the 400 Spanish years of Puerto Rico



The statue of the conqueror Juan Ponce de León, the first governor of Puerto Rico, was demolished this Monday in The old San Juan, the historic center of the Caribbean capital, on the eve of the brief visit of the King Philip VI, which coincides with the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the founding of the capital by a group of Spaniards who saw the island as a jewel for their Atlantic empire.

Juan Ponce de León (Valladolid, 1465-Havana, 1521) was the protagonist of the first years of exploration in America, or more specifically by the Caribbean islands to which Columbus arrived in 1492. Of this Castilian, even the most basic data such as the exact place of his birth or who his father was (he could well have been one of the twenty-one bastard children of Count Juan Ponce de León). Nor are there any doubts about his possible participation in the Granada War or that he was already in America during Columbus’s second voyage. Not in vain, as Professor Luis Arranz Marquez in the entry dedicated to this character by the Royal Academy of History, if he was in Santo Domingo from so early those years “were developed in the most absolute anonymity.”

Portrait attributed to Christopher Columbus.
Portrait attributed to Christopher Columbus.

The first traces of Ponce de León appear in the settlement and war operations in Santo Domingo against the indigenous people at the beginning of the century, which served to gain the trust of Nicholas of Ovando. Around 1508, the governor asked Ponce de León to find a way to explore the island of Boriquén (the indigenous name for the island of Puerto Rico, discovered by Columbus in 1493), as news had arrived that there was gold there. The capitulations for this company forced the conqueror to befriend the Indians, not to abuse the Indians, to locate and extract gold, to grow food for the Spanish and to build a fortress house on the island.

At the head of fifty men under his command, John Ponce He arrived on August 12, 1508 in the southern region of Puerto Rico, where he established friendly relations with the indigenous people. To the north, the Castilian found a port so beautiful that Juan Ponce described it as ‘Puerto Rico‘, although the first name given to the island by the Spaniards was San Juan. In a short time they built a farm, roads, a landing stage and a stone house. In view of his rapid success, Ponce de León was named captain general of the island and continued with the advances, with the insistent support of the Crown, in what was to be a strategic point for Spain to maintain control of the Caribbean. There were Indian rebellions and endless difficulties even in the form of ant infestations, but the island flourished.

Although at times away from the government of Puerto Rico due to palace issues, ponce de leon he managed while he lived to always keep the last word on the future of the island, its territorial division and the steps for its evangelization. The explorer would die in 1521 due to an indigenous arrow received when he was exploring Florida. The legend would say that he did it when he was chasing the fountain of eternal youth that «he turned old men young», but this myth was built years after Ponce arrived in that land. Puerto Rico, for its part, continued its historical course once its founder died.

Although at times away from the government of Puerto Rico due to palace issues, Ponce de León managed to always keep the last word on the future of the island

The diseases brought by the Europeans, such as measles or smallpox, caused the death of thousands of Taínos. The demographic blow was palliated by the Spanish merchants, who bet everything on the sugar company, with the massive arrival of black African slaves. Successive migratory waves of English, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, Creoles from South America, Corsicans and Majorcans completed a complex mosaic of ethnic groups and blood in Puerto Rico.

Mass landing of the British

For centuries, the British Empire disputed to the Spanish Empire the possession of the island due to its proximity to the Anglo-Saxon colonies as it was an essential transit point for ships to go to Cuba, Santo Domingo or Mexico. Francis Drake It was able to occupy the port of San Juan for three days in 1535 and, three years later, the English admiral Cumberland, commanding 20 ships, seized the island with the intention of holding it forever. It was not possible more because of the epidemics than because of the Spanish military presence, which just as a result of that invasion decided to take the threat seriously.

During the war between England and Spain -known as Anglo-Spanish War from 1585-1604–, Francis Drake and John Hawkins they tried unsuccessfully to invade the island with 26 ships. The defenders greeted them with a row of five frigates – recently built and adapted to the Atlantic setting – pointing their cannons at the foreigners. The invading fleet had to momentarily withdraw when the Spanish guns entered Drake’s very chamber just as he was toasting his officers. The commander of the fleet was uninjured, but two officers died and several others were seriously injured. Additionally, John Hawkins’ health was completely depleted shortly before these early matches, leaving Drake as sole commander.

Morro Castle, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Morro Castle, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Despite the furious reception, the British did not give up and launched a massive landing with barges on the night of the 23rd. Drake ordered them to approach silently to the frigatebirds, which were kept as stone guardians of the port, to set them on fire with incendiary devices. Far from destroying the Spanish ships, only one was rendered useless, the fire lighting up the night making it easy for the defenders to repulse the landing. the day ended with 400 dead men on the British side.

During this same conflict, on June 15, 1598, a British fleet, commanded by George Clifford, made a landing in Santurce and occupied the island for several months. However, they were forced to abandon the island after an outbreak of dysentery broke out among their troops. In 1599, Spain sent an additional 400 soldiers and 46 cannons to the island along with a new governor, Alonso of Market, with the aim of rebuilding the city. The English threat was dispersed for half a century.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, coffee became one of the main export products to the detriment of corn, rice, tobacco and tropical fruits.

In 1625, the Dutch led by General Boduino Enrico they invaded the island, but had to vacate it after 28 days of fighting. In the 18th century, the pirates and the Dutch took over from the North American penetration, first by commercial means, so they introduced flour and black slaves that the islanders highly appreciated, instead they took honey and sugar. Around 1765, Field Marshal Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irishman sent by the Spanish Crown to inspect this territory, reported the low tax revenues and poor economy of an island made up of 39,846 free people and 5,037 slaves.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, coffee became one of the main export products to the detriment of corn, rice, tobacco and tropical fruits. While Spain was looking for a way to improve the economic benefits of the island, the English were still determined to seize it at all costs, and even offered Gibraltar in exchange. Given the refusal of the Spanish, in April 1779 the English tried to conquer it under General Abercromby, but after two weeks of combat they were rejected.

Granting of a Charter of Autonomy

During the 400 years under the Spanish Crown, Puerto Rico undertook different revolutions against the metropolis, but always with poor results due to the mixture of strong hand and left hand with which Spain reacted. Slavery was formally abolished in 1873, reducing racial tensions on an island where, according to Angel Quintero, in 1846 «the slave population reached no more than 11.5% of the total population», figures very far from those of Cuba. In addition, when Sagasta’s liberal party came to power, after the assassination of Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, it approved a Charter of Autonomy for Puerto Rico on November 25, 1897, which granted sovereign and political autonomy to the island. Despite this, the Spanish Crown maintained control of the armies, justice and diplomatic affairs of an overseas possession.

The granting of autonomy to Puerto Rico sought to reduce the spirit of independence that U.S He had been feeding on the island and in Cuba for years. But nevertheless, the Charter of Autonomy It was in force for a short time. On July 25, 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the US conquered the island and concluded a process of economic domination that had been going on for decades. The conflict unleashed in Cuba ended in a few months with a rapid defeat of the Spanish forces. On December 10, 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed, by which Puerto Rico and the rest of the colonial territories (Cuba and the Philippines) of the Spanish Empire were ceded to the United States. In 1917, with the Jones Act, Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship.

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