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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - US Virgin Islands : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - US Virgin Islands : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 1 March 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


The United States Virgin Islands form the eastern most outpost of the United States. They are located between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean about 80 kilometres east of Puerto Rico. The territory consists of four main islands: Saint Thomas, Saint John, Saint Croix, and Water Island. There are also sixty-four other mostly uninhabited islands producing a combined land area of just 346 square kilometres.


Main languages: English, Spanish, Creole

Main religions: Christianity (Protestant)

The majority of the population is of African descent.


The Virgin Islands were originally settled by the indigenous Ciboney, Kalinago (Carib), and Taino (Arawaks). The area was named by Columbus (1493) in honor of Saint Ursula and her 10,000 virgin followers. Over the next two hundred years, the territory changed hands between various European powers, but no permanent settlements were made but the indigenous groups were annihilated.

The Danish West India Company eventually colonized Saint Thomas in 1672, settled on Saint John in 1694, and purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733. They continued to hold it until 1754 when Frederick V, king of Denmark, bought the territory and made them royal Danish colonies.

The Danes were major participants in the maritime transportation of slaves and began importing shiploads of enslaved Africans to the Virgin Islands in 1673. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Islands flourished as a major slave trading centre and producer of sugar. The slave trade was banned by the Danish government in 1792 but slavery continued and 56 years later a slave revolt on Saint Croix led to immediate emancipation in July 1848.

With the loss of African slave labour the economy of the Virgin Islands disintegrated. The United States eventually bought it from Denmark during World War I (1917) for US$25 million and built a naval station to protect the Panama Canal from German submarines. From 1917 to 1931 the US Department of the Navy governed the territory. Virgin Islanders became US citizens in 1927 and after World War II the Islands once again prospered largely due to US federal aid, and tourism.


In 1946 William Henry Hastie became the first appointed black governor. In 1968 the US Congress passed a law granting Virgin Islanders the right to elect their own governor and in 1971 native-born Melvin Evans became the first elected governor.

US Virgin Islands is an unincorporated US external territory. Although being US citizens, Virgin Islanders cannot vote in US presidential elections.

Executive power is vested in the elected governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general appointed by the governor At the territorial level a single chamber legislature composed of 15 senators legislature is elected for two-year terms.

The territory is heavily dependent on links with the US mainland and Puerto Rico (accounting for 90 per cent of trade).

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

During the tourism boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of migrants from other Caribbean territories settled, but from the 1980s onwards immigration controls have been tightened and many 'aliens' deported.

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