The British Virgin Islands came under British control in 1672, at the outbreak of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, and have remained so ever since. The circumstances of the British taking control however are somewhat uncertain. The Dutch averred that in 1672 Willem Hunthum put Tortola under the protection of Colonel Sir William Stapleton, the English Governor-General of the Leeward Islands. Stapleton himself reported that he had captured the Territory shortly after the outbreak of war.
What is clear is that Colonel William Burt was dispatched to Tortola and took control of the island by no later than 13 July 1672 (when Stapleton reported the conquest to the Council of Trade). Burt did not have sufficient men to occupy the Territory, but before leaving the island, he destroyed the Dutch forts and removed all their cannon to St. Kitts.
By the Treaty of Westminster of 1674, the war was ended, and provision was made for mutual restoration of all territorial conquests during the war. The Treaty provided the Dutch with the right to resume possession of the islands, but by then the Dutch were at war with the French, and fear of a French attack prevented their immediate restoration. Although the possessions were not considered valuable, for strategic reasons the British became reluctant to surrender them, and after prolonged discussions, orders were issued to Stapleton in June 1677 to retain possession of Tortola and the surrounding islands.
In 1678, the Franco-Dutch War ended, and the Dutch returned their attention to Tortola, although it was not until 1684 that the Dutch ambassador, Arnout van Citters, formally requested the return of Tortola. However, he did not do so on the basis of the Treaty of Westminster, but instead based the claim on the private rights of the widow of Willem Hunthum. He asserted that the island was not a conquest, but had been entrusted to the British. The ambassador provided a letter from Stapleton promising to return the island.
At this time (1686), Stapleton had completed his term of office and was en route back to Britain. The Dutch were told Stapleton would be asked to explain the discrepancy between his assertion of having conquered the island, and the correspondence signed by him indicating a promise to return it, after which a decision would be made. Unfortunately, Stapleton traveled first to France to recover his health, where he died. Cognisant that other Caribbean territories which had been captured from the Dutch during the war had already been restored, in August 1686 the Dutch ambassador was advised by the British that Tortola would be restored, and instructions to that effect were sent to Sir Nathaniel Johnson, the new Governor of the Leeward Islands.
But Tortola was never actually returned to the Dutch. Part of the problem was that Johnson's orders were to restore the island to such person or persons who have "sufficient procuration or authority to receive the same..." However, most of the former Dutch colonists had now departed, having lost hope of restoration. Certainly there was no official representation of the Dutch monarchy or any other organ of government. In the event, Johnson did nothing.
In November 1696, a subsequent claim was made to the island by Sir Peter van Bell, the agent of Sir Joseph Shepheard, a Rotterdam merchant, who claimed to have purchased Tortola on 21 June 1695, for 3,500 guilders. Shepheard was from the Margraviate of Brandenburg, and the prospect of Tortola coming under Brandenburger control did not sit well in Westminster. The Brandenburg claim was dismissed by the British on the grounds that Stapleton had conquered rather than been entrusted with Tortola. The now common delaying tactic of forwarding all correspondence to Governor Codrington for comment was employed. Codrington readily appreciated the risks of a Brandenburg trading outpost on Tortola, as such an outpost already existed on nearby St. Thomas. The Brandenburgers had previously set up an outpost for trading slaves on Peter Island in 1690, which they had abandoned, and they were not considered welcome. At the time they had an outpost on St. Thomas, but they engaged in no agriculture, and only participated in the trading of slaves. Negotiations became more intense, and the British re-asserted the right of conquest and also (wrongly, but apparently honestly) claimed to have first discovered Tortola. During the negotiations, the British also became aware of two older historical claims, the 1628 patent granted to the Earl of Carlisle (which was inconsistent with Hunthum's title being sold to him by the Dutch West India company), and an order of the King in 1694 to prevent foreign settlement in the Virgin Islands. In February 1698, Codrington was told to regard the earlier 1694 orders as final, and the British entertained no further claims to the islands.
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“We may be scum, but at least were la crème de la scum.”
—Report on the British royal family. quoted in Sunday Times (London, Nov. 13, 1988)