Puerto Rico

Christopher Columbus bumped into Puerto Rico on his second voyage to the new world. He sailed along the Caribbean Sea on the islands southern coast and went ashore on November 19, 1493 somewhere on the western shore. He and his men rested for a few days to supply themselves with fresh drinking water, fruit and fish. The island was named San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist). After this brief stay, Columbus sailed the Mona Passage west in search of other lands. The island was left unvisited by the Europeans for 15 years.

On August 12, 1508 Juan Ponce de Leon, a soldier who had traveled with Columbus in 1493, invaded Puerto Rico with a small army of soldiers and became Puerto Rico's first governor. The first town established was Caparra, located near the south shore of what is today the San Juan Bay. The Taino aborigines (about 30,000) who lived on the island, lived in small tribes. They were not physically prepared to resist the Spaniards goal to conquer the island. Their primitive weapons were no match for the Spanish swords and powerful fire arms. The Tainos were turned into slaves and used to do mining work.

By 1514 there were less than 4,000 Tainos left. Agriculture was beginning to take a bigger role in the islands economy and African slaves were introduced. In 1519 the smallpox epidemic (said to be brought to the island from Africa) killed many Spaniards and Tainos.

In time, as mining resources became more scarce, cultivating sugar cane became the most important economical activity. The climate was ideal and African slaves labor was cheap. By now the Spanish had built a rich empire in the new world. Convoys of ships loaded with silver, pearls, and all kinds of treasures from the new world sailed the Caribbean Sea and were often attacked by French, English and Dutch pirates. To avoid that enemies take the island of Puerto Rico and use it as a base from which to attack the treasure fleets, Spain authorized the fortification of San Juan. The construction of El Morro de San Felipe Castle began in 1539. Other small forts were also built.

During one period seven years passed and not one ship came from Spain. Since Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain and could not commerce with any other country, contraband flourished with neighboring Dutch, French and British islands. Even local officials were involved in the smuggling business which became the most important part of the economy in Puerto Rico. The coastal towns of Cabo Rojo, Aguada, Fajardo and Arecibo were constantly being visited by international pirates.

In the mid 1770s, the 13 English colonies rebelled against England. English ports of Jamaica and Barbados were closed to all American vessels. Soon ships from the USA were anchoring in San Juan eager to trade slaves and foodstuffs for agricultural products including molasses for making rum. Also, during the American war for independence, some American ships took shelter in Puerto Rico.

In the 19th century tension began to grow between the Puerto Rican Creole population and the Spanish minority that ruled Puerto Rico's military and business affairs. On September 23, 1868 a rebel force made up of hundreds of brave men bearing guns, knives and machetes took over the town of Lares and proclaimed the Republic of Puerto Rico. This proclamation called all Puerto Ricans to arm against the Spanish government and social injustice. They offered freedom to slaves who joined them. This is known as "El Grito de Lares" or The Cry of Lares.

Unfortunately for the rebels, the Spanish government had recieved inside information about the rebel's plans. Troops were sent in to stop the revolt before any other towns were taken. The rebels and leaders fought courageously but were not strong enough to stop the Spanish forces.

The revolutionaries finaly were hunt down, imprisoned and many were slain. "El Grito de Lares" served to draw attention on the Puerto Rican reality to the Spanish government. In the coming years Spain turned more generous when it came to reform.

On March 22, 1873 slavery was abolished and nearly 30,000 slaves were freed. Also many of the repressive rules were eliminated.

Puerto Rico, by royal decree, was granted autonomy on November 28,1897. The Charter of Autonomy granted Puerto Rico more autonomy than ever before in the history of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico elected delegates to both houses of the Spanish Courts.

The Spanish American War broke out in April of 1898. On July 25,1898 Puerto Rico was invaded by the USA. General Nelson A. Miles and 16,000 American troops came in through Guanica located on the island's southwestern shore. The Americans found little opposition. The Spanish forces soon retreated and on October 18, 1898 Puerto Rico's autonomous government was officially changed to an American military government. General John Brooke became the first American governor of Puerto Rico.

The Spanish American War officially ended on December 10, 1898. The Treaty of Paris stated that Spain was to cede Puerto Rico, Guam and Philippines to the USA.

On March 2, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Law. This law granted Puerto Ricans American citizenship. Also the Jones Law granted such freedoms as liberty of speech, freedom of press, presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the right to a trial before being incarcerated and more.


Information provided courtesy of: Caribbean Association Midwest America