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Peter Island


The caption of a period portrait of RMS RHONE—shown in the Salt Island section—mistakenly referenced “St. Peter Island” and the island also was known as Peter’s Island, being named after an early owner whose identity and reputation is controversial. But whoever he was, his ownership did not automatically ensure financial success since, unfortunately, Peter Island’s soil did not support sugar cane and was thus passed up by the economic boom of the plantation era. Until some Tortola farmers introduced cotton, which grew well on the island, Peter Island’s only claim to fame was that Blackbeard marooned 15 men on Dead Chest Island, off the east end, leaving them with only a bottle of rum for solace. Hence the ditty, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, 15 men on dead man’s chest.”

Dead Chest Island

In the 1690s, a colony of Germans built forts on Peter Island to protect their new plantation but the Danes on St. Thomas and St. John petitioned the British governor of the Leeward Islands, one Colonel Codrington, to expel them; which he did forthwith.

By the 1770s, John Bethel, a Codrington relative, was a planter on Peter Island and the story of the love triangle between him, his wife and a beautiful mulatto slave named Princess is the stuff of legend. Eventually, after inheriting a fortune from his family, Bethel bought out all the other Peter Island planters along with their slaves and granted Princess her freedom. Mrs. Bethel’s reaction to John’s love and emancipation of Princess is unknown but one might assume that the marriage was a bit strained.

After emancipation, the cotton plantations failed and Peter Island reverted to its natural state. In 1855, Great Harbour was set up as a coaling station for His Majesty’s mail ships and other steam packets that plied the area. Later, a customs house was built at Little Harbour. (The ruins can be explored behind the beach by the dock.) The reason for establishing these important services in seemingly remote spots was because the ship’s crews and Tortolans wanted to avoid the spread of yellow fever that periodically wracked St. Thomas, the major cargo port in the Virgin Islands. During these times of contagion, small ships that normally spread the cargos from Charlotte Amalie to the other Virgin Islands, instead, picked up their loads at Little Harbour and even smaller lighters carried merchandise over to nearby to Road Harbour and Spanish Town.

At the turn of the 20th Century, a small group of settlers tried their hand at farming and after the 1916 hurricane, cotton was replaced by tobacco. Tobacco brought some modest success but it was marginal at best. In the 1930s, a British diplomat, John Brudenell-Bruce moved his family to the island and lived happily for years until he accepted a position on the BVI Legislative Council and in the 1950s he moved over to Tortola, again leaving the island uninhabited.

Norwegian Peter Smedwig bought most of the island in the 1960s and began development of what is now the Peter Island Resort. At Smedwig’s death in the 1970s, the founders of Amway, Richard DeVos and Steve Van Andel, bought Smedwig’s interest and still control the resort and most of the island property.

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