Virgin Gorda

Among the picturesque islands and cays of the British Virgin Islands, Virgin Gorda is singular. The monumental rock formations in the Baths area, the verdant slopes of Gorda Peak, and the splendid harbor at North Sound have provided a spectacular backdrop for changing life and times on the island. The early Amerindians grew cotton here, created decorated pottery, and carved ceremonial stone tools with human faces. They are said to have mined copper as well as, along with the Spaniards who were doing so by 1500.

The first Europeans in the area sailed east of the island with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. Columbus is believed to have given the name Virgin Gorda, or ,,fat virgin” but the island has also been known as ,, the Virgin Gard”, ,,Spanish Town”, ,,Penniston” and variations of these. English adventurers soon followed the Spanish, with John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake frequenting the area by the late 16th century.

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Copper Mine

The vast, protected harbor at North Sound provided a rendezvous point for the Elizabethan ships; the Third Earl of Cumberland assembled his fleet there for a successful attack on Puerto Rico. At other  times, North and South American privateers held their Spanish prize ships in the remote harbor. Pirates and buccaneers roamed the seas around Spanish Town, while warring European navies were a constant threat to settlement.

Spanish interest in Virgin Gorda’s minerals and strategic location held through the mid 18th century, but it was English emigrants from eastern Caribbean islands who permanently settled Virgin  Gorda. By 1690 some 25 people were living here, growing cotton which they exported to St. Thomas by canoe. Within 10 years, the population had increased six-fold, and Spanish Town served as the Virgin Islands capital. The English settlers created a prosperous plantation economy based on slave labor. They constructed houses and outbuildings, used techniques from both England and Africa, with the New World adaptations. They traded their cotton, sugar, indigo and lignum vitae, along with cattle and goats, to nearby islands, the American colonies, and England.

Colonial prosperity on Virgin Gorda was fleeting. Falling cotton prices and soil depletion, accompanied by severe hurricanes and droughts spelled disaster for the islanders. The abolition of slavery, celebrated in Virgin Islands churches in 1834, brought an end to that inhumane system and way out of life, Virgin Gorda began to function as a small holding agricultural economy, supplemented by mining activities, along with trade. Many Virgin Gordans emigrated to other Caribbean islands, sending wages home to support their families.


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The mid 20 th century brought change to the island, as tourists began to discover the area’s scenic beauty and unique culture. Today Virgin Gorda is a luxury tourist destination and yachting center. And yet much of the island’s traditional character remains, as reflected in her hillside churches, village houses, plantation ruins, local boats, and friendly faces.

Historic Graveyards – Shaded by sea grape trees on the beach. the remains of at least 1 graves offer a reminder of the early inhabitants of Spanish Town, or Virgin Gorda. The 18th century tombs were built of red brick, stone, coral, and lime plaster in a traditional manner. Singular in the group, a squared gravestone with a carved inscription marks the ashlar tomb of Susanah Frett, who died in 1760.

Little Dix Bay

Olive Peaker’s House – Originally built over 100 years ago, this charming vernacular house demonstrates the changing life and times on Virgin Gorda. The core of the house, with its fine hip roof, wooden railings, and hurricane shutters, is typical of early island dwellings. Olive Peaker’s father built the external cistern for water catchment, and in the 1940’s, a bathroom and kitchen were added to the main house. Along the track to the house, a pit has been prepared and wood collected for charcoal burning.

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Spring Bay

 

Copper Mine National Park – English adventurers recorded the discovery of coppers veins here in 1724, but the Spanish and Amerindians are believed to have mined this rugged area earlier. The substantial ruins that remain today were largely built by a Cornish mining company in the 19th century. Working with 40 miners from Cornwall, some 150 local men, women and children earned from 30-50 cents per day at the copper mine by 1840. The masonry remains that you now see once formed the crushing plant, with a 32 ft. high chimney, power plant, and engine house. Numerous mine shafts in the area extend as far as 100ft. beneath the sea.

Suggested reading:

Online Hotel Reservations

Virgin Islands

US Virgin Island Resorts

Virgin Gorda Island Paths

Road Town Crafts

 

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