Christopher Columbus must have been elated when he spotted the white sands of Tortola in the year 1493. He and his Spanish crew were splashing about in the Caribbean, island-hopping and making maps. While Columbus added Tortola to his list of “discovered” spots in the New World, his visit to Tortola was not without problems. The local indigenous people, such as the ferocious Caribs – who had already annihilated the Arawaks who had already tangled with the Ciboney – were less than willing to share their paradise with anyone. In fact, they made Columbus’ visit so unpleasant he drew up anchor and sailed away.
Unfortunately, the Spanish returned to Tortola and meted out their revenge. They absolutely decimated the entire Indian population within a century of Columbus first spying these islands.
One hundred years after Columbus’ call in Tortola, a British fellow named Sir Francis Drake crested the horizon and he too left his mark on this land. In fact, the channel directly south of Tortola still carries Drake’s name.
The Tug and Pull for Power
The Spanish and the Dutch rumbled over these islands for some time. In 1648, a pack of Dutch buccaneers erected a fort and created a small community on the island of Tortola. Ultimately it was the British who entered the fray and prevailed in this scuffle in 1672 by successfully annexing the islands to Britain.
With peace at hand, the door was opened for a wave of immigrants who flooded in. Among them were Quaker missionaries who were sent here to establish a life in this pleasant outpost. However, their work was cut out for them because this region was to again know turmoil. It literally became open season on cargo ships for the buccaneers, freebooters and pirates who plied these waters. Robert Lewis Stevenson was so captivated by these marauding tales that he eventually captured the essence of this swashbuckling history in his popular book, Treasure Island.
Fortunately, these turbulent times also passed, and calm and order were restored. In time, plantation owners came here to mark their boundaries, cut down the forests, and develop working plantations instead.
Tourism has spiraled into a major industry for the island. More and more visitors from around the world arrive daily by planes, cruise ships, yachts, and ferries to explore the white-sand beaches, clear-water bays, and the popular night life.
Tortola is the most heavily populated of the British Virgin Islands. In fact, close to 10,000 people call Tortola home. In addition, Road Town, the island’s largest city, is also respected as the island’s capital as well as the administrative center. The majority of the residents are descendants of African slaves who were brought here aboard squalid slave ships from West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Mountains, Baths, and More
As a British Crown Colony, the spirit on the 21-square-mile island of Tortola is obviously… well, British. And, as such, the people present themselves as proper hosts who are eager to introduce you to their island’s most important sights.
With Mount Sage as your landmark, standing 1,780-feet tall, you’re not likely to get lost during your exploration. However, if you do lose your way, you’ll soon be pointed in the right direction as everyone speaks English. And, when you are on the correct path, have a look at Sage Mountain National Park, complete with its rain forest which has been protected in its natural state. In keeping with this “nature” theme, take time for a visit to the Botanical Gardens.
If you possess an even greater sense of adventure in your soul, you can boat over to Virgin Gorda for a swim in the Baths. The Virgin Gorda Baths are a delightful collection of sea caves and natural pools formed by a jumbled mass of boulders.
When you dry the salt water from your shoulders, head back to Road Town at the end of the day. A cool fresh-island-fruit punch just might be waiting with your name on it.
Karyn L. Planett