Columbus discovered what is known as the British Virgin Islands in 1493, on his second voyage from Spain. The Spanish made no real attempts to settle the area, though they did enslave much of the native population to work in gold and copper mines in Central and South America. In particular, the Spanish crown encouraged enslavement of the Carib tribes, as they were believed to practice cannibalism.

For about 150 years, pirates were the main settlers on Tortola. They used the island’s many quiet beaches and hidden coves (such as the scenic Smuggler’s Cove near Road Town today) to hide their ships and plundered goods. It was not until 1621 that the Dutch settled on Tortola; their settlement was soon taken over by the English, who fought against piracy for nearly half a century before effectively stamping it out. Tortola was then populated by sugar plantations, and Road Town developed into a center of the Caribbean sugar trade.

With the abolition of slavery throughout Great Britain in 1834, the sugar industry of the British Virgin Islands fell into decline, and the local economy dragged along in a slump until the 1980s, when financial companies and banks began establishing offshore trading sites. At the same time, the British Virgin Islands were also developed as a tourist attraction, and thus Road Town, the capital city of the British Virgin Islands, grew to its present-day population of 10,000, most of which are employed in the tourism trade.