UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Puerto Rico - The Colonial Period

Among the areas Columbus discovered during his second voyage (1493-96), the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are the oldest American possessions in the historical patrimony of the United States. Salt River Bay near Christiansted National Historic Site is associated with Columbus' discovery of Isla Santa Cruz (St. Croix) on November 1, 1493. There, a party of Columbus' men returning from explorations ashore attacked a group of Caribs in a canoe. The encounter is believed to be the second armed conflict between Europeans and Native Americans, the first being the battle fought at La Navidad on Española by Columbus' men, who spent a year there after the wreck of the Santa María in December 1492. In that encounter, the natives nearly wiped out the Spaniards.

In 1509, Juan Ponce de León, first governor of Puerto Rico, negotiated a treaty with the Caribs on St. Croix with intentions of securing their cooperation in providing agricultural produce. A Spanish ship's crew breached the good will when they attempted to enslave a group of Caribs and triggered a war that spread throughout the Antilles. The Spanish attack on the Caribs on St. Croix began their gradual abandonment of the island by 1600. In the next two centuries, other European powers occupied it.

Before establishing mainland colonies, Spain first settled the larger Caribbean islands--Española, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba. In 1508, Juan Ponce de León re-explored Puerto Rico and within a year obtained a patent for the conquest and settlement of the island. In 1511, he laid the foundations for the establishment of San Juan, one of the oldest European cities in the Americas. Two years later, however, relieved of his governorship, Ponce de León embarked on another quest for fame and riches in Florida.

By the mid to late 1500s, it was not certain that the Spanish colonists could support themselves in Puerto Rico. As the mines failed and no other sources of wealth were easily accessible, new sources of cashflow had to be established. By this time, the demand by Europeans for sugar and its various related products was growing. It was therefore very timely that this lush tropical island, ideal for growing sugarcane, was in search of a new and sustainable way to pay its bills.

There were, however, big problems associated with sugarcane. The two main problems were that the land had to be cleared of its native forests, and cane plantations required lots of labor. Initially, the Taínos were forced into performing these tasks, but they were rapidly dying out, and later became extinct. However, recent DNA analysis indicates that many Puerto Ricans have an ancestral link to the Taínos.

So where would the labor force come from? The conquistadores? No, conquerors rarely performed manual labor. Early in Puerto Rico’s history (1518), 500 African slaves had been brought to Puerto Rico to work in the mines. The need for slaves was transferred to the agricultural sector; thus thousands of slaves were imported, both legally and illegally, beyond the Spanish quotas. As a result of the increased labor, sugar production grew and mills were constructed in various places on the island. Later, production of coffee, tobacco, and ginger also became profitable. Puerto Rico now had a land-based economy and landowners, with many workers. As the mines petered out, San Juan no longer shipped its own gold and silver, but served as a collection center and safe harbor on the perilous sea routes to and from Spain. Spain’s treasure fleets were often attacked by pirates, freebooters, or other nation’s vessels, so Spain decided to fortify San Juan.

In 1539, the construction of El Morro, a classic 16th-century fortress, was initiated. It was not completed for almost 200 years and included moats, ramps, and tunnels all interlinked with the main fortress with its kitchens, troop quarters, powder magazines, and dungeons. As a result of the construction of El Morro and two nearby forts, Puerto Rico became the most fortified colony in the West Indies. El Morro was attacked many times by various countries, pirates, and freebooters, but the Spanish flag did not fall until 1898 when the United States took over the island by attacking the unfortified south coast.

Puerto Rico remained pretty much a Spanish defensive outpost protecting its New World colonies and an agrarian society for the next 300 years. As the sugar industry continued to prosper, by the latter part of the 19th century, Puerto Rico the Spanish heritage of the island were being built in Old San Juan. By the time of the American Revolution, Puerto Rico’s population was nearing 100,000. Large homes reflecting the Spanish heritage of the island were being built in Old San Juan. They were brick and stucco, with ornate arches, many with interior courtyards and balconies. By 1800, the population had grown to nearly 150,000. Spain had opened Puerto Rico to greater colonization and in the early 1800s, many Spanish loyalists sought refuge there from wars for freedom in other Latin American colonies. By the 1830s, Puerto Rico had a plantation economy with sugar, coffee, tobacco, and molasses the main exports.

The initial period of colonization in Puerto Rico reflected the powerful input of Spanish mercantilism on her colonial possessions. The strict control exercised by Spain vis-à-vis Puerto Rico, however, served to create a common setting within which a conscious awareness of a Puerto Rican identity began to emerge. Unrest and revolution on the continent at the turn of the 19th century provided an impetus for political reform both in the peninsula and on the island. The resulting combination of events in the Old World as well as in the Americas marked the transition from a traditional policy of colonial administration to a system of assimilation in which colonial possessions were granted direct participation in national affairs.

In 1812, Spain elevated Puerto Rico’s status to that of a province, which included representation in the Spanish Parliament. This status was short-lived, and within a couple of years it reverted to colonial status with a series of military governors appointed by the Spanish Crown. This led to resentment and hostility on the part of a growing body of Puerto Rican intellectuals. In 1868, an intellectual-led rebellion occurred in the mountain town of Lares where they proclaimed the free Republic of Puerto Rico. The revolt was put down by Spanish troops. Prior to the revolt, political parties had been outlawed, but shortly after the revolt, the first legal political party was allowed to organize (Liberal Reform Party). Under its influence, the Spanish government outlawed slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873. At that time only 5 percent of the population was African.

Puerto Rico, since its colonial period, was pretty much culturally and racially homogenous. The Liberal Reform Party changed its name to the Autonomist Party in 1887 in order to seek autonomy rather than absolute independence from Spain. Autonomy was achieved in 1897 under the leadership of Luis Muñoz Rivera. Once again, Puerto Rico could elect voting delegates to the Spanish Parliament. The newly granted autonomy also permitted the election of Puerto Rico’s first legislature in March 1898.

Puerto Rican liberalism in the 19th century manifested two trends of thought : From 1808 to 1823, the liberals advocated the assimilation of Puerto Rico as a juridical equal of the peninsular provinces; beginning in 1823, a radical shift in liberal thought put emphasis on an autonomous system of government rather than on the process of assimilation. Thus began a protracted campaign for political autonomy, waged both on the island and on the peninsula, which culminated in the granting of a Charter of Autonomy for Puerto Rico in 1897.

The charter marked the end of a period of political expression in which the dominant voices had argued for recognition of the basic differences which prevailed between island and peninsula. The new beginning promised by the charter was short-lived - the advent of the Spanish-American War several months later severed the political relationship between Spain and Puerto Rico. The abrogation of the political base established in the 19th century, however, could not erase the experience of that era.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 30-10-2017 10:47:32 ZULU