Before European Contact
The Taínos, the first indigenous people to encounter Columbus, inhabited Borikén or Borinquen, what is today Puerto Rico, as well as the surrounding islands of Jamaica, Hispaniola, the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, and eastern Cuba. The Taínos were a seafaring civilization that traded between other indigenous communities in Central America, Florida, and the Caribbean. They were in violent conflict with their eastern neighbors, the Carib.
Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico on his second voyage, naming the island San Juan.
Afonso I of the Kingdom of the Kongo, an ally of Portugal, promoted the spread of Christianity and European customs in his kingdom. Meanwhile, Portuguese traders increasingly trafficked in slaves from the region, undermining the political stability of the Kongo, while supplying Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas with labor.
Colonization began in earnest when Ponce de León established the first settlement near present-day San Juan in 1508. The Spanish colonists terrorized the Taínos, forcing them to work in mines, fields, and construction.
African slaves were first imported to Puerto Rico to supplement the dwindling indigenous work force.
Departing from Havana, Cuba, Hernán Cortés was commissioned to lead an expedition to explore the uncharted Mexican coast. Cortés, who arrived in the Caribbean in 1504, played a key role in the conquest of Cuba and the subsequent enslavement of its indigenous inhabitants. By 1521, Cortés and his men entered the Mexican mainland. With the aid of his small Spanish army, many thousand Indian allies, and a raging smallpox epidemic, he destroyed the capital of the Aztec Empire and reconfigured it as a Spanish town.
San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico became the official capital of the island. Over the following decades, construction of the city’s massive walls and defenses would begin.
The first sugar cane mill was built in Puerto Rico. Early cultivation and processing of sugar cane developed with the technical experience of settlers from the Canary Islands and the labor of enslaved West Africans.
Seeking gold, Francisco Pizarro entered Peru in the midst of an Inca civil war and smallpox epidemic. Arriving in the Caribbean in 1502, Pizarro had played a key role in the exploration and settlement of Panama. Once in Peru, Pizarro and his troops succeeded in capturing and executing the Inca emperor Atahualpa, and seized Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire. The Spanish completed their conquest of Peru over the course of forty more years, and their capital, Lima, became the primary center of Spanish colonial government in South America.
The Spanish established settlements in the Philippines, with the intent of Christianizing the islands and dominating local trade. As a Spanish colony, the Philippines was ruled as a territory of New Spain (later Mexico) until Mexican independence in 1821. The colonization of the Philippines created a convenient trading center for Asian spices, silks, porcelain, and other luxury goods, which were shipped east across the Pacific to Acapulco, and for Latin American silver, which was shipped west, to China.
Out priced by competitors in Brazil and in the neighboring small French, Dutch, and English colonies, Puerto Rican sugar would not become a major cash crop again until the 1800s.
The Virginia Company established a colony at Jamestown on a riverbank near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Planned primarily as a commercial enterprise, Jamestown developed into the first permanent British settlement in North America. Despite initial hardships, the colony became financially viable once it began growing a variety of tobacco that the Spanish had been cultivating as a cash crop in the Caribbean since the mid-1500s.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the economic development of Puerto Rico was a low priority for Spain, which focused instead on its larger, richer colonies like Mexico and Peru. In these centuries, Puerto Rico’s main market were the neighboring islands of the Lesser Antilles. These small islands were being developed exclusively as commercial plantations, meaning that the arable land was used not to grow food, but primarily to grow sugar. Trade with these islands, which were not under Spanish control, was illegal. Nonetheless, smuggling products from Puerto Rico like timber, farm animals, beef, hides, and edible crops flourished well into the 1700s. As late as the early 1800s, pirates plundered merchant vessels in the Caribbean. Cofresí, the most famous Puerto Rican pirate, was captured by Spanish forces and executed in 1825. He lives today in song and legend.
In the wake of increasing influence from foreign merchants and missionaries, Japan closed its ports to all foreigners and forbid any Japanese leaving the country on penalty of death, except under highly controlled circumstances. This policy served to control commerce between Japan and the outside world. It continued until 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy, accompanied by four warships, demanded that Japan open its ports to trade with the West.
The British East India Company established trading posts in cities like Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and other cities in the Indian Subcontinent, monopolizing local commerce with the consent of the region’s ruling elites. After defeating their French and Portuguese rivals for control of trade, the British strengthened their hold in South Asia, and developed a colonial relationship that would last until 1947.
The city of Ponce was founded on the southern shore of Puerto Rico. It grew into the commercial center of the island in the 19th century.
Coffee cultivation was introduced to Puerto Rico. By the early 1800s it was the preferred cash crop of poor inland farmers and small producers, principally because it could be grown in conjunction with other food crops, unlike sugar.
American Revolution. During the period of the American Revolution, trade between the Thirteen Colonies and British ports in the Caribbean was prohibited, prompting American merchants to do robust business in Puerto Rico, trading particularly in slaves and molasses. Puerto Rico continued supplying North American consumers with sugar, rum, cigars, cigarettes, coffee, and other products into the 20th century.
The French Revolution violently replaced monarchy with democracy, with significant social repercussions for the rest of Europe and for French and Spanish colonies in the Americas. During this period of unrest, France abolished slavery, declared equality among its citizens (contributing to the revolution among slaves and people of color in Haiti), and severely limited the political influence of the Catholic Church. The chaos of the revolution, combined with French aspirations to conquer Italy, Austria, and Egypt, set the stage for Napoleon Bonaparte to seize control of the French government, reinstitute slavery, and later, to install his brother on the Spanish throne. The French invasion of Spain weakened Spanish control of its colonies, and emboldened emerging Latin American independence movements.
Haitian Revolution. The Haitian Revolution brought to Puerto Rico a new population of displaced planters and their slaves, as well as many free people of color. They recreated the plantation system left behind in Sainte Domingue, which was known after 1804 as a Black Republic with the original Taíno name of Haiti. The new arrivals, as well as other Puerto Rican landowners, busied themselves planting coffee, sugar, and other commercial crops abandoned in Haiti.
Cédula de Gracias decree encouraged immigration to Puerto Rico by both whites and free people of color, though under unequal and discriminatory conditions. There is no statistical information on the number of immigrants specifically attracted by this decree, though it is noted that by 1835 the island’s population had grown by 38 percent.
After a series of extensive wars for independence that began in 1806, from Mexico to Argentina, Spain lost all of its Latin American colonies except Cuba and Puerto Rico. These two, with their expanding slave economies, remained robust sources of revenue (based largely on the sugar industry) until the end of the century. In 1898, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, the last of Spain’s colonies outside of its remaining possessions in Africa, were lost to the United States in the Spanish-American War.
The Reglamento del Jornalero Libre was an antivagrancy law that forced growing numbers of landless men to work for large commercial estates at wages too low to cover their most basic needs. Popular outrage at this law over the next three decades fanned support for independence from Spain. By 1865, 10 percent of the population (60,000) were landless wage-earners. This law was abolished in 1873, the same year that slavery was abolished.
Grito de Lares. A socially and racially diverse group of Puerto Ricans, ranging from estate owners to slaves, declared Puerto Rico a free republic, with the mulatto Bernabé Pol as Secretary of State. The revolt was defeated within 24 hours, and the rebels were pardoned by the Spanish government. The insurrection had several leaders, the most prominent being Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances (1827-1898), leading the movement from exile in Santo Domingo.
Slavery was finally abolished, but the remaining 30,000 slaves were obligated to serve a 3-year apprenticeship with their masters. Moret’s Law of 1869 had emancipated state-owned slaves, slaves over 60, and the children of slaves who had been born after 1868.
The Puerto Rican flag was adopted as the national symbol.
Spain approved a charter, the Carta Autonómica, which granted political and administrative autonomy, as well as universal male suffrage, to Puerto Ricans
The United States invaded Puerto Rico, taking control of the island from Spain. In this same year, some 75 percent of rural families were landless. These men, women, and children became the primary labor force on the large agricultural plantations and processing centers now owned by U.S. corporations.
Cuba gained independence, while Puerto Rico was declared a U.S. territory. English was declared a co-official language on the island.
The Jones Act gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship and created a locally elected bicameral legislature. However, the U.S.-appointed governor of the island, the president of the United States and the United States Congress had the power to stop any action taken by the legislature in Puerto Rico. The U.S. government maintained control over the economy, immigration, defense, and other basic governmental matters. With U.S. citizenship newly granted, 4,000 members of the Porto Rico Regiment, U.S. Infantry, served in World War I, (1917 to 1919), guarding the Panama Canal.
After WWII, the numbers of Puerto Rican workers migrating to the U.S. mainland exploded. Prior to 1945 there were about 13,000 Puerto Ricans, mainly in New York City which had been home to a small Puerto Rican community since the late 19th century. By 1965, one million Puerto Ricans had arrived in industrial centers in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois. Many were recruited to work in factories by employment agencies.
Luis Muñoz Marín was the first democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico. Born in 1898, he was the architect of economic, political, and cultural policies that transformed Puerto Rico in the middle of the 20th century. His work as governor from 1949 to 1964 established Puerto Rico as a commonwealth freely associated with the United States, and with its own constitution, rather than as an independent nation. His Operation Bootstrap policies industrialized Puerto Rico during the same period that almost a million residents left the island for work on the U.S. mainland. His later Operation Serenity policies funded popular culture and the arts.
Responding to government corruption, U.S. commercial hegemony, and dramatic socioeconomic inequalities among the island’s citizens, the Cuban revolutionary movement finally succeeded in toppling the government of Fulgencio Batista. Fidel Castro became as the head of the new socialist government. Following the nationalization of foreign-owned companies, the redistribution of land, the purges of counterrevolutionaries and social “undesirables,” and other radical social and economic changes, over one million Cubans left the island, and settled in places like the United States, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Spain.
English and Spanish were declared the two official languages of Puerto Rico.
For a third time in 30 years, Puerto Ricans voted in a referendum on joining the United States as a state, rather than continuing as a commonwealth. Voters rejected the option of statehood, but did not endorse the commonwealth. A majority of voters chose the ballot option, "none of the above."
The U.S. Navy left the island of Vieques (east of the main island of Puerto Rico), where it had tested bombs, missiles, and other weapons since the 1940s.