Legends cling to the British Virgin Islands like a stubborn sea fog, and out from these swirling shadows and through the mists of time emerges a rare assortment of ghosts. Here we find the stooping spectres of pirates, the stalking shapes of privateers and the solemn shades of 11,000 murdered virgins.

Old, salt-soaked seadogs in pokey, jerkwater seaside inns tell tall tales of the cruel captain Blackbeard and his ill-fated crew.

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest–…Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest–…Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

Stories claim that the feared blaggard Blackbeard marooned fifteen of his unfortunate crew upon a deserted island, named unhappily forever after Deadman’s Chest. Each man was given nothing more than a rusted cutlass and a bottle of rum for his sins. When the pirate princeps returned at the month’s end to check on the forsaken sailors, only a handful remained alive.

The very island spoken of in this tale, a tiny uninhabited islet named Deadman’s Chest, remains to this day as one of the Virgin Islands. In fact it was this unlikely location that provided the inspiration for perhaps the greatest pirate yarn ever spun – Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson.

This lilting sea-shanty of a story gives us such plunderous and piratical clichés as treasure maps scored with a fateful X to mark the spot of buried treasure, tropical island adventures and peg-legged privateers with perching pet parrots. Stevenson’s aged uncle, himself an ancient mariner, had told the young child chronicles of his adventures on the high seas, not least his visits to the Virgin Isles. The vivid tales, clearly lodged in the young Stevenson’s fertile and fervid imagination because years later he set them down in his immortal novel.

These virgin islands are therefore the original and classic treasure islands of pirate folklore, in fable at least, littered with looted gold, glittering jewels, and precious, plundered hoards en route from the Americas to the decadent courts of old Europe.

In fact, long before British Virgin Island holidays became popular with either pirates or tourists, the first European eyes to fall upon this secluded spot belonged to Christopher Columbus and his sun-crazed crew, many centuries before. After long months at sea, Columbus, struck by the beauty of these islands, decided to name them in honor of the ocean-wandering St.Ursula and her ill-fated, drifting band of 11,000 pious virgins.

The tale of St. Ursula is a sorry one, but perhaps strangely fitting for these beautiful islands. Ursula, an ancient Celtic princess set sail across the seas with her young handmaidens to join her husband in Amorica, blown off course by a supernatural storm, this band of restless maidens set to wandering the trails and forested byways of Europe, attempting to reach Rome to ask God for deliverance. Their unlucky journey was to meet an unhappy end however. Before they could reach their goal they met with a cruel fate, martyred to the last woman in a vicious ambush. In the forests of Germany they were set upon and beheaded by a barbaric crew of marauding Huns.

Strangely the tale of these virgins, in a bizarre twist of fate, links back to these self-same Virgin Islands that were blessed with their name all those long centuries ago. Now it happens that in the old City of London there once stood a church dedicated St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. This particular church once held within its hallowed walls a holy relic in the form of the very axe supposedly wielded by the Huns in their beheading of the doomed virgins. The church is long been pulled down, but the spot upon which it stood still bears its name, St Mary Axe. On this site now stands 30 St Mary Axe, better known as ‘The Gherkin’, the iconic centre of London’s financial heart and the hub of a net of financial flows, stretching out from here to span the globe like a great, subtle spider’s web – barely seen but catching all in its grasp.

From the Gherkin tower of the martyred virgins’ axe to the pirate treasure islands of a dead man’s chest, a strange synchronicity endures. Curiously, the British Virgin Islands remain treasure islands to this very day. The unlucky tale of St. Ursula is not the only silken thread connecting them to the distant spires of the City of London.

In his 2011 exposé of off-shore tax havens, Treasure Islands – Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World Nicholas Shaxon unpicks a tortuous tangle of mind-bending monetary machinations and salacious scams as he attempts to uncover how mega-corporations bury their treasure on distant tropical islands so as to hide it from the prying eyes of the revenue.

Shaxon informs us that staggeringly, more than half of all world trade passes through such places and a massive 85% of international banking is stashed away offshore under white sand beaches and tropical skies, no X marking this particular spot. Small island centres like the British Virgin Islands have balance sheets that add up to a staggering one third of world GDP. Tellingly, the British Virgin Islands has a mere 25,000 inhabitants but an astounding 800,000 companies registered, and in 2000 KPMG reported that more than 41% of the world’s offshore companies were formed in the British Virgin Islands. Of course, aside from the ethics of all this, this wealth passing through the islands actually makes it a great place to visit, and not just if you are a banker! As a result of all of this buried treasure the territory enjoys one of the most prosperous economies of the Caribbean and luckily for tourists this makes holidays to the British Virgin Islands a fantastic prospect.

You can enjoy unspoiled beaches, lush tropical vegetation and gorgeous, crystal clear seas. Although thanks to some murky financial waters, unless you are a mega-rich CEO you might be paying for it in ways you didn’t realise when you get back home to the drear drizzle of the UK. These islands might still boast a quota of privateers, but at least Columbus was right about one thing – their beauty certainly is heavenly.

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