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At roughly 8 square kilometers, and about 3 square miles Jost Van Dyke is the smallest of the four main islands of the British Virgin Islands, the northern portion of the archipelago of the Virgin Islands, located in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Jost Van Dyke lies about 8 km to the northwest of Tortola and 8 km to the north of Saint John. Little Jost Van Dyke lies off its eastern end.
Like many of the neighboring islands, it is volcanic in origin and mountainous. The highest point on the island is Majohnny Hill at 321 meters (1054 ft).
Despite rumours that the island's name comes from that of a 17th-century Dutch privateer, Joost van Dyk, who used its harbours as a hideout, there is no factual evidence supporting this claim. Just who Jost Van Dyke's namesake is remains a mystery. John C. Lettsome (of Little Jost Van Dyke), founder of the Medical Society of London is Jost Van Dyke's most noteworthy resident.
Although the English captured the BVI in 1672, it seems that Jost Van Dyke was mostly ignored until the mid-18th century. A map drawn of the BVI in 1717 by Captain John Walton does not depict either Jost Van Dyke or Little Jost Van Dyke.
The remains of a sugar works on the ridge above Great Harbour provide archaeological evidence that some sugar cane was under cultivation and processed, though probably not in any great quantity.
In 1815, 140 acres (0.57 km2) were under cotton cultivation, producing 21,000 pounds annually. There was a population of 428 (25 whites, 32 free persons of colour and 371 slaves). By 1825, cotton production decreased to 17,000 pounds, while the population increased to 506 (34 whites, 76 free persons of colour and 397 slaves).
Similar to other islands in the region, JVD and the BVI saw gradual and irreversible economic decline throughout the 18th century. Curiously though, the population of Jost Van Dyke continued to increase (probably due to the freedom of travel enjoyed by the former slave population after Emancipation in the BVI in 1838). Thereafter, many BVI islanders regularly sought work at the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company's coaling wharves in St. Thomas, (today- United States Virgin Islands). By 1853, Dookhan (1975) attributes a population of 1,235 residents on Jost Van Dyke, 196 of whom died of a cholera outbreak in that same year.
From the Emancipation Era forward, the community of Jost Van Dyke subsisted mainly on small scale fishing and subsistence agriculture. Charcoal-making was a practice that began during the plantation era, when strong fires were vital for sugar and rum production, and charcoal making emerged as a primary industry for the BVI during the Post-Emancipation years. Between the 1920s and 1960s, an estimated 20,000 tons of charcoal were exported from the BVI to the US Virgin Islands. (1998. Penn-Moll, Verna, Coals of Fire: The Development of the Caribbean Fireplace Technology with Traditional Customs, Myths and Sayings.)
According to island residents, on JVD, people would work collectively to build charcoal pits, a practice that occasionally continues to this day. The pits were often a social gathering place, women might use the heat of the fire to bake bread or roast breadfruit while the men might play dominoes around the pit.
Maritime resources were also extremely important historically to the people of Jost Van Dyke, and the island has emerged as a fishing village. The desire for trade and social interaction with nearby islands stimulated the development of seafaring skills. Sailing, fishing, rowing and boat construction flourished. Small, locally constructed sailing vessels the "Tortola Boat" flourished in the BVI until about the 1960s when they were replaced with motorized craft.
A few hundred people live on Jost Van Dyke. (The recorded population in 1991 was 140; however, the population increased in the late 1990s with the advent of electricity and paved roads.) As of 2008, the population recorded was 297 (though many residents argue that the government-derived population figure is too high and believe that citizens who actually live in St. Thomas may be included in that census). The island has a young population with nearly one-half (46%) of residents under the age of 35 and almost 70% under the age of 50.
The most frequent destination is Great Harbor (or Great Harbour). The beach strip around the harbour is lined with small bars and restaurants. Since the late 1960s, Foxy's Bar in Great Harbor has been a popular stop for Caribbean boaters. Foxy's and the other bars in Great Harbor now host a modest crowd year-round and are filled with thousands of partiers on New Year's Eve (locally known as “Old Year’s Night”).
Great Harbour is one of the busiest ports in the BVI: in 2008, nearly 7,000 boats cleared through the island’s port. Today, tourism, and particularly yachting tourism is the mainstay of the economy.
Located in nearby White Bay is the Soggy Dollar Bar, another famous beach bar on the island. The Soggy Dollar is reputedly the birthplace of the popular drink known as the Painkiller. The Soggy Dollar bar is appropriately named because when built there was neither road nor dock. (There is now a road from Great Harbour, but still no dock). To reach the beach where the bar is located, it is a common practice for boaters to anchor off the beach, swim to shore, and pay for their drinks with wet money.
The country music video for Kenny Chesney's 2002 recording, No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, was filmed on and around Jost Van Dyke. Included in the video were several scenes at One Love Bar and Ivan's Stress-Free Bar where it is common for patrons to mix their own drinks, and leave their payment in the register. Chesney also references Jost Van Dyke in his song, Somewhere in The Sun, from his album Be as You Are (Songs from an Old Blue Chair).
The British Virgin Islands operates several government schools.
Jost Van Dyke residents are served by Jost Van Dyke Primary School which offers both primary and secondary education. As of 2011, after students graduate from primary school they attend secondary (high school) for two years on Jost Van Dyke. After completing two years of high school on Jost Van Dyke, students travel daily from Monday to Friday to the main island of Tortola to attend the Elmore Stoutt High School. Students must catch the 7:00 am ferry (NEW HORIZON FERRY SERVICE) and return to Jost Van Dyke on the 4:00 pm ferry.