Freedmen at the beginnig of the twentieth century

Freedmen at the beginnig of the 20th century: Family of free slaves. (Library of Congress of United States)

It was on March 22, 1873, that the Spanish Cortes passed the law abolishing slavery in Puerto Rico. The decree freed a total of 29, 335 slaves, of both sexes, which was 5 percent of the overall population of Puerto Rico. The slave-owning landowners were to be indemnified for the loss of their “property.” However, there was a condition to freedom for the black slaves: the freedmen and women were obliged to enter into contracts for three years after slavery was abolished. The same decree also provided that they would not have political rights for five years afterwards. Even so, the news was celebrated by most of the population, and the expectation that blacks would attack whites, which had occurred in other parts of the Caribbean, did not take place.

In Puerto Rican historiography, there are two explanation for the abolition of slavery. The first attributes abolition to the work of liberal elements in the Puerto Rican landowning class itself, together with that of anti-slavery elements in Spain. Historians Arturo Morales Carrión and Luis M. Díaz Soler subscribe to this theory, which has had the largest following. The second, advanced by historian Benjamín Nistal-Moret(Esclavos prófugos y cimarrones. Puerto Rico, 1770-1870), suggests that it was the slaves themselves who worked for their freedom by eroding the system “from the inside” through complaints and demands, escapes and what has been called cimarronaje limitado (limited marronage), short-lived individual escapes, at the end of which the slaves returned to the hacienda. The historian explains that these were resistance measures that slowly wore away the slave system. Both theories are correct in that the efforts of the slaves and the anti-slavery elements worked in parallel and one would not have worked without the other.

Beginning in the mid 19th century, a generation of liberal criollos (native Puerto Ricans) made the emancipation of the slaves its primary objective. In 1858, before the Civil War was to put a bloody end to slavery in the United States, Ramón Emeterio Betances – who had returned from Paris after graduating in Medicine – founded an abolitionist society in Mayagüez. With Segundo Ruiz Belvis, José Francisco Basora and José Remigio Paradís, he took advantage of a Bando (decree) by Governor Pezuela to free slaves by buying them at the baptismal font. This abolitionist activity cost Betances his first exile from Puerto Rico.

In 1865, Puerto Rican Julio Vizcarrondo formed the Sociedad Abolicionista Española (Spanish Abolitionist Society) in Madrid to advocate the liberation of the slaves in the West Indies. He began a campaign to influence public opinion using a newspaper founded for the purpose. The following year, the Junta de Información (Information Board) was formed and three Puerto Rican reformists were chosen as commissioners: Segundo Ruiz Belvis, José Julián Acosta, and Francisco Mariano Quiñones.

Although they were only supposed to recommend means to better the lives of the slaves and ways to achieve the exclusion of slaves older than 60, the three commissioners boldly demanded “the abolition of the disastrous institution of slavery in their province, with or without indemnity….” Their argument was that the work of free men was more advantageous than that of slaves.

The pro-slavery factions mobilized and in 1867, Governor Marchesi exiled all the reformists in Puerto Rico to Spain, among them Ramón Emeterio Betances and Ruiz Belvis. They were able to escape, and from Saint Thomas Betances issued a secret proclamation that served as orders for the revolution that was being organized. In the proclamation, abolition was at the top of the list of the Diez Mandamientos de los Hombres Libres (Ten Commandments of Free Men).

Compensation to former slaves owners

Compensation to former slaves owners: Quantity payed to the former slaves owners after the Abolition of Slavery in 1873. (Library of Congress United States)

Simultaneously, in September 1868, the Grito de Lares (Lares Uprising) took place in Puerto Rico and the revolution burst out in Spain, and this had the effect of accelerating the process of abolition. In 1870, Román Baldorioty de Castro went to the Cortes as a deputy, and in a speech he delivered, he referred to slavery as a crime. For that, Baldorioty was forbidden to teach in the public schools on his return to Puerto Rico. However, that same year, the Spanish government passed a preparatory law known as the Ley Moret (Moret Act), which granted liberty to those born after it was enacted and to those 60 years of age.

These measures were not sufficient to please the abolitionists, although they took effect a year later. But census data reveal that the slave population declined by almost 5,000 persons, despite all the tricks used by the pro-slavery factions not to liberate the elderly slaves. While the number of slaves declined, production rose in Puerto Rico, which argued that the abolitionists had been right. Even so, the pro-slave factions and the Spanish Incondicionales (unconditional supporters of Spain) tried using violent tactics to put off full abolition in Puerto Rico. For the pro-slave elements, free laborers were not as dependable as slaves, as they could not be obliged to work at all hours and without pay.

Meanwhile, anti-slavery propaganda had achieved what many Spaniards were asking of the Cortes, which was the definitive abolition of slavery. There was also diplomatic pressure from England and the United States (whose president was then the very general who had been victorious in the Civil War, in which the issue was resolved with spilt blood). In 1872, Puerto Rican deputy Joaquín María Sanromá presented the Abolition Bill. But it was not until Spain proclaimed itself a republic -in February 1873, with the abdication of King Amadeus I- that the abolitionists decided to take the definitive step. On the same day that the short republican interlude came to an end, before the Cortes closed its doors, Sanromá again proposed the matter. So it was that on March 22 of that year, the measure was finally presented and passed, unanimously.


Author: Dra. Ivonne Acosta 
Published: September 12, 2014.

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