History of Peter Island

In the 17th century, a small German state with Berlin as the capital started a business in trading slaves and needed a base in the Indies. The state was Brandenburg. These people were allies of the Danes, and were given the right to establish a plantation and warehouse on St Thomas. They never did establish the plantation and this created friction between the Danes and them so they looked around for another island. I hope you enjoy this history of Peter Island.

1 History of Peter Island, British Virgin Islands

In 1690 they occupied Peter Island, which then had no inhabitants. They wanted to build a large settlement there and knew that they would need several forts to do this. Even though Tortola was tempted to make a deal with them, The Governor was convinced that it would harm British interests, so it was never done and they left the island.

Peter Island was unsuitable for sugar cane and in the mid 1700s a few planters with a few slaves left Tortola for Peter and planted cotton. This was moderately more successful and the operation expanded somewhat.

In 1756 there were 5 small arms on Peter Island. The islanders asked for an additional 6 and 2 cannons. They did not receive them. John Bethell was a planter on this island in the 1770s and in a dusty attic back in England, papers were found telling stories on the island.

John had came to Tortola from Barbados in his early twenties and married an older women. Shortly after their marriage, she found out that he was having an affair with a beautiful mulatto girl called Princess, which the wife promptly sold to a Planter on Peter Island. When John came into his inheritance, he purchased the plantation on Peter Island and freed his beloved Princess.

Peter Island Religion

The first religion on Peter Island was Methodist and back in 1796 preachers visited the island regularly.

2 History of Peter Island, British Virgin IslandsDeadmans Bay, Peter Island

In 1806 a visitor described the island as ” a kind of Robinson Crusoe Spot, where a man ought to be a farmer, doctor, carpenter, fisherman, planter, everything himself. The owners house has only the ground floor, a roof of shingles projects 6 or 8 feet beyond the sides, like a Quakers hat: not a pane of glass in the house, only shutters for the apertures.

In the centre of the drawing room or hall, or best room, were tied up ears of Indian corn, on a chair lay a fishing net; in one corner hung another, a spyglass, a fowling piece, chairs, looking glass and pictures of the 4 seasons composed the furniture; the library consisted of a prayer book, the world Almanac, and one volume of the Naval Chronicle. On the left hand was a room, with a range of machines for extracting the seeds from the cotton. Round the house were abundance of goats, turkeys, fowls, a bull, cow, pigs, dogs and cat…

The old gentlemen was dressed in a large wide- brimmed white hat, which appeared to have been in use for half a century; a white night-cap covered his bald head; his blue jacket had lapels buttoned back; his duck waistcoat had flaps down to his knees; the trousers were of the same material as the waistcoat…the man leading this isolated life, with only his old wife, who looked more like an Egyptian mummy then anything human, was worth 60,000 pounds, he had lived twenty years on that small island and twenty upon Tortola.”

3 History of Peter Island, British Virgin Islands Boats anchored in Deadmans Bay, Peter Island

The end of the slave era marked a decline and afterwards Peter Island returned to its primitive state.

In 1855 a coaling station was set up in Great Harbor as Cholera frequently struck the largest coaling station on St Thomas. This is where the RMS Rhone was in October 1867. The spar fell on the Chief Officer there in Great Harbor and killed him, his body was later found on Salt Island.

Census Figures

As of 1853 there were 153 people living on Peter Island and 22 died from Cholera.

In 1891 they did not separate it down, and listed it as Salt and Peter having 99 black people between them.

In 1901 Salt and Peter had 98 people.

As of 1911 Salt and Peter had 94 people, 42 of these were from Peter 2 were of the Anglican religion and 40 Wesleyan. 14 could read and write, 9 were black and 29 colored.

As of 1921 Peter 40 was listed with 40 people and then it falls off from there.

At the beginning of the 20th century, some agricultural experimentation was done on the island, but in 1916 a horrific hurricane destroyed everything.

Small tobacco plantation were then introduced in the early 1920s.

It was in the early 20th century that the palm trees were planted at Deadmans Bay as well.

Mr O Neal from Tortola started buying land there about that time and offered employment to Peter Island residents raising sheep, cows and goats for export. He also cultivated bananas, Tania, cassava and potatoes that were shipped to Tortola and exported to St Thomas.

5 History of Peter Island, British Virgin Islands Old outhouse at Little Harbour, Peter Island

About that time a gentleman called Brunial Bruce was growing tobacco on the island and he had a small cigarette and cigar company in Little Harbor that he exported to Anguilla, Antigua and other down island places. When he lost market share, he sold his land and buildings to Mr. Percy Chubb. He retired there and lived there until he died and one story says that it was sold to Peter Island Resort in the mid 80s.

Another story says that when he died the heirs were fighting, and no-one wanted to live there so it just lay there to go to ruin. (I recently heard from a member of the family though who corrected that rumor and said any one of them would have loved to have lived there, but simply could not afford to!)

6 History of Peter Island, British Virgin IslandsSprat Bay, looking over to Great Harbour, Peter Island

The economy grew and by the 1950s the Lafontaine family built the Sprat Bay fishing business into quite a large one, and you could see many sea planes in Great Harbor from all over the Caribbean landing to buy fish.

One of the La Fontaine family still lives on that 15 acres of land, he is blind. Rumor says that they have resisted all efforts to sell to Peter Island Resort. There are also the ruins of a small church and graveyard on the west side of Sprat Bay.

7 History of Peter Island, British Virgin Islands

In 1930 a retired British Diplomat John Brudenell-Bruce built a fairly large house on Peter Island. John’s ancestor was the 7th earl of Cardigan (although the current Earl of Cardigan nicely pointed out to me that the 7th Earl ofr Cardigan had no offspring, so he could not be a direct ancestor…and conceded if you scratched the family tree somewhere there is probaly a connection..)

who in October 1854 ordered the famous charge of the light brigade into the Valley of Death.

This is where the world got the word Cardigan. He lived a simple life on the island and in the 50s became a member of LEGCO and moved to Tortola. His daughter opened the first gift shop in Tortola in the early 60s and it is now known as Little Denmark.

Torolf Smedwig, a Norweigan Millionaire purchased 500 hundred acres land in the late 60s (1968). He owned the largest sardine packing plant in Norway as well as oil explorations in Oklahoma. He purchased his piece of paradise for $950,000. His original plan was to sell individual lots as well as develop as small quality hotel. He only sold one lot, and that is now totally closed off to the public.

8 History of Peter Island, British Virgin Islands Picture of Peter Island resort about 40 years ago!

With their being so little infrastructure here, the decision was made to prefabricate the chalets in Norway and then ship them here. So in 1969 two ships with thousands of tons of prefabricated buildings, house trailers, concrete, lumber, plumbing supplies, tractors, earth movers, cranes and more came over from Norway. Accompanying all this was 20 Norwegian craftsmen and workers, who would work with about 30 island workers.

Sprat Bay was dredged to not only make it deeper, but it also created the land the resort sat on! All the A frames, the pool, the lobby, bar, dining room and hotel offices were all built on reclaimed land.

All the A frames were prefabricated in Norway and then it took only about ten days to be preerected on site, although the wiring etc took much longer.

There were cisterns built all over the island, but water still had to be barged in from Puerto Rico!

In 1977 Mr Smedvigs health was failing and he returned home to Norway. Shortly thereafter he died, and the resort was purchased by two gentlemen who had founded AMWAY Corporation in the states. Mr. DeVos and Mr Van Andel, put a lot more time and money into bringing the resort to its potential.

8 History of Peter Island, British Virgin Islands Deadmans Bay, Peter Island. History of Peter Island

Peter Island took a direct hit with hurricane Hugo.

After hurricane Hugo, with 130 mph winds, all the flagpoles were gone. The 600 foot seawall was blown away. Giant breakwater boulders had been hurled into the swimming pool. There were even two barracuda in the swimming pool! Everything was destroyed. On Deadmans Beach, it had all but vanished.


Old chubb house, little harbor, peter island

Hands down, always been one of our favorite anchorages in the BVI! Around 1920 a gentleman called Brunial Bruce was growing tobacco on the island and he had a small cigarette and cigar company in Little Harbor that he exported to Anguilla, Antigua and other down island places.

When he lost market share, he sold his land and buildings to Mr. Percy Chubb. He retired there and lived there until he died and one story says that it was sold to Peter Island Resort in the mid 80s. Another story says that when he died the heirs were fighting, and no-one wanted to live there so it just lay there to go to ruin.

This anchorage continues to amaze me! We have always climbed around up at the top where the old Chubb House is, but not 100 feet off the back of the dock there are all the ruins of an old area with buildings, gardens, greehouses, workshops, wall, wells, and a lot more. We were there in September of 2007 and it was quite easy to get through the bush then.

Note on this, we did have some email us last fall with a few corrections on the facts. And I cannot find it 🙁 If it was you, please let me know what they are again.

Chubb House

Aha! Found the email with the correction on facts for the Chubb House!


Through the magic of google I stumbled across your notes on Little Harbor. Yes, what a beautiful harbor that is.

A couple of factual corrections. Having sailed through the Caribbean almost every winter since the 50s, my father bought the place sometime in the early-mid 60s (I was too young to know exactly), and we spent part of almost every winter there every year until the mid-80s, a couple of years after he died.

We watched its popularity, and the popularity of charter sailing, grow from one or two boats a night to thirty or forty boats overnight. Despite the occasionally tiresome disturbance of our peace, we derived a good deal of pleasure watching, and hearing, from the house on the top of the hill, as amateurs trying to anchor in a harbor with swirling winds banged into each other and cursed.

But Dad never “retired there” and there was no discord in the family about the sale. A lot of sadness, because it was a remarkable place to be able to stay. Expensive to maintain, though, as one might imagine, and none of the kids could take it on. Besides the cost, my mother felt that she was getting too old, and her friends were getting too old, to have the only medical access be by boat from Roadtown in case there were a problem. The last Christmas we spent there was in 1985.

Sure does make me sad to see it abandoned now. What a remarkably beautiful place. The history of Peter Island truly is fascinating.

One more note: I believe the previous owner was Sir Brundel Bruce, and the small crenelated structure by the water, that you refer to as a “boathouse” and which we used as a bathhouse, was, so we were told, originally an outhouse built by Bruce’s so-called “Amazon daughters.”

Thanks for the chance to revisit what was a paradise for me in my teens and twenties.

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