Welcome:
  • The Spanish Conquest
  • The Spanish Colony
  • USA Seizes Puerto Rico
  • The Commonwealth Of 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.

Soon, organized by the great and most important Taino leader, Agueybana, the Tainos rebelled and began to launch bloody raids against the isolated Spanish settlements. Unfortunately when the aborigines had their direct confrontation with Ponce de Leon's forces, Agueybana was shot dead. Some Tainos fled deep into the island's mountains and forest, others canoed to nearby islands. After this the Taino resistance was limited to very few attacks. Many of the enslaved Tainos killed their young ones and committed suicide. The lack of slave labor prompted Ponce de Leon to go after the Tainos on land and sea.

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.
Ponce de Leon set eyes on Florida (North America) on one of his exploratory voyages from Caparra. In 1521, while in Florida, Ponce de Leon was wounded by an Aborigine's arrow and died of gangrene at the age of 47. Ponce de Leon's remains rest beneath a marble slab in the San Juan Cathedral, in Old San Juan.

The Caparra settlement was then moved across the bay to a more breezy site overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, what is today known as Old San Juan. The coming years were also filled with attacks by the feared Caribe aborigines who were known to be cannibals. They not only attacked the far shore of San Juan but also the village of San German, in the southwest part of the island.

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.

In 1595 El Morro was attacked by Sir Francis Drake and his fleet. Fortunately for the Spaniards El Morro proved itself worthy for battle and the enemy was repelled. George Clifford, the count of Cumberland along side his large fleet took the city but they couldn't take El Morro. After suffering of exhaustion in the sun they were forced to leave. The Dutch also attacked Puerto Rico twenty seven years later under General Boudewin Hendricksz. They sieged San Juan and burnt down a great part of the city. Not being able to take El Morro, they also left. Finally the city was completely encircled with a 50 foot wall and the San Cristobal castle was constructed to protect the eastern part of the city. Part of the wall was demolished later on in the twentieth century.

Today the cobble stones streets, interior patios, hanging balconies, plazas, and chapels make of this historic city a charming and picturesque place to visit.

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.
Puerto Rico was becoming a ethnically mixed society. The people who lived on the countryside were called "Jibaros". They lived in small huts and slepped on hammocks like the aborigines. They ate native fruits and vegetables and planted tobacco, sugar cane and coffee.
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 here 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. Puerto Ricans elected 35 members of the local house of representatives also 8 of 15 members of the local Administration Council. Local legislature set its own budget and taxes. They accepted or rejected commercial treaties concluded by Spain.
General elections were held in March and on July 17,1898 Puerto Rico's autonomous government began to function, but not for long. 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. Cuba would become a protectorate of the USA.
The military government lasted two years. On May 1, 1900 the US government approved the Foraker Law which changed the military government to a civil government. Under this new government the governor, his cabinet and Higher House of Delegates (something like a senate) were appointed by the President of the USA and approved by the American legislature. A 35 member Local House of Delegates was elected by popular vote. Also Puerto Ricans voted for a Resident Commissioner who represented Puerto Rico in the US House of Representatives but had no vote. Puerto Ricans were distressed with this new government. After having been granted autonomy by Spain, Puerto Rico had now taken a step back to colonialism. The discontent was such that in 1909 the House of Delegates refused to pass any bills.
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. Also it created a Senate of 19 senators and a 39 member House of Representatives which was elected by popular vote. The governor was still appointed by President of the USA. The appointed Governor, the President or the US Congress could veto any law approved by the Puerto Rican Congress. Also Puerto Ricans were now eligible to serve in the American Armed Forces. Puerto Ricans took a major role in all of the USA military conflicts from then on.
By 1930 the population in Puerto Rico had grown to more than 1.5 million. Many people still lived in "bohios" (aborigines style huts) and there was a lot of poverty and unemployment. Large US corporations bought most of the flat land in Puerto Rico which was used for the sugar industry. Salaries were very low.
In 1928 Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane San Felipe, in 1932 it was Hurricane San Cipriano. Many people died, others were left homeless. Most of the sugar, coffee, tobacco and other crops were lost.
In reaction to all the poverty and the American presence the ideal of independence began to grow. Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, a Harvard graduate who had studied chemical engineering, military sciences, philosophy, law and an X-US military officer, was elected President of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. Clashes between protesting Nationalist and police brought deaths to both sides but mostly to Nationalists. Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos was sentenced to jail.
On March 21, 1937, Palm Sunday, the Nationalist Party was to celebrate a march in Ponce (city on the southern coast of the island) in support of Puerto Rican independence. The activity had been authorized by the mayor, but suddenly, pressured by the police chief, he canceled the authorization. The Nationalist decided to go on with the march. Police surrounded the Nationalist and right when the march was to begin there were gun shots. It is not known who shot that first shot, but the toll of the shootout was 18 Nationalist and 2 policemen dead. 200 people, Nationalist and bystanders, were injured. This incident is known as "The Ponce Massacre".
In 1940, headed by Luis Muñoz Marin, the Popular Democratic Party was formed. Their logo was Bread, Land and Liberty. Although the party favored independence, the need for social and economic reform was the priority, the status was not an issue. In 1946, the Puerto Rico Independence Party was formed by dissidents who saw the Popular Democratic Party shifting away from the ideal of independence for Puerto Rico. Also that same year Harry S. Truman appointed the first Puerto Rican governor, Jesus T. Piñeiro.
In 1947 the US Congress passed a bill which established that Puerto Ricans could vote every 4 years for governor of the island.
In 1948 the Popular Democratic Party received 64% of the vote and Muñoz Marin became the first democratically elected governor. After much debate, on July 3, 1950 the federal Government approved the 600 Law authorizing Puerto Rico to draft it's own constitution. The Puerto Rican Constitution was drafted and a referendum was celebrated for approval by the Puerto Rican people. 81% of the voters voted in favor. Afterwards the USA made some changes and approved the Puerto Rican Constitution. On July 25, 1952 the "Estado Libre Asociado" or Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was officially implemented and inaugurated by Governor Luis Muñoz Marin.
In 1950 though, Nationalist, believed that the "Estado Libre Asociado" was really a colony in disguise. In an attempt to stop the creation of the new government they attacked "La Fortaleza" (the Governors Mansion). In the town of Jayuya the police station was attacked and burnt down. In the town of Utuado, Nationalist used a house as a fort and resisted the Puerto Rico National Guard which had been called out by the Governor Muñoz Marin. Other suicide attacks took place in other parts of the island. Two days later Nationalist attacked President Truman's home, the Blair House in Washington DC. 14 Nationalist, 4 policemen, one National Guardsman and 4 civilians were killed and around 50 people were wounded before the National Guard took control of the situation. Finally four years later in a suicidal attempt to get the attention of the world, Nationalist attacked the House of Representatives in Washington DC. No one was killed, but five Congressmen were wounded. All of the attackers were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms.
During the years that Muñoz Marin was in power, he took on the task of developing Puerto Rico's economy into an industrial economy. The infrastructure was improved through government agencies. Tax breaks were offered to companies that would establish themselves on the island. The result was the industrial Puerto Rico of today.
In 1964, after 4 terms and 16 years, Governor Muñoz Marin decided to step down. Once again that year The Popular Democratic Party won the elections but this time Roberto Sánchez Vilella was elected Governor of Puerto Rico. In 1967 the people of Puerto Rico voted between Statehood, Commonwealth and Independence, resulting in an overwhelming preference for the Commonwealth option.


 


 

 

 

 

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