The Virgin Islands: an explorer, a legend, and many beautiful stamps
By Janet Klug
The British Virgin Islands, in the eastern Caribbean Sea, are a British overseas territory. The territory is a part of an island chain collectively known as the Virgin Islands, which are divided administratively mainly between the United Kingdom and the United States. (Several islands to the west of the U.S. Virgin Islands are administratively part of Puerto Rico and are known as the Spanish or Puerto Rican Virgin Islands.)
The British territory consists of four larger islands to the northeast of the U.S. Virgin Islands. They are Tortola, Anegada, Virgin Gorda, and Jost Van Dyke.
There are also 32 smaller islands and islets, of which 20 are uninhabited. The capital city and largest port is Road Town, on Tortola.
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Columbus arrived in the islands in 1493, on his second voyage to the Americas, and named the area in honor of the legend of the martyr St. Ursula. The original full name was Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgenes (St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins), shortened to Las Virgenes.
Thereafter, Spanish settlers, Dutch buccaneers, and pirates inhabited the islands. In 1666, a group of English planters established plantations, and in 1772, the Virgin Islands were annexed to the British-administered Leeward Islands.
The influx of British planters led to the opening of the Virgin Islands’ first post office in Tortola, in 1787. In 1858, British stamps were sent to the Virgin Islands, and those affixed to letters were obliterated with a handstamp specifically made for the locale and coded “A13.”
British stamps bearing that handstamp are quite rare, and finding a complete cover is even rarer.
The use of British stamps in the Virgin Islands lasted only until 1860, and the first Virgin Islands stamps were issued in 1866. These first stamps had images recalling the history of the islands’ name.
The stamps picture a woman symbolizing St. Ursula, who before canonization was Princess Ursula, born the daughter of a Romano-British king sometime in the third or fourth century.
The legend says that Ursula, prior to her marriage, made a pilgrimage throughout Europe with her followers: 11,000 virgin handmaidens.
During their travels, Ursula’s party was attacked by Huns, invaders from Central Asia who conquered Europe in the fourth century. All of the virgins were beheaded, and the leader killed Ursula with a shot from a bow and arrow, supposedly after she declined to marry the pagan Hun.
The first stamps (Scott 1 and 2), issued in 1866, show Ursula surrounded by lamps, which represent her virgin followers.
New stamps issued between 1867-70 (3, 4 and 6) also use one of the several different lamp designs.
Other Ursula stamps were issued between 1867-89 with several vignettes depicting her with an armload of lilies (Scott 5, 7-8, 18, 20-21). The lilies are symbolic of purity and beauty, and the theme continued with a revised version of the design on stamps issued beginning in 1899.
The 1867 1-shilling stamp (Scott 8) has a famous, rare and expensive variety known as the “Missing Virgin” (Scott 8c), on which the black central figure of Ursula is omitted from the rose-colored background. A small number are known to exist.
The only known example with original gum sold for $170,000 at a David Feldman auction in Geneva in December 2015.
In 1888, the 1867 1sh St. Ursula stamp was surcharged 4 pence (Scott 18). This stamp also has some pricey varieties: a double surcharge (18a), an inverted surcharge (18b), and a printing on white paper (18c).
The stamps of the Virgin Islands began looking more like those of other British colonies in 1879, with images of Queen Victoria, such as the 2½d design shown here, issued in 1880.
The Victorian stamps were followed by those showing King Edward VII, then King George V with the territory’s coat of arms (St. Ursula and lamps) in the lower-right corner; King George VI with the coat of arms; and then, in 1956, Queen Elizabeth II with a brown pelican.
Ten years later, the centenary of Virgin Islands stamps was commemorated with stamps-on-stamps designs depicting Queen Elizabeth and the first issues of the islands.
Throughout this column I have been using “British Virgin Islands” and “Virgin Islands” interchangeably. This is because both names have been correct over time, “British” being officially added to the earlier “Virgin Islands” name in 1968 to overcome confusion with the U.S. Virgin Islands.
A set of stamps (Scott 186-189) issued on Jan. 1, 1968, announced the change with the proud inscription “British Virgin Islands” on designs featuring Queen Elizabeth and various fish and fishing themes.
Today’s colorful BVI stamps celebrate holidays and anniversaries, commemorate historic events and people of note, and showcase the flora and fauna of the islands and the beauty that surrounds them.
In 1993, the British Virgin Islands issued a set of stamps and a pair of souvenir sheets to honor the 500th anniversary of the man who named the islands in honor of St. Ursula and her 11,000 followers.
One of those stamps (Scott 782), shown here, depicts Columbus with two of his ships and some of their sailors and, in the lower-left corner, the familiar image of Ursula and her lamps on the BVI coat of arms.
For more information about British Virgin Islands stamps, contact the British Caribbean Philatelic Study Group through its membership director, Bob Stewart, 7 W. Dune Lane, Long Beach Township, NJ 08008; or visit their website.
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