British Overseas Territory > British Virgin Islands > Tortola


Tortola / is the largest and most populated of the British Virgin Islands, a group of islands that form part of the archipelago of the Virgin Islands. It has a surface area of 55.7 square kilometres with a total population of 23,908, with 9,400 residents in Road Town. Mount Sage is its highest point at 530 metres above sea level.

Although the British Virgin Islands are under the British flag, it uses the US dollar as its official currency due to its proximity to and frequent trade with the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The island is home to many offshore companies that do business worldwide. Financial services are a major part of the country's economy.

On 7 September 2017, the British Virgin Islands were extensively damaged by Hurricane Irma. The most severe destruction was on Tortola. News reports over the next day or two described the situation as "devastation".


Local tradition recounts that Christopher Columbus named the island Tórtola, meaning "turtle dove" in Spanish. In fact, Columbus named the island Santa Ana. Dutch colonists called it Ter Tholen, after a coastal island that is part of the Netherlands. When the British took over, the name evolved to Tortola.

On his second voyage for the Spanish Crown to the Caribbean or West Indies, Christopher Columbus spotted what are now called the British and US Virgin Islands. He named the archipelago after the 11,000 virgins of the 5th-century Christian martyr St. Ursula. The Spanish made a few attempts to settle the islands, but pirates such as Blackbeard and Captain Kidd were the first permanent residents.

In the late 16th century, the English, who had successfully usurped control of the area from the Dutch, established a permanent plantation colony on Tortola and the surrounding islands. Settlers developed the islands for the sugarcane industry, with large plantations dependent on the slave labor of Africans transported across the Atlantic. The majority of early settlers came in the late eighteenth century: Loyalists from the Thirteen Colonies after the American Revolutionary War were given land grants here by the Crown to encourage development. They brought their slaves with them, who outnumbered the British colonists. The sugar industry dominated Tortola economic history for more than a century.

In the early 19th century, after Britain abolished the international slave trade, the Royal Navy patrolled the Caribbean to intercept illegal slave ships. The colony settled liberated Africans from these ships on Tortola, in the then-unsettled Kingstown area. St. Phillip's Church was built in the early 19th century in this community as one of the earliest free black churches in the Americas.

After the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in 1834, planters found it difficult to make a profit in the sugar industry based on paying and managing free labor. At this time, Cuba and some South American countries still had slave labor in the sugar industry. In addition, there were changes in the sugar industry, with sugar beets cultivated in England and the United States offering a competing product. During the downturn as sugar agriculture became less profitable, a large proportion of the white landowning population left the British Virgin Islands. In 1867, an earthquake and tsunami hit the island.

In the late 1970s, the British businessman Ken Bates attempted to lease a large part of the island on a 199-year lease, but this action was blocked. Noel Lloyd, a local activist, led a protest movement forcing the local government to drop the plan. Today, a park on Tortola is named after Noel Lloyd and features a statue in his honour.

Hurricane Irma

On 7 September 2017, Tortola was extensively damaged by Hurricane Irma. News reports over the next day or two described the situation as "devastation". A report by Sky News summarized the aftermath of the storm as: "The scale of the damage on the island of Tortola is truly shocking. You have to see it to appreciate just how massive this storm really was. The East End area of Tortola looks like a war zone; no building is untouched, the debris of entire houses destroyed, yachts, cars and enormous cargo containers is scattered in all directions and this is just one area."

By 8 September, the UK had sent the Royal Engineers and Commandos to reinstate law and order and to set up satellite communications with the world. 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 Virgin Islands for another two weeks. The Premier of the Virgin Islands, Orlando Smith, called for a comprehensive aid package to rebuild the BVI. On 10 September, the UK's prime minister 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 each island.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson visited Tortola on 13 September 2017 to confirm the United Kingdom's commitment to helping restore British islands. He said he was reminded of photos of Hiroshima after it had been hit by the atom bomb.


Tortola is a mountainous island 19 km (12 mi) long and 5 km (3.1 mi) wide, with an area of 55.7 km2 (21.5 sq mi). Formed by volcanic activity, its highest peak is Mount Sage at 530 metres (1,740 feet). Tortola lies near an earthquake fault, and minor earthquakes are common.


The House of Assembly in the BVI consists of 14 house representatives (The governor, 4 at-large, and 1 representative for each of the 9 districts). Cabinet consists of four. Whilst still under the English rule, the queen appoints a governor. The current governor is His Excellency John S. Duncan, who is the head of cabinet in the BVI. The House of Assembly is run by the Speaker of the House, Hon. Ingrid Moses Scatliffe. The deputy governor, is Mrs. Vivian Inez Archibald, the premiere is Dr. Hon. D. Orlando Smith, OBE. The National Democratic Party (NDP) has been in office for its second straight term now. (2011-present) The Virgin Islands Party (VIP) was in office for the four years before that. The party that rules over the house is determined by if that party has 7 or more seats in the house.

Economy and demographics

The population of Tortola is 23,908. The principal settlement is Road Town, the capital of the British Virgin Islands, with a population of 9400. Approximately 90 percent of the population identify as of African descent.

Provision of financial services is a major part of the economy. The International Business Companies Act, passed in the early 1980s, encouraged such businesses and has generated significant growth in professional jobs and related revenues. BVI residents are amongst the most affluent in the Eastern Caribbean. Numerous residents from other Caribbean islands also work here.

Although the British Virgin Islands (BVI) are under the British flag, it uses the US dollar as its official currency due to its proximity to and frequent trade with the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. The island is home to many offshore companies that do business worldwide.

The extensive damage (devastation) caused by Hurricane Irma in September 2017 will affect the economy. Residents were looking to the UK to provide significant financial aid. Premier Orlando Smith called for a comprehensive aid package to rebuild the British Virgin Islands. The UK pledged £32 million of aid for Caribbean islands that were affected by the hurricane but did not provide specifics as to the amount that would be allocated to the BVI.


The Northern coast has the best beaches on the island, including Smuggler's Cove, Long Bay, Cane Garden Bay, Brewer's Bay, Josiah's Bay, and Lambert beach. In addition to beaches, marine activities such as sailing, surfing, scuba diving, kite boarding, and windsurfing are available. Many tourists visit the historic sites and hike in parks. The island is visited regularly by large cruise ships.


Tortola can be reached both by sea and by air. The island has taxi services.

Flights to Tortola arrive at the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport. The airport is located on Beef Island, just to the East of Tortola, and is connected by the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. LIAT provides schedules service from St. Kitts, Antigua, and connects the southern Caribbean with a nonstop service from Barbados. Seaborne Airlines, Cape Air and Air Sunshine provide scheduled service from San Juan. Island Birds Air Charter connect to San Juan, St Thomas, Antigua or St Marten. BVI Airways was scheduled begin jet service from Miami to Lettsome in late 2017, but is currently non-operational.

Many ferry companies provide travelers with the opportunity to arrive by sea. The ferries run between Charlotte Amalie in the center of St. Thomas, and Red Hook in the East End of St. Thomas and St. John, and either Road Town or the West End of Tortola.


The British Virgin Islands operates several government schools.

The following pre-primary schools serve Tortola residents:

The following elementary schools serve Tortola residents:

The following High schools serve Tortola Residents:

Eslyn Henley Richiez Learning Centre serves as Tortola's special needs school. The H. Lavity Stoutt Community College provides Tortola's Tertiary education


The city has been one of the Caribbean's prime basketball destinations, hosting three of the last four Caribbean Basketball Championships. Horse racing is also a popular sport in the Virgin Islands and Tortola's Ellis Thomas Downs is one of the three race tracks in the region.

Notable people

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All content originates from the English Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0