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The History of Puerto Rico

Part II

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The discovery of gold in Puerto Rico had once placed the island at an economic advantage. She had an abundance of wealth unmatched by any of the colonies in the Caribbean.However, Puerto Rico’s prosperity was short lived. Once the mines and rivers were striped of their precious ore, many of the inhabitants including the miners and soldiers left the island. Many settlers also left. The remainder found that special consideration from the crown was slowly fading.

By the early seventeenth century, Puerto Rico’s diminished economy was considerable. Growing towns like San Juan, San Germàn, and Arecibo were not enough to handle Spain’s economic demands.  Puerto Rico was expected now to consume a portion of the Empires goods. This would help make up for the gold Puerto Rico could no longer export.  This also was a way to limit the Island’s ability to trade outside the Spanish realm.  The trade restrictions became the major complaint of the Puerto Rican, who resorted to smuggling produce and slaves to survive. 

In the middle of the century coffee bushes were brought to the island, and gradually, a coffee industry emerged in place of smuggling.  Puerto Rican coffee soon became known as the best in the world. Very little land and laborers were needed to farm coffee, so slavery had only a minor role in the growth of agriculture.  In general, slavery never became an acceptable practice in the culture or economy of the island, and in later years slavery was abolished entirely. As a result the island became a magnet for free Negroes and slaves seeking freedom. By the end of the 17th century, the growing Negro population began to make its mark on the physical characteristics of the Puerto Rican. While five out of every ten Puerto Ricans were of Spanish descent, three were a mixture of Spanish, Indian and Negro; one was a free Negro, and one a Negro slave. The lack of a slave population also spared Puerto Rico from the racial tensions that plagued other Caribbean islands. Instead, the people of Puerto Rico embraced a sense of kinship and respect for all races of man, a belief that was unsurpassed by any regions in the Americas of the time.  In the late Eighteenth century, the restriction on trade was gradually lifted, and Puerto Rico was permitted to trade with neutral nations.  Among them was the newly independent United States who was also eager for developing its own sources of trade.

At the close of the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte forced King Ferdinand of Spain into exile. This prompted the Spaniards to set up a provisional government in Càdiz, Spain. The colonists of Puerto Rico remained loyal to the King throughout, and in September of 1810, Ramón Power, the first deputy from the Island, took part in the Cortes, the provisional Spanish legislature. He succeeded at winning the vice-presidency, the highest post a Puerto Rican would ever hold in the Spanish government. By 1812 the Cortes passed the first Spanish Constitution, which proclaimed Puerto Rico, and the other colonies a province of Spain. For the time being the colonists of Puerto Rico were considered Spanish citizens so long as they remained represented by the Cortes. Most important to the colonists, local affairs were to be controlled by a local legislature.

Unfortunately for Puerto Rico, Napoleon was defeated two years later, and by 1814, King Ferdinand returned to Spain and regained his throne. One of his first decrees was to abolish the newly formed Constitution and reclassify the new Spanish provinces in the Americas as colonies. This act sparked revolution, and fighting quickly broke out throughout Latin America.  Colonists began a campaign to oust Spain and its influence from the Western Hemisphere. In the end, of all the Spanish possessions in the New World, only Puerto Rico and Cuba remained colonies of the Crown.

In Puerto Rico, for one reason or another, the people’s sentiments were in accord with Spain’s policies, a stark contrast to the anarchy that spun countless revolutions upon governments after governments that succeeded from the Empire. The Puerto Rican governors worked hard to suppress any actions that might spark movement toward independence. They rivaled the idea of independence by taking a real interest in the island’s problems. They improved schools, built hospitals and roads, and supported economic growth in many ways.For the time being these needed concessions lulled Puerto Ricans into submission.  But the Puerto Ricans still had some unresolved issues.  There was an immediate concern over the degree of autonomy some governors had over the Islanders’ daily lives. Some officials wheeled the Crown’s sword with absolute authority. Changes in the official policies of the government of Puerto Rico were slow in coming mainly because of the great distance between the Island and Spain.

The widening social gap between the rich and poor was also contributing to the mounting tension Puerto Ricans were feeling. Until then, Puerto Ricans from every stratum endured the plight for survival together. A need for labor in newly sprouted sugar plantations now threatened to divide Puerto Ricans into classes. Since it was difficult for many jibaros to survive on their small patches of land, they hired themselves out to the large plantations. Although slavery was forbidden on the island, the fact that slavery existed among the neighboring islands kept the price of the working force down. Eventually, a growing number of jibaros chose not to work for such unfair wages, and many fell into idleness.

Note: This page is not complete. When it is finished it will contain a chronology of events in the history of Puerto Rico Part II.  Pictures will be included! And coming soon, the history of Puerto Rico, Part III.

This account of the history of Puerto Rico is based on class notes from a puertoriquen history course.

Useful Sites:
National Park Service - San Juan National Historic Site - contains history and information about the forts of Puerto Rico.
The Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation of Boriken
- contains information about the Taino tribes of the Caribbean.

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Revisado /Revised: January 17, 2017