s Church, Kingston, Tortola, British Virgin Island, one of the most important historical ruins in the territory.. Photograph taken by Colin Riegels, August 8, 2006.

In 1598, George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, is reported to have used the islands as a staging ground for his later attack on La Fortaleza in Puerto Rico, during conflicts between England and Spain.

English (and Scottish) King James I granted a patent to James Hay, 1st Earl of Carlisle, for Tortola, as well as “Angilla, Semrera (Sombrero island) & Enegada”. Carlisle also received letters of patent for Barbados, St. Kitts and “all the Caribees” in 1627 (the “Carlisle proprietorship”). He died shortly after, but his son, the 2nd Earl of Carlisle, leased the patents to Lord Willoughby for 21 years in 1647. Neither ever attempted to settle the northern islands.

Dutch privateer Joost van Dyk organized the first permanent settlements in the Territory in Soper’s Hole, on the west end of Tortola. By 1615, van Dyk’s settlement was recorded in Spanish contemporary records, which noted its recent expansion. He traded with Spanish colonists in Puerto Rico and farmed cotton and tobacco.

Some sources suggest that the first settlements in the Virgin Islands were by the Spanish, who mined copper at the copper mine on Virgin Gorda. No archaeological evidence supports any settlement by the Spanish in the islands at any time, nor any mining of copper on Virgin Gorda prior to the 19th century.

By 1625, van Dyk was recognized by the Dutch West India Company as the private “Patron” of Tortola, and had moved his operations to Road Town. During the same year, van Dyk lent some limited (non-military) support to the Dutch admiral Boudewijn Hendricksz, who sacked San Juan, Puerto Rico. In September 1625, in retaliation, the Spanish led a full assault on the island of Tortola, laying waste to its defenses and destroying its embryonic settlements. Joost van Dyk escaped to the island that would later bear his name, and sheltered there from the Spanish. He later moved to the island of St. Thomas until the Spanish gave up and returned to Puerto Rico.

Notwithstanding Spanish hostility, the Dutch West India Company considered the Virgin Islands to have an important strategic value, as they were located approximately halfway between the Dutch colonies in South America (now Suriname) and the most important Dutch settlement in North America, New Amsterdam (now New York City). The Dutch built large stone warehouses at Freebottom, near Port Purcell (just east of Road Town), to facilitate exchanges of cargo between North and South America.

Part of the remains of Fort Charlotte, Tortola,, built on an earlier lookout post erected by the Dutch. Photo taken on December 30, 2006.
Part of the remains of Fort Charlotte, Tortola,, built on an earlier lookout post erected by the Dutch. Photo taken on December 30, 2006.

At this time, the Dutch settlers erected some small earthworks and a three-cannon fort above the warehouse, on the hill. This was the site where the English later built Fort George. The Dutch also constructed a wooden stockade for a lookout post above Road Town. This site was later developed as Fort Charlotte. They stationed troops at the Spanish “dojon” near Pockwood Pond, later to be known as Fort Purcell. In the 21st century, it is usually called “the Dungeon”.

In 1631, the Dutch West India Company expressed an interest in the rumors of copper on Virgin Gorda, and a settlement was set up on that island, which came to be known as “Little Dyk’s” (now known as Little Dix).

In 1640, Spain attacked Tortola in an assault led by Captain Lopez. The Spanish attacked again in 1646 and 1647, led by Captain Francisco Vincente Duran. The Spanish anchored a warship in Soper’s Hole at West End and landed men ashore. They sent another warship to blockade Road Harbour. After a team of scouts returned a safe report, the Spanish landed more men and attacked Fort Purcell overland by foot. They massacred the Dutch, and next attacked Road Town, killing all inhabitants and destroying the settlement. They did not bother with the smaller settlements further up the coast in Baugher’s Bay or on Virgin Gorda.

The Dutch settlements did not return a profit. Evidence suggests that the Dutch spent most of their time more profitably engaged in privateering than trading. The lack of prosperity of the territory mirrored the lack of commercial success of first the Dutch West India Company as a whole.

The company changed its policy. It sought to cede islands such as Tortola and Virgin Gorda to private persons for settlement, and to establish major slave pens to support the slave trade in the Caribbean, as they were importing slaves from Africa. The island of Tortola was sold to Willem Hunthum at some point in the 1650s, at which time the Dutch West India Company’s interest in the Territory effectively ended.[citation needed]

In 1665, the Dutch settlers on Tortola were attacked by a British privateer, John Wentworth; he captured 67 slaves and took them to Bermuda.[citation needed] The record of his prize is the first documentation of slaves being held in the Territory.

In 1666, a number of the Dutch settlers were reported to have been driven out by an influx of British “brigands and pirates”, although numerous Dutch remained.

Road Town, Tortola. Photo taken on January 17, 2006.
Road Town, Tortola. Photo taken on January 17, 2006.

In 1672, the English captured Tortola from the Dutch, and the English annexation of Anegada and Virgin Gorda followed in 1680. Meanwhile, over the period 1672–1733, the Danish gained control of the nearby islands of Saint Thomas, Saint John and Saint Croix. The British islands were considered principally a strategic possession, but were planted when economic conditions were particularly favorable. The British introduced sugar cane which was to become the main crop and source of foreign trade, and slaves were brought from Africa to work on the sugar cane plantations.

St. Thomas became a base for pirates and privateers which the Danish Governor either could not or would not stop. During the War of the Spanish Succession the Danes supported the French colonies, and allowed the French to sell British ships seized as prizes in Charlotte Amalie. No doubt the British invasions in the early 19th century did not help relations, and in later years smuggling and illegal sales of slaves by St. Thomians would frustrate British authorities.

It was not until 1773 that the Virgin Islands actually had its own legislature. However, early attempts to establish a legislature and organs of government in the Territory are mostly notable for their repeated failures. The uncertainty of tenure and slightly ambivalent official British attitude to the fate of the Territory influenced the early population — for many years only debtors from other islands, pirates and those fleeing the law were prepared to undertake the risk of settling in the Virgin Islands. Most references to the islands from occasional visitors comment on the lack of law and order and the lack of religiosity of the inhabitants.

The Territory was granted a Legislative Assembly on January 27, 1774. It took a full further decade for a constitutional framework to be settled. Part of the problem was that the islands were so thinly populated, it was almost impossible to constitute the organs of government. In 1778, George Suckling arrived in the Territory to take up his position as Chief Justice of the Territory. In the event, a court was not actually established until the Court Bill was passed in 1783, but even then the vested interests ensured that Suckling could still not take up his position, and the islands had a court but no judge. Suckling finally left the islands without ever taking up his post (or ever being paid) on May 2, 1788, impoverished and embittered, due to the machinations of local interests which were fearful of the recourse of their creditors if a court was to be established. Suckling was forthright in expressing his views on the state of law and order in the Territory — he described the residents of Tortola as “in a state of lawless ferment. Life, liberty, and property were hourly exposed to the insults and depredations of the riotous and lawless. The authority of His Majesty’s Council, as conservators of the peace, was defied and ridiculed… The island presented a shocking state of anarchy; miserable indeed, and disgraceful to government, not to be equaled in any other of His Majesty’s dominions, or perhaps in any civilized country in the world.”

Trunk Bay on St. John, claimed by the British but never settled. They effectively abandoned their claim to the island in 1718.
Trunk Bay on St. John, claimed by the British but never settled. They effectively abandoned their claim to the island in 1718.

Between 1760 and 1800, the British significantly upgraded the defenses of the Territory. Usually building upon earlier Dutch fortifications, new structures armed with cannons were erected at Fort Charlotte, Fort George, Fort Burt, Fort Recovery, and a new fort that was built in the center of Road Town which came to be known as the Road Town Fort. As was common at the time, plantation owners were expected to fortify their own holdings, and Fort Purcell and Fort Hodge were erected on this basis.

Britain would actually conquer St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix in March 1801 through the Napoleonic wars, but they restored them by the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802. They were then re-taken in December 1807, but were restored again by the Treaty of Paris of 1815. Thereafter, they would remain under Danish control until 1917 when they were sold to the United Stats for U.S. $25 million, and were later renamed the U.S. Virgin Islands.

An often held view is that the economy of the British Virgin Islands deteriorated considerably after the abolition of slavery on August 1, 1834. Whilst this is, strictly speaking, true, it also disguises the fact that the decline had several different causes. In 1834, the Territory was an agricultural economy with two main crops: sugarcane and cotton. Of the two, sugar was the considerably more lucrative export.

Shortly after the abolition of slavery, the Territory was rocked by a series of hurricanes. At the time, there was no accurate method of forecasting hurricanes, and their effect was devastating. A particularly devastating hurricane struck in 1837, which was reported to have completed destroyed 17 of the Territory’s sugar works. Further hurricanes hit in 1842 and 1852. Two more struck in 1867 and 1871. The island also suffered severe drought between 1837 and 1847, which made sugar plantations almost impossible to sustain.

An abandoned and ruined sugar mill in Brewer's Bay, Tortola. Photo by Colin Riegels, August 20, 2006.
An abandoned and ruined sugar mill in Brewer’s Bay, Tortola. Photo by Colin Riegels, August 20, 2006.

In December 1853, there was a disastrous outbreak of cholera in the Territory, which killed nearly 15% of the population. This was followed by an outbreak of smallpox in Tortola and Jost Van Dyke in 1861 which caused a further 33 deaths.

However, in 1901 the Legislative Council was finally formally dissolved, and the islands were then officially administered through the Governor of the Leeward Islands, who appointed a commissioner and an executive council. The Territory was not remotely economically prosperous, and social services had deteriorated to vanishing point. Emigration was extremely high, particularly to St. Thomas and to the Dominican Republic. Both concern and assistance from Britain was in very short supply, not least because of the two World Wars which were fought during this period.

In 1949, another unlikely hero emerged. Theodolph H Faulkner was a fisherman from Anegada, who came to Tortola with his pregnant wife. He had a disagreement with the medical officer, and he went straight to the marketplace and for several nights criticized the government with mounting passion. His oratory struck a chord, and a movement started. Led by community leaders such as Isaac Fonseca and Carlton de Castro, on November 24, 1949, a throng of over 1,500 British Virgin Islanders marched on the Commissioner’s office and presented their grievances.

As a result of the demonstrations the previous year, the Legislative Council was reinstituted by the British Government in 1950 under a new constitution. The reformation of the Legislative Council is often left as a footnote in the Territory’s history — a mere part of the process that led to the more fundamental constitutional government in 1967. The 1950 constitution was in fact always envisaged as a temporary measure; it was famously described by McWelling Todman QC as “an instrument minimal in its intent and its effect”.

The Legislative Council building in Road Town, erected about sixty yards from the market where Faulker roused the crowds. Photo taken on February 9, 2007.
The Legislative Council building in Road Town, erected about sixty yards from the market where Faulker roused the crowds. Photo taken on February 9, 2007.

Having been denied any form of democratic control for nearly 50 years, the new Council did not sit idly by. In 1951 external capital was brought in to assist farmers from the Colonial Welfare and Development office. In 1953, the Hotel Aid Act was enacted to boost the nascent tourism industry. Up until 1958, the Territory had only 12 miles of motorable roads; over the next 12 years the road system was vastly improved, linking West End to the East End of Tortola, and joining Tortola to Beef Island by a new bridge. The Beef Island airport (now renamed after Terrance B. Lettsome) was built shortly thereafter.

External events also played a factor. In 1956, the Leeward Islands Federation was abolished. Defederation enhanced the political status of the British Virgin Islands. Jealous of its newly acquired powers, the Council declined to join the new Federation of the West Indies in 1958, a move that would later be crucial in the development of the offshore finance industry.

In 1967, the new constitution with a much greater transfer of powers was brought into effect by order in council, and introduced true Ministerial Government to the British Virgin Islands. Elections followed in 1967, and a comparatively young Lavity Stoutt was elected as the first Chief Minister of the Territory.

The fortunes of the Territory dramatically improved in the late twentieth century with the advent of the offshore financial services industry. Former president of the BVI’s Financial Services Commission, Michael Riegels, recites the anecdote that the industry commenced on an unknown date in the 1970s when a lawyer from a firm in New York telephoned him with a proposal to incorporate a company in the British Virgin Islands to take advantage of a double taxation relief treaty with the United States. Within the space of a few years, hundreds of such companies had been incorporated.

This eventually came to the attention of the United States government, who unilaterally revoked the Treaty in 1981.

Tortola harbor, British Virgin Islands.
Tortola harbor, British Virgin Islands.

In 1984 the British Virgin Islands, trying to recapture some of the lost offshore business, enacted a new form of companies legislation, the International Business Companies Act, under which an offshore company which was exempt from local taxes could be formed. The development was only a limited success until 1991, when the United States invaded Panama to oust General Manuel Noriega. At the time Panama was one of the largest providers of offshore financial services in the world, but the business fled subsequent the invasion, and the British Virgin Islands was one of the main beneficiaries.

In 2000, KPMG were commissioned by the British Government to produce a report on the offshore financial industry generally, and the report indicated that nearly 41% of the offshore companies in the world were formed in the British Virgin Islands. The British Virgin Islands is now one of the world’s leading offshore financial centers, and boasts one of the highest incomes per capita in the Caribbean.

Hurricanes occasionally hit the islands, with the hurricane season running from June to November. Hurricane Danny (2015) was the most recent until September 7, 2017, when Hurricane Irma caused extensive damage, particularly on Tortola, as well as ten deaths in the BVI. A state of emergency was declared by the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. The most significant damage was on Tortola. The UK’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited Tortola on September 13 and said that he was reminded of photos of Hiroshima after it had been hit by the atom bomb.

By September 8, the UK government had sent troops with medical supplies and other aid. More troops were expected to arrive a day or two later, but the ship HMS Ocean, carrying more extensive assistance, was not expected to reach the islands for another two weeks.

Entrepreneur Richard Branson, a resident of Necker Island in the Territory, called on the UK government to develop a massive disaster recovery plan for British islands that were damaged. That should include “both through short-term aid and long-term infrastructure spending”, he said. Premier Orlando Smith also called for a comprehensive aid package to rebuild the BVI. On September 10, PM Theresa May pledged £32 million to the Caribbean for a Hurricane relief fund; the UK government would also match donations made by the public via the British Red Cross appeal. Specifics were not provided to the news media as to the amount that would be allocated to the Virgin Islands. Boris Johnson’s visit to Tortola on September 13 during his Caribbean tour was intended to confirm the UK’s commitment to helping restore British islands but he provided no additional comments on the aid package. He did confirm that HMS Ocean (L12) was on the way to the BVI items like timber, buckets, bottled water, food, baby milk, bedding and clothing, as well as ten pickup trucks, building materials and hardware.

Damage at Tortola's airport following Hurricane Irma in September 2017.
Damage at Tortola’s airport following Hurricane Irma in September 2017.

During the early 1800s Tortola became a key port for the postal network in the Caribbean. In fact, Road Town, the main port of the Virgin Islands, was the last stop on the return leg of the Leeward Islands Packet as well as a very important transfer point for mail boats connecting British islands in the Lesser Antilles. This pre-eminence deteriorated during the next 20 years and in 1823 control of the packet service was transferred to the Admiralty, and as contracts expired the packets were replaced with naval brigs. This change had been discussed for a number of years and the immediate effect on the existing schedules and routes was minimal and did not affect the Virgin Islands.

By the mid-1830s, the West Indies were still served twice a month by sailing packets, the round trip being almost three months in length. Barbados remained the first port for the packets; and St. Thomas was their last port before they sailed homeward. In St. Thomas, they awaited the mail boats from the Leeward Islands. As a result of progress, in 1835 steamers began taking over the mail boat service in the West Indies and a regular steamer service began in 1842, when the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company started a twice-monthly service from Britain between Falmouth and the West Indies. From its very inception the service of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company included a route from St. Thomas to Demerara (via the Leeward Islands and Barbados) and vice versa. Indeed, Tortola was the first stop on the southward leg and the penultimate on the return voyage. The round trip took fourteen days. When a new contract was signed in 1850 the new routes did not include Tortola and the reasons for this decision included the collapse of the local economy following the 1834 emancipation from slavery and the lower volume of mail. The correspondence for Tortola was now transferred at St. Thomas. This is confirmed by the company’s March 1860 schedule which states that the mails for Tortola are to be delivered to the company’s superintendent at St. Thomas, who will be held responsible for their immediate transmission and for the due embarkation of the return mails.

The first stamps denominated 1 penny, green, and 6 pence rose, were issued in December 1866 and early 1867 featuring a depiction of Saint Ursula who, according to legend, had 11,000 virginal handmaidens, after whom the islands had been named. Actually, the Virgin depicted on the early stamps is neither St. Ursula or a Madonna. The model given to the engraver was the impression of the seal of the local court of justice featuring the goddess of justice holding the scales in one hand, whence the re-elaboration of St. Ursula and the 11 oil lamps symbolizing 1,000 virgins each. From 1867 to 1889, the colony issued a number of St. Ursula stamps with various vignettes, several showing her holding a bunch of lilies. The rarest British Virgin Islands’ stamp is among these St. Ursula issues, but one where St. Ursula is missing. It is a variety of the 1867 1-shilling stamp with a rose background (Scott #8c) and is known as “the missing virgin”.

The Old Post Office on Main Street in Road Town, Tortola. Photo taken on August 10, 2006, by Colin Riegels.
The Old Post Office on Main Street in Road Town, Tortola. Photo taken on August 10, 2006, by Colin Riegels.

In 1871, the Virgin Islands and five other Lesser Antilles presidencies formed the newly established Federal Crown Colony of the Leeward Islands, which began issuing its own stamps in October 1890. Leeward Islands stamps were meant to replace local issues but for practical considerations were used concurrently with the Virgin Islands stamps. In January 1899, the Virgin Islands resumed issuing their own stamps. Between 1903 and 1956, Virgin Islands and Leeward Islands stamps were used concurrently.

Following a colony-wide demonstration in 1949, the following year the restoration of a partially elective legislative council was accorded by the United Kingdom. The restoration became effective on April 2, 1951, concurrently with a new set of four recess printed stamps to mark the occasion (Scott #98-101). They featured a map of the colony and a cameo portrait of the monarch based on a postwar photograph by Dorothy Wilding who, later, achieved philatelic fame for her contribution to the design of early British definitive and commemorative stamps of the 1950s and 1960s. Printed by Waterlow & Sons, the legislative council restoration set marks a return to the usual monochrome style. The second and last definitive of the reign of King George VI was issued April 15, 1952, after the king’s death (Scott #102-113). Featuring the Wilding portrait, this definitive series of 12 values was recess-printed by De La Rue & Co. on thin toned white paper. The 1-cent, 2-cent, 4-cent, 8-cent, 12-cent, and 24-cent denominations are monochrome, while the others are bicolored.

The one-cent denomination of this set features the lighthouse on Sombrero, a rock nicknamed “Spanish Hat” by generations of sailors. At the time the tiny island was included in the Virgin Islands colony, but in 1956 with the dissolution of the Federation of the Leeward Islands its control passed to St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla.

The word BRITISH was used for the first time in 1951 on Virgin Islands postage stamps issued to salute the restoration of the constitution and legislative council. The subsequent issues feature the traditional VIRGIN ISLANDS inscription. Later on, as a result of a Foreign & Commonwealth Office memorandum, beginning in 1968 and with only two exceptions (1968, Martin Luther King; and 1976, United States Virgin Islands and BVI Friendship Day, stamps) all Virgin Islands issues bear the legend BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS.

In 1951 a new decimal currency ($1 British West Indies = 100 cents) was introduced while stamps with British currency (1 penny = 2 cents) were still in use. This situation generated conversion problems since the U.S. dollar was actually used for payments. Virgin Islanders regarded the British currency as “problematic”, and had a strong dislike for the “Beewee” dollar. Given these circumstances postal clerks had to convert every transaction from pound sterling, to BWI dollars, and finally to U.S. dollars (BWI$1.20 was the equivalent of 5 shillings — 60 pence — or 70 cents U.S. which also translated two BWI cents into one penny). The post office had to perforce divide by 12 and multiply by 7 for each transaction. To compound the problem, many of the postal rates did not precisely convert to U.S. cents. Commercial covers (and even philatelically inspired covers) with the postal rate paid by a combination of stamps in the old UK currency and the new Beewee cents are rather scarce.

The “Beewee” headache came to an end on December 10, 1962, when the Queen Elizabeth II definitive series was re-issued with overprints giving new denominations in U.S. currency. Three years earlier, in 1959, the U.S. dollar had become the legal tender in the Virgin Islands, but by that time stamps in British currency had long been obsolete. Since 1917, when the United States purchased the former Danish West Indies (St. Thomas, St. John and St Croix — known as the U.S. Virgin Islands), the U.S. dollar enjoyed great popularity in the BVI and in due course became the de facto currency. Fifty years later, in 1967, the local legislature passed a bill making the U.S. dollar the only legal tender.

Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander planes with registration numbers VP-LVB and VP-LPD of Air BVI at Beer Island, British Virgin Islands.
Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander planes with registration numbers VP-LVB and VP-LPD of Air BVI at Beef Island, British Virgin Islands.

On September 10, 1982, the British Virgin Islands postal authorities issued a set of four stamps to mark the 10th anniversary of the national airline at the time, Air BVI (Scott #434-437). The history of civil aviation in the Territory was less than thirty years old at the time the stamps were released. Perforated 14 on watermarked paper, the 10-cent value features a Douglas DC-3 and a Britten-Norman Islander appears on the 15-cent stamp while the 60-cent denomination pictures a Hawker-Siddeley HS748. All three types are seen on the ground (presumably at the Beef Island Airport) on the 75-cent high value.

When Charles Lindberg surveyed the Caribbean for Pan American Airlines in 1928, he passed by the British Virgin Islands. “Natures Little Secret” remained a secret. It wasn’t until the late 1940’s that the first daring pilot arrived in a Seabee Amphibian which he landed on the water at Anegada where he picked up lobsters to take back to St. Thomas.

In 1954, a small strip was cleared on western Anegada where once a week a small two-seater Luscombe airplane picked up about 100 pounds of lobster which were sold in St. Thomas. At that time there wasn’t a wheeled vehicle on the island, not a car, not a bicycle, not even a wheelbarrow. To fill in holes on the make shift runway a “Spanish wheelbarrow” was used. This local concoction consisted of a wooden box with handles at each end so two men could carry it.

The same year, Bill Bailey from St. Thomas acquired Buck Island, a small island a short distance off Tortola’s southern shore. At low tide he had a bulldozer cross the shallow waters to the island to clear a home site. At the time the stony beach on the east side was cleared for makeshift runway that was only 11 feet wide. After landing, the pilot had to get out and lift the tail of the plane over the rock pile so that he could taxi back for takeoff.

During this time the Hon. J.A.C. Cruikshank who was the British Virgin Islands’ Commissioner proceed that the Agriculture Station, north of Road Town (where the J.R. O’Neal Botanical Garden is today), could make a possible landing site. Interested in more substantial site, pilot, Jack Monsanto said he could land at the Agriculture Station as an acrobatic feat but preferred Beef Island as a location and inquired about the possibility of clearing an airstrip there.

Airport Terminal at Beef Island, BVI.
Airport Terminal at Beef Island, BVI.

With the help of Vladslav Wagner who was operating a boat ramp at Trellis Bay, Beef Island the idea came to pass. Wagner agreed to build a strip 1,800 feet by 100 feet for $20,000.00. Concerned that the strip might be built and then never used Commissioner Cruikshank thought this investment was a bit risky. Monsanto guaranteed the air service if the strip was completed and construction soon began with local businessman Obel Penn of East End supervising.

In the next few years Beef Island Airport gradually became more active. Another pioneer in seaplane aviation, Charlie Blair (actress Maureen O’Hara’s husband) founded Antilles Air Boats based in St. Croix. In 1966, Antilles began serving the BVI. This was a romantic period when flying boats connected St. Thomas and St. John to Tortola at Sopers Hole and Road Harbour. The twin engine Goose would swoop down over MacNamara to alight gracefully in Road Harbour. The colorful Crafts Alive Village now occupies what then was the sea plane ramp area. The Goose would taxi up the ramp with a great roar of engines, propellers flinging spray back into the bay. After turning her around to face the bay the pilot would shut down the engines and the roar would cease wile sparkling droplets of water dripped off her sleek hull.

In the 1960’s, the Royal Engineers added 800 feet to each end of the runway at Beef Island allowing larger aircraft access. It was becoming apparent that some kind of official control would be necessary. Local islanders Milton Creque and Corbett Wheatley were sent to Trinidad for training as air traffic controllers. Upon their return, the decision was made to have them work in the St. Thomas Control Tower for a couple of years to gain experience. Milton Creque went on to become the first Director of Civil Aviation while Corbett Wheatley ran a land-based transportation business.

Later in 1966, the De Haviland Company brought in a DHC-6 twin otter-a prop jet, the first such aircraft to land at Beef Island. A historic moment occurred on December 2, 1967, when the “Great Fly-In” was held to mark the end of Beef Island as an uncontrolled Airport. From that point forward, Beef Island Airport was marked as an official International Island Airport for commercial carriers. However, regulations were still a bit loose. One resident remembers a humorous moment coming from Virgin Gorda to Beef Island. She thought it was a direct flight but the pilot stopped at Anegada to pick up some workers. This made one passenger too many so the pilot put the lady in the lap of a husky worker and put the seat belt around both of them.

Present-day Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, formerly Beef Island Airport, British Virgin Islands.
Present-day Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport, formerly Beef Island Airport, British Virgin Islands.

Virgin Gorda Airport (Taddy Bay Airport) was opened in 1966 primarily to serve Little Dix Bay Resort. It was a private airport until 2005. Auguste George Airport situated on Anegada is the third Airport in the British Virgin Islands. This Airport was named after a prominent Anegadian.

In 1968, the Royal Engineers began improving the landing field in an eight-month project which increased the runway length to approximately 3,600 feet allowing much larger aircraft to land.

Air BVI was founded in 1971. In 1975, it significantly added capacity to its fleet with the introduction of two DC-3s. Air BVI flew almost exclusively between Tortola and Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, providing a link to major carriers to enable tourists to visit the British Virgin Islands. The airline went insolvent liquidation in 1991, although it continued to operate out of bankruptcy for nearly two and a half years. In May 1993, it suffered its only major incident when one of its aircraft overran the runway at Beef Island on an aborted takeoff, and landed in the sea. However, the accident resulted in no significant injuries.

In 2002, Beef Island Airport was renamed to Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport in honor of a former Minister of Communications and Works. A new impressive Terminal Building with arched roof and tall glass walls was opened for public use in March 2002. The runway was extended toward Trellis Bay giving a total length of approximately 4,650 feet. A new air traffic control tower, which rises to an impressive 80 feet above sea level, and is the islands’ tallest building, was also completed.

Currently, there are approved heliports located at Necker Island, Biras Creek, Peter Island, Road Town and Beef Island.

British Virgin Islands - Scott #434 (1982)
British Virgin Islands – Scott #434 (1982)
Air BVI DC-3 VP-LVH, photographed at Beer Island Airport in November 1978.
Air BVI DC-3 VP-LVH, photographed at Beer Island Airport in November 1978.

The Douglas DC-3 is a fixed-wing propeller-driven airliner that was in production from 1936 until 1942 and again in 1950. Its cruise speed (207 mph or 333 km/h) and range (1,500 mi or 2,400 km) revolutionized air transport in the 1930s and 1940s. Its lasting effect on the airline industry and World War II makes it one of the most significant transport aircraft ever made.

The DC-3 was a twin-engine metal monoplane, developed as a larger, improved 14-bed sleeper version of the Douglas DC-2. It had many exceptional qualities compared to previous aircraft. It was fast, had a good range and could operate from short runways. It was reliable and easy to maintain and carried passengers in greater comfort. Before the war it pioneered many air travel routes. It was able to cross the continental United States, making transcontinental flights and worldwide flights possible, and is considered the first airliner that could make money by carrying passengers alone.

Civil DC-3 production ended in 1942 with 607 aircraft being produced. However, together with its military derivative, the C-47 Skytrain (designated the Dakota in British Royal Air Force (RAF) service), and with Russian- and Japanese-built versions, over 16,000 were built. Following the Second World War, the airliner market was flooded with surplus C-47s and other ex-military transport aircraft, and Douglas’ attempts to produce an upgraded DC-3 were a failure due to cost.

While the DC-3 was soon made redundant on main routes by more advanced types such as the Douglas DC-6 and Lockheed Constellation, the design continued to prove exceptionally adaptable and useful. Large numbers continue to see service in a wide variety of niche roles well into the 21st century. In 2013 it was estimated that approximately 2,000 DC-3s and military derivatives were still flying, a testament to the durability of the design.

British Virgin Islands - Scott #436 (1982)
British Virgin Islands – Scott #436 (1982)
Air BVI Hawker Siddeley HS 748 with registration VP-LVO.
Air BVI Hawker Siddeley HS 748 with registration VP-LVO.

The Hawker Siddeley HS 748 is a medium-sized turboprop airliner originally designed by the British firm Avro in the late 1950s as a replacement for the aging DC-3s then in widespread service as feederliners. Avro concentrated on performance, notably for STOL operations, and found a dedicated market. 380 aircraft were built by Hawker Siddeley. A larger, stretched development of the HS 748, the BAe ATP, attempted to compete with the de Havilland Canada Dash 8 but saw a limited production run.

The first Avro 748 flew from the company’s Woodford, Cheshire aircraft factory on June 24, 1960, and testing of the two prototypes quickly proved the type’s short-field performance. Eighteen Avro 748 Series 1 aircraft were produced, the first for Skyways Coach-Air Limited being delivered in April 1962. However, the majority of the series 1 were delivered to Aerolíneas Argentinas. By this point, Avro’s individual identity within the Hawker Siddeley Group had ended and the design became known as the HS 748.

In 1972, a Hawker Siddeley 748 was one of the last planes to be flown by noted aviator Howard Hughes. He took part in several flights, accompanied in the cockpit by Hawker Siddeley test pilot Tony Blackman, and taking off from the company’s airfield at Hatfield.

The 748 Series 1 and Series 2 were also licence-produced in India by Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) as the HAL-748. HAL built 89 aircraft in India, 72 for the Indian Air Force and 17 for the Indian Airlines Corporation. Hawker Siddeley also used the HS 748 as the base for their HS 780 Andover, a transport aircraft built for the Royal Air Force. The HS 780s were essentially 748s but with a redesigned rear fuselage and empenage which included a large rear loading ramp and a squatting main landing gear to allow fast and easy loading of large freight items.

Production of the HS 748 ended in 1988, by which time 380 were produced (including the Andover and HAL-748).

British Virgin Islands - Scott #437 (1982)
British Virgin Islands – Scott #437 (1982)
The prototype BN-2 Islander displayed at the 1965 Paris Air Show six days after its maiden flight.
The prototype BN-2 Islander displayed at the 1965 Paris Air Show six days after its maiden flight.

The Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander is a 1960s British light utility aircraft, regional airliner and cargo aircraft designed and originally manufactured by Britten-Norman of the United Kingdom. Still in production, the Islander is one of the best-selling commercial aircraft types produced in Europe. Although designed in the 1960s, over 750 are still in service with commercial operators around the world. The aircraft is also used by the British Army and police forces in the United Kingdom and is a light transport with over 30 military aviation operators around the world.

Initial aircraft were manufactured at Britten-Norman’s factory in the Bembridge, Isle of Wight, UK. After Fairey Aviation acquired the Britten-Norman company, its Islanders and Trislander aircraft were built in Romania, then shipped to Avions Fairey in Belgium for finishing before being flown to the UK for flight certification. The Islander has been in production for more than 50 years.

In 1953, Britten-Norman was formed for the purpose of converting and operating agricultural aircraft, amongst other vehicles such as the Cushioncraft hovercraft. In 1963, the firm initiated development work upon what would become the Islander, having sensed a demand for a single and inexpensive twin-piston engine aircraft. The founders, John Britten and Desmond Norman, had observed the rapid growth of the commuter airline sector, and concluded that capacity was of a higher value to these operators than either range or cruising speed, thus the Islander emphasized payload over either of these attributes.

Through the use of low wing- and span-loading to generate greater effectiveness than conventional counterparts, the Islander could lift considerably heavier payloads than the typical aircraft in its power, weight or cost classes. To reduce manufacturing costs, both the wings and tail surfaces maintain a constant chord and thickness, while the ribs within the aircraft’s wing are all identical; both rivets and external fishplate joints are used for the same purpose. The type was originally intended to use a fabric-and-steel design. A light alloy monocoque approach was adopted instead. The structure is designed to give rise to and experience low levels of stress, and has an infinite fatigue life without testing.

On 13 June 1965, the first prototype BN-2 Islander conducted its maiden flight, powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce/Continental IO-360B piston engines; only four days later, the prototype appeared at the Paris Air Show. The IO-360B engines were later replaced by more powerful Lycoming O-540-E engines, which were located further outboard on the wings, for superior single-engine climb performance. On August 20, 1966, a second BN-2 prototype performed its first flight. These prototype aircraft, while resembling subsequent production models for the most part, were outfitted with different, less powerful engines. On April 24, 1967, the first production Islander performed its first flight; UK type certification was received in August 1967, US authorities also certified the type in December 1967.

Beef Island Airport, British Virgin Islands
Beef Island Airport, British Virgin Islands

Initial production of the Islander started at the Britten-Norman factory at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight; however, within a few years the company found that it could not produce the aircraft at a sufficient rate to keep up with the customer demand. To expand production, a contract was placed with Intreprinderea de Reparatii Material Aeronautic (IRMA) of Romania, initially to assemble kit-form aircraft, which were then sent to the UK for completion. In August 1969, the first Romanian-assembled Islander performed its first flight. IRMA proved successful at economically producing the aircraft, producing roughly 30-40 aircraft per year at times, and eventually became the primary manufacturing site for the Islander. In 1977, IRMA received a contract for the production of a further 100 Islanders; from that point on, the firm produced all subsequent Islander aircraft. More than 500 of the type were manufactured in Romania.

In 1970, a military version of the Islander, marketed as the Defender, conducted its first flight. Modifications included the addition of underwing hardpoints for armaments/equipment, and the main cabin area being fitted out for light troop transport and support aircraft duties.[4] The Defender capitalised on the aircraft’s rugged structure, making it suitable for long-term operations in developing countries. Purchases from police and military customers have typically been for use in surveillance and counter-terrorism operations. The Maritime Defender is another military version of the Islander, intended for search and rescue, coastal patrol and fishery protection.

Despite the relative success of the Islander, Britten-Norman experienced wider financial difficulties during the late 1960s, ultimately resulting in the company entering receivership in October 1971. In August 1972, Britten-Norman was purchased by the Fairey Aviation Group, forming the Fairey Britten-Norman company; shortly thereafter, the majority of manufacturing activity for both the Islander and Trislander was transferred to its Avions Fairey factory in Gosselies, Belgium. Completed aircraft were flown to Bembridge for final customer preparation prior to delivery.

In 1977, a single standard BN-2 was re-engined with Dowty Rotol ducted fans. The ducted fan produced less noise than conventional propeller propulsion. Some structural strengthening of the main wing spar at the root was required due to the extra weight.[15] This aircraft was subject to 18 months of flying trials to test the suitability of the ducted fan as a means of reducing aircraft noise; these tests reportedly demonstrated a 20 decibel noise reduction as well as increased thrust and reduced pollution.

In 1978, a further improved version, the BN-2B Islander II, was produced as a result of a product improvement program. The BN-2B model involved several changes, including a redesigned cockpit and a reduction in cabin noise levels. In 1980, it was decided to make available turboprop engines for the type, adopting twin Allison 250-B17C engines; when the latter are installed, the aircraft is designated the BN-2T Turbine Islander. The first such BN-2T entered service in 1981.

In February 1999, the acquisition of Romaero, the Romanian manufacturer of the Islander, by Britten-Norman Group was announced. In December 2006, aerospace publication Flight International observed that: “The only civil aircraft that remains in production in the UK is the tiny Britten-Norman Islander”. In May 2010, Britten-Norman announced that manufacturing of the Islander would be relocated from Romania to a new site in the UK, due to the rising costs of production in Romania. By May 2006, a greater sales emphasis was being placed upon the Defender over the Islander.

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