Tortola, pronounced tore-TOE-luh, means Turtle Dove. Self-named as "Yachting Capital of the Caribbean," Tortola's laid-back government centre is called Road Town. In the 17th Century, an open anchorage was called a road. The island's "roads" were an open invitation to some of the Caribbean's naughtiest, cruelest Brethren of the Coast - pirates. As late as 1792, British authorities called Tortola "a pirate's nest." For many years Tortola was a major base for pirates bent on terrorizing professional sailors and soldiers, attacking treasure ships, and distributing the loot in strict accordance with the Pirate Coda or Code. The pirates then sold their treasures at other Virgin Island ports as well as Jamaica's raucous Port Royal and later in Nassau, The Bahamas. It is interesting to note that the Pirate Coda fascinates today's lawyers, the Coda being one of the simplest and best-written rules of law. The Code forbade women pirates, but two females made the grade and became known as "The Ladies From Hell." Among other curious activities, these women went into battle topless!
Today's Tortola is undergoing rapid growth at the expense of old-time traditions - such as wooden huts, cows on the loose, feral billy goats and people travelling about on donkeys. As a British Crown Colony, however, much of Britain remains in place - including red Royal Mail pillar boxes.
About 13,000 of some 18,000 British Virgin Islanders live on Tortola. Many, however, are leaving for the bright lights and job opportunities of the next-door US Virgin Islands. But they can do without the USVI crime level and what is perceived as USVI over-development. After all, BVI cops carry truncheons, and not firearms as in the USVI. In many cases, BVI "belongers" in the USVI work just long enough to go back to Tortola and build a retirement home.
Tortola's first permanent settlers were Dutch buccaneers. In 1666, the English sent the Dutch packing for other island destinations. The English seized the eastern Virgins as the latest addition to the worldwide British Empire in 1672. They then imported slaves and established cotton and sugar cane plantations. Quakers came to Tortola and helped stamp out the "immoral" institution of slavery. Plantations subsequently failed and many of the whites left. With so many ups and downs, no wonder Tortola is famed for its "Pain Killer," a concoction made super-potent with Pussers Rum. Pussers, incidentally, is derived from Pursers, the ship officers who distributed the traditional Royal Navy's daily rum ration.
Tortola boasts the highest elevation in the BVI - Mount Sage rising to 1,716 feet. What a view from the top! When Christopher Columbus saw pretty much the same thing, he named the surrounding gorgeous tropical islands after St Ursula's martyred 10,000 virgins.
Tortola remains a gentle, easy-going destination despite the new cruise ship dock and a constant parade of tour buses in Road Town. The three largest bareboat charter operations are on Tortola. There is a wide range of marinas where all boating provisions and supplies are on tap. The best beaches are in the north, especially Smuggler's Cove. On land, the roads twist and turn so much that it takes up to an hour to drive from one end of the island to the other. That's an awfully long time when you consider that Tortola is only 10 miles long and three miles wide.