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Puerto Rican History

Spanish Colonial History

Before the time of Spanish conquest, Puerto Rico went by the name of Borikén, or Borinquen. It was home to the Taínos, a sea-faring people with especially close ties to the island of Hispaniola, (or Haiti, as its indigenous inhabitants called it). The original Boricuas were related to the people first encountered by Columbus in the Bahamas, whose civilization spread among Cuba, Jamaica, and the Virgin Islands.

Columbus arrived in the Caribbean leading the 15th-century charge of the Spanish and Portuguese around the western coast of Africa and out to the Atlantic. Prior to their discovery of the Caribbean, Spanish merchants, captains, and adventurers had already conquered and enslaved the people of the Canary Islands, and the Portuguese had cultivated a slavery-based economic policy in Africa. Some of the first American encounters between Europeans, Indians, and Africans happened in Puerto Rico, and its early history of genocidal violence and physical exploitation was repeated throughout the Americas.

Tile from La Fortaleza

Tile from La Fortaleza

Early Map of Puerto Rico

Early Map of Puerto Rico

Spanish settlement of the island did not begin in earnest until about 15 years after Columbus’s first landing in 1493. At that point, it is estimated (and remains controversial) that approximately 100,000 Taínos lived on the island The primary motive behind Spanish settlement in Puerto Rico was economic exploitation, particularly the search for gold. The Spanish established farms for cattle, grain, fruits, and vegetables to supply their mining camps. After exhausting the island’s small supply of gold, these farms later developed into large and small plantations for cash crops like sugarcane, ginger, tobacco, and, centuries later, coffee.

The Spanish enslaved the Taínos, and reorganized their society around forced labor in mines and on farms. Physical abuse, suicide, and contagious diseases introduced by the Spanish decimated the Taíno population. By 1520, the Taíno presence had almost vanished, and Spain turned to West and Central Africa for a new source of slave labor. Though it was home to a distinctly large number of free people of color, slavery persisted in Puerto Rico until 1873, much later than in English, French, or Dutch colonies of the Caribbean.

Colonial Society

Spanish Print of a Slave

Spanish Print of a Slave

Spanish Print of a Jíbaro

Spanish Print of a Jíbaro

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León (1460–1521) became the first Spanish governor of this Crown Colony in 1509. His highly centralized government controlled the colony's economic and social life. Roman Catholic priests who arrived with the explorers and soldiers came to convert native peoples. But the goals of the Crown and the Church sometimes clashed, as when priests criticized the way landowners treated enslaved Catholic converts.

By the 1700s, Puerto Ricans began to develop their distinctive traditions and practices. During this century, most Puerto Ricans lived from sustenance farming. Commercially neglected by Spain, which was more interested in developing its richer and larger colonies, like Mexico or Peru, the money to be made in Puerto Rico came from black market trade supplying food, hides, timber, and work animals to surrounding smaller islands. These islands were controlled by Spain’s economic rivals and were in need of Puerto Rican supplies because they were wholly dedicated to the production of one crop—sugarcane. Sugar, the boon of wealthy landowners and the curse of the poor and landless, would not become a dominating force in Puerto Rico until the 1800s.

Legislative changes in 1812 granted the island greater independence just as a sense of Puerto Rican identity and a distinctive cultural life were emerging. After 1815 the island received refugees from the Napoleonic Wars and other European immigrants. The island’s economy was growing, in part due to the displacement of the sugar industry from newly independent Haiti to Cuba and Puerto Rico. But this growth came at the expense of small farmers, as ever-larger sugarcane, and, later, coffee plantations gobbled up the arable land.

Puerto Rico as a Slave Society, 1509–1873

Slave Shackles

Slave Shackles

Oldest Coffee House in Puerto Rico

Oldest Coffee House in Puerto Rico

Slavery was brutal throughout the Americas. Farming cash crops for export required thousands of people to work the fields. The Spanish purchased enslaved Africans, at first from the Portuguese but later from the British, to do this work.

African peoples and their mixed descendants contributed to the development of Puerto Rico’s creolized society. By 1800, the population was 15 percent slaves, 40 percent free people of color, and 45 percent other free people. Slavery ended in 1873, but the African presence is woven into Puerto Rico's language, music, cuisine, art, religious practices, and everyday ways of living. The contemporary culture of Puerto Rico emerged from the blending and constant flux of rural and urban European, African, and Native American traditions.

Puerto Rico and the United States

From the 16th century till today, Puerto Rico has been one of the most militarized islands in the Caribbean. The bay of San Juan, with its multiple fortresses and walled city, was of strategic importance for protecting Spanish military and commercial interests in the Caribbean. However, by the mid-19th century, Spain had lost most of its colonies, except the heavily garrisoned—and sugar-rich—Puerto Rico and Cuba. The new political force in Latin America was the increasingly assertive United States of America, which had a long-standing economic relationship with the islands of the Caribbean, dating back to the earliest days of the slave trade.

During the 1890s, political activists, writers, and other intellectuals in Puerto Rico were organizing political parties. Some favored a break with Spain. Others favored political autonomy while remaining part of Spain, while still others wanted no change at all in the relationship with the Crown. By 1897, four men were sent as deputies to the Cortes, the empire’s legislative body in Cádiz, Spain. They secured a Charter of Autonomy that gave Puerto Rico increased self-governance and declared universal male suffrage.

Within months, on February 15, 1898, the U.S.S. Maine exploded and sank in Cuba’s Havana Harbor, and the bellicose United States quickly declared war against Spain. Victory in this short war marked the United States’ emergence as an imperial nation. As a result of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded its remaining American and Pacific colonies, including Puerto Rico, to the United States. Unlike Cuba or the Philippines, Puerto Rico never gained its independence. In 1952, Puerto Rico became a freely associated commonwealth of the United States.

Porto Rico or Puerto Rico?

“Growing Tobacco in Porto Rico”

“Growing Tobacco in Porto Rico”

The 5th U.S. Cavalry Regiment

The 5th U.S. Cavalry Regiment

The change in rule from Spain to the United States brought many legal changes. "Porto Rico" is an archaic spelling of the island’s name which was incorrectly written into the Treaty of Paris and persisted in part because it was easier for English speakers to pronounce. It became the official name of the island in 1898. After more than 30 years of lobbying, Puerto Ricans persuaded the U.S. Congress to legally restore their land's rightful name, Puerto Rico, in 1932.

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