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BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
British Virgin Islands, British overseas territory in the eastern Caribbean Sea. It is part of an island chain collectively known as the Virgin Islands, which makes up the northeastern extremity of the Greater Antilles. Puerto Rico lies to the west. The British territory consists of 4 larger islands (Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda, and Jost Van Dyke) and 32 smaller islands and islets, of which more than 20 are uninhabited; lesser islands include Great Tobago, Salt, Peter, Cooper, Norman, Guana, Beef, Great Thatch, Little Thatch, and Marina Cay. The chief town and port is Road Town on Tortola (21 square miles [54 square km]), the largest of the islands. The total area of the colony is 59 square miles (153 square km). Pop. (2010) 28,054.
The British Virgin Islands are a geologic extension of the central fault-block mountains of Puerto Rico and present a variety of physical features, including low mountains, lagoons with coral reefs and barrier beaches, and landlocked harbours. Except for Anegada, the islands are hilly. The highest point is Mount Sage (1,709 feet [521 metres]), on Tortola. The long and narrow Virgin Gorda (“Fat Virgin”), with an area of approximately 8 square miles (21 square km), rises to an elevation of more than 1,300 feet (400 metres). Jost Van Dyke is a rugged island only about 3 square miles (8 square km) in area. Anegada, the northernmost extension of the chain, is a flat coral island surrounded by dangerous reefs. Its elevation is never more than 10 to 15 feet (3 to 5 metres) above sea level. There are no rivers on any of the islands.
The British Virgin Islands have a subtropical climate that is pleasant and mild for most of the year, a factor in the islands’ important tourist industry. Although they are located in the tropics, the heat is tempered by gentle trade winds that blow from the northeast most of the year. Temperatures average 78 °F (26 °C) annually, and humidity is low. The dry season lasts from February to July and the wet season from September to December. Hurricanes—averaging perhaps four in a century—usually occur between August and October, and there are occasional light earthquakes.
Water scarcity is a serious problem. Rainfall averages about 50 inches (1,270 mm) a year, but much of it runs off unused. In the driest sections of the large islands, rainfall usually averages a little less than 30 inches (760 mm), with possibly as much as 80 inches (2,030 mm) on the upper slopes of Mount Sage on Tortola. Rainfall is erratic, however, varying widely from year to year. British Virgin Islanders have long depended almost entirely upon their own cisterns and wells, and nearly all buildings, both private and public, have their own water catchments. In addition, water is imported in barges to meet the needs for fresh water—needs now rapidly increasing in proportion to population and industrial growth. Only Road Town has a piped supply.
The great majority of British Virgin Islanders are the descendants of African slaves. Those of European descent constitute a small minority, although their number grew markedly since 1960, as the number of immigrants from the United States and Great Britain increased. Of all the islands, Tortola has by far the largest population, some four-fifths of the total. About one-fourth of all Tortolans live in Road Town. English is the official language; far more frequently used in practice, however, is an English-based creole, Virgin Islands Creole English. Religious affiliations are mostly with Protestant denominations, Methodists being the largest single group.
The British Virgin Islands has a hybrid culture that mixes European, African, and Caribbean elements. Sailing is the favourite sport on the British Virgin Islands, which has been called the “sailing capital of the Caribbean.” Most locals learn to sail as children, and the activity is a popular attraction for tourists; anything from small, simple bareboats to fully equipped and crewed luxury yachts can be rented or chartered. Other water-based activities include windsurfing, scuba diving, and fishing. On land, British Virgin Islanders enjoy football (soccer) and cricket, reminders of their British colonial heritage. Baseball and softball are favourite American imports, and basketball, squash, and cycling are growing in popularity.
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