Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Far Tortola?

It occurs to me that it's been some time since I've exposed my foggy yet all too quintessentially American lack of knowledge of world geography.

This is not because that knowledge has improved.

A week or so ago, a friend of mine departed for a vacation in Tortola. On Tortola, I must amend, as it soon emerged that Tortola was an island. I cleverly deduced that it was not an American possession, as she had some last minute scrambling to do about a passport. Among other things that came to light was that it was remote, without a lot of glitz, and possibly few amenities.

It was also a long way from California.

So, when I learned that there was a place called Tortola that I had not actually ever heard about, did I rush home to find my trusty atlas? Or at least rush to the nearest computer to home in on it with Google Earth?

Even though this is pure fodder for this blog, I did not. I said, have a nice vacation. See you when you get back. That was it.

As a mental space filler, I came up with a mental image of a lone, barren island, rising out of the water like the back of a whale, with maybe a few goat trails to roam upon.

It wasn't till another friend asked, where is Tortola, anyway? that I even began to think about the fact that I didn't have a clue. And that I had somehow been mixing it up in my brain with Peter Matthiessen's Far Tortuga, which, needless to say, I don't have a clue about either.

My friend posited that Tortola was in the British Virgin Islands, and this turns out to be right. And it is fairly sparsely populated. At least roughly 24,000 people on 21 and a half square miles of land would seem so to me. But that's all I got.

I suppose we should start with the name, as word origins are a popular feature of this blog, or at least I like to pretend that they are. There doesn't really seem to be a definitive answer, unfortunately. Some say that Christopher Columbus himself named it after the turtle dove. Another theory has it that after the Dutch settled it they named it Tor Tholen, after a small island off the coast of the Netherlands. And one I must say ingenious theory has it that as Columbus named the whole archipelago in honor of St. Ursula, the name may actually be a misreading of the inscription "ft. Urfula" or "St. Ursula", the old scripts being difficult like that.

Well, people, your guess is as good as mine. Okay, probably better.

Tortola, though my vacationing friend probably has not had recourse to this, is a tax haven. Its chief industries are 'financial services', and we can only wonder whether it too has been the site of some of the shell games of recent days that have played such havoc with people's savings.

If so, though, it probably shouldn't surprise us. Pirates, after all have hunkered down here before. The notorious Blackbeard actually used the west end of the island, a place called Soper's Hole, as a base to lie in wait in. Let's just say that it wasn't pretty for the trade ships that happened by.

Ironically, what finally drove the pirates out was not some benign force, but colonization in the form of sugar plantations, which were viable largely because of an active slave trade.

Slavery was abolished in Tortola in 1838. Oddly enough, many European residents chose exactly this point in time to leave.

Tortola was not done with the encroachment of western civilization yet though. (Come on now, you didn't really think it was?) In fact, an iconic name of American capitalism would grace these fair shores before too long. Laurence Rockefeller imagined tourists on its white, sandy beaches, and founded the Dix Resort here in the sixties. I suppose the 'financial services' industry was not long in following.

This is getting to be a rather long post, so I suppose I'll have to save the whereabouts of Tortuga for another day.

Besides, I'm an American. I have to get caught up on Mad Men before the new season starts.


  1. Nice post, good research. I too had no idea where this place.

    Speaking of Mad Men, the wife and I are behind too. We have all of Season 2 to watch still. We had high hopes of Netflixing the second season so we could start watching the show as it airs. Ah well.

  2. Never heard of this island, either. Thanks for the geography lesson.

    But why are all tax-havens small, remote and have names that sound edible? (Tortola - tortilla; Monaco - In India, Monaco is a popular salty biscuit).

  3. I think the food sounding names are a coincidence, Sucharita, but I'll bet that island cultures are somehow conducive to tax havens. Maybe it's just because they are small enough to easily write advantageous law.

  4. Brian, I only have season two available to me, so that's all I'm catching up on. It all seems a bit different from the one episode I saw at my cousin's last summer. Although I knew it was a bit of a soap, everyone seems a bit more tortured than I'd have expected.

    So, you're a lawyer--what do you know about why a certain place gets allowed to be a tax haven?

  5. Good diving is to be had there, too. I think one of my friends once spent a vacation there, and he was involved in no financial shenanigans that I know of.

    As for Far Tortola, I challenge anyone to say it ten times fast without laughing, especially if stoned at the time.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  6. I'm assuming you don't actually have to go to a tax haven in order to benefit from it, but I have to admit that I've never had enough income to shelter to be bothered to find out.

  7. Oh never heard of an island called Tortola!!! Thanks to Google its makes it so easy to even know about these islands instead of following the Columbus n D Gama way..lol :)!!

    Nice BLOGS...m amazed as how can u handle 4 blogs alone n keep each of them up to date. Hats off mam!!! U really have a keenness n hunger for knowledge!!!

    take care!!!

  8. Thanks for dropping by, Nazish. Did you find your way here through Sucharita's wonderful blog?

    Yes, our access to information these days is incredible. I think even those of us who lived in the days before this possibility take it for granted most of the time. I somehow doubt that all this knowledge actually makes us any wiser though.

    People do seem to be impressed with the idea of four blogs but it really isn't difficult. They are just slots for different kinds of things. Someone with one blog would probably just update it more frequently than I do.

    As to being up to date, well, I am at the moment, but I let all of them slide at times. Friends are kind enough to read this, but it's not like there's any true external pressure for posts.

    But this is an excellent place to share a fact that I just read in Harper's index of facts this month. The estimated percentage of all blogs in the world that have not been updated in the last four months?


    That should make most people reading here feel very good about their own productivity.

  9. According to a "Discover who you were in your past life" summer game, in 1694 I was a cattle farmer in the Virgin Islands.
    Apparently I was too focused on material goods and earthly pleasures, and my family suffered from it.

  10. Oh dear. This explains so much.

  11. I always liked The Far Tortugas. Such a romantic place, but probably not so great.

    I once visited Stornaway in the Outer Hebrides mainly because of the name. It is, alas, a complete shithole.

  12. Adrian, I was kind of counting on you to say something along the lines of "When I visited Tortola, I remember bribing one of the locals to show me Blackbeard's watery grave. Once we got there, he pulled out an enormous old Spanish pistol. I thought he was going to shoot me, but it turned out he was just offering it up for sale."

    Oh, well, my Tortola visiting friend is due back this week. She is usually good for a harrowing tale or two.