The Virgin Islands are the eastern island group of the Leeward Islands, which are the northern part of the Lesser Antilles, which form the border between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. Politically, the north-eastern islands form the British Virgin Islands and the south-western ones the United States Virgin Islands.
Technically the official name of the British Virgin Islands is simply the "Virgin Islands" and the official name of the United States Virgin Islands is the "Virgin Islands of the United States", but in practice since 1917 both territories have been almost universally referred to as the "British Virgin Islands" and the "United States Virgin Islands" to distinguish the islands from each other.
The British Virgin Islands is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom comprising Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, over fifty smaller islands, and Anegada to the north. The United States Virgin Islands is an unincorporated territory of the United States comprising St. Croix to the south, with St. John, St. Thomas, and smaller islands. The Virgin Passage separates the U.S. Virgin Islands from the "Spanish Virgin Islands" or "Passage Islands", Vieques and Culebra, which are the easternmost islands of Puerto Rico.
See also: Danish West Indies, History of the United States Virgin Islands, and History of the British Virgin Islands
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 genocide.
Later, the islands were re-populated by European colonists, who established sugar plantations (and at least one tobacco plantation) worked by slaves brought from Africa. The plantations are gone, but the descendants of the slaves remain the bulk of the population, sharing a common Afro-Caribbean heritage with the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean.
In 1917, the Danish West Indies were sold by Denmark to the United States of America for $25 million in gold.
Motor vehicles are driven on the left-hand side of the road in both the British and the U.S. Virgin Islands, although the steering wheels on most cars are located on the left side (as is the norm for drive-on-the-right localities). Also, the United States dollar is the official currency on both the British and U.S. Virgin Islands.
A 1990s tourist campaign re-christened the Passage Islands as the Spanish Virgin Islands, though they are seldom identified as such on maps and atlases. They 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.