The Virgin Islands are an archipelago, part of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean Sea. The Leeward Islands are the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles, where the Caribbean Sea meets the western Atlantic Ocean.
The Virgin Islands are divided into two political entities; on the east, Anegada, Jost Van Dyke, Tortola, Virgin Gorda, and over fifty other smaller islands are administered as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom; and in the west, St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas, and Water Island are governed as an unincorporated territory of the United States.
Christopher Columbus named the islands Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes, shortened to Las Vírgenes, after Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. They were inhabited by the Arawak, Carib and Cermic, all of whom died out during the colonial period from disease, harsh labor conditions, and murder.
Later, the islands were re-populated by European plantation owners, and enslaved Africans who worked on sugar plantations, and at least one tobacco plantation. The sugar plantations are gone, but the descendants of the enslaved Africans remain the bulk of the population, sharing a common Afro-Caribbean heritage with the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean.
Motor vehicles are driven on the left-hand side of the road on both the British and the U.S. Virgin Islands, although the steering wheels on most cars is located on the left side . Also, the United States dollar is the official currency on both the British and U.S. Virgin Islands.
West of the Virgin Islands lie the islands of Vieques and Culebra, that since a 1990s tourist campaign have re-christened themselves the Spanish Virgin Islands, though they are seldom identified as such on maps and atlases. The "Spanish Virgin Islands", or Passage Islands, are just east of Puerto Rico, and governed as part of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Natives speak Spanish, and the culture is similar to Puerto Rico. Vieques and Culebra belonged to Spain prior to the Spanish-American War in 1898. Though the islands are not labeled part of the Virgin Islands archipelago, some[who?] argue that Vieques and Culebra are geographically part of the Virgin Islands chain, and note that Vieques and Culebra are closer to St. Thomas, than St. Thomas is to St. Croix.
The official language of both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands is English. However, Virgin Islands Creole is the main spoken language in daily usage and due to immigration from other Caribbean islands usage of Spanish and to a lesser degree French and French Creole has increased in the last few decades. Danish never was a spoken language amongst the populace of the main islands due to most of the plantation and slave owners being of Dutch or English descent, but in St. Croix, where Danish influence was stronger a few Danish words live on in the local creole and on old plantation settlements a few elderly native speakers of simplified Danish or Danish creole could still be found in 2007 but fast dying out.
Virgin Islands Creole was formed when African slaves, unable to communicate with each other due to being taken from different regions of West Africa with different languages, created a new English-based dialect with West African-derived words and sentence structure.
St. Thomas and St. John, although Danish colonies, had a European population of mainly Dutch origin, which led to enslaved Africans creating a Dutch-based creole, known as Negerhollands . Negerhollands was in mainstream usage on St. Thomas and St. John up until the 19th century, when British occupation of the Danish West Indies from 1801 to 1802 and 1807 to 1815, as well as the preference for English as a trade and business language in the busy port of Charlotte Amalie, helped establish Virgin Islands Creole over Negerhollands. However, there was a small but continued use of Negerhollands well into the 20th century.
Unlike the other Danish West Indian islands, St. Croix had a European population of mostly English, Irish and Scottish origin, which gave way to the creation of an English-based creole throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. This would eventually be spoken on St. Thomas and St. John during the 19th century as Negerhollands was fading away. By the end of the 19th century, the English creole completely replaced Negerhollands as the native dialect of the present-day U.S. Virgin Islands.
Virgin Islands Creole had also been developing in the present-day British Virgin Islands as well. The British took over the islands from the Dutch in 1672. Enslaved Africans were brought to work on plantations on Tortola and Virgin Gorda where they, like those enslaved on St. Croix, also developed an English-based creole.
In one form or the other, Virgin Islands Creole still exists today as the native dialect of both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Although the two territories are politically separate, they share a common Virgin Islands culture, similar history based on colonialism and slavery and even common bloodlines in many cases. It is spoken with slight variations from island-to-island.