Virgin Islands

The Virgin Islands are divided between the United States and Britain. The islands were named by Christopher Columbus, after the story of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. The legend has it that St. Ursula, a princess, took her 11,000 handmaidens to Europe, and they were all killed by the Huns in the city of Cologne for refusing to surrender their virginity. Why Columbus attached that legend to these islands is not known. The original inhabitants were wiped out by disease and slave raids (at first Indian peoples were enslaved, then Africans were brought over as slaves after the natives were decimated). The islands had a complicated history, involving piracy, the slave trade, sugar plantations and a number of wars. Eventually Denmark emerged as owner of what are now the U.S Virgin Islands. The Danes acquired St. Thomas in the 1660s. They gained St. John and St. Croix in the 1700s. Danish rule lasted until 1917, when the United States bought the islands for $25 million. The American purchase was motivated by worry that the Germans might somehow use the islands as a submarine base. The amount was almost twice what the United States had paid for the Louisiana Purchase a century before, an area six thousand times as large as the islands’ total 133 square miles.

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