Demolition of the city walls in May 1897

Demolition of the city walls in May 1897

A century later, a discovery

The last United States military governor in Puerto Rico, General George W. Davis, pre­pared a detailed report on civilian matters. In the fi­nal chapter he describes the condition of the island’s historical archives and highlights the difficulties he encountered due to the lack of documentation on the early centuries of our history. In describing some of the reasons for such a scarcity of documents he states that the Spanish authorities, when they left the island in 1898, “…took valuable documents with them or they destroyed them or allowed unauthorized per­sons to dispose of them.”

The Captaincy General’s Archives might have left the island with General Manuel Macías-Casado when he sailed for Spain, along with most of the Spa­nish garrison, before October 18, 1898. If that is not the case, then it was part of the baggage that Don Ricardo Ortega, Assistant Captain General and Mili­tary Governor of the Walled City of San Juan, took on the 22nd of the same month, after handing over the Island to the United States.

It is known that such documents arrived at Ca­diz. It is also known that they were kept in that port for quite some time, and then were carried around to intermediary archives until they arrived at their final destination. When they were found, their trail had been lost for a century.

The conference El Ejército y la Armada en 1898: Cuba, Filipinas y Puerto Rico, which took place in late March of 1998, led to the discovery that the archives were at the Archivo General Militar in Madrid.

From then on, the combined efforts of the History Department of the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, the Director of the Military Archives at Fort San Cristóbal, and the Official Historian of Puerto Rico were geared towards making a preliminary in­ventory. Simultaneously, negotiations were begun with the Instituto de Historia y Cultura Militar in Spain to microfilm the documents with a view to bringing them to Puerto Rico. These efforts were supported by the House of Representatives, which adopted the project and provided the funds as a princi­pal event in the celebration of its centennial.

In 2002, the documents were returned to the Island and deposited in several archives and research centers, thus making them available to Puerto Rican researchers. We are just beginning to discover the wealth of information that exists in these archives.

About 300 dossiers related to the so-called zonas polémicas or military zones, including a very large one containing about 700 pages, recording a process that took nearly fifteen years, allow us to view the comings and goings surrounding the demolition of a portion of the eastern wall of the fortified city of San Juan and observe the development of the Puerta de Tierra district, both linked to the city’s needed expansion.

The particular dossier we are referring to begins on July 5, 1883 and ends on April 4, 1898, just a few days before the United States intervened in the war between Cubans and Spaniards that started in 1895 on the sister Island and ended when Spain lost its last remaining possessions in the Caribbean. The dossier contains 147 documents.

Early Stages
At the end of the 18th century, following the re­forms promoted by Marshal Alejandro O’Reilly and implemented by a Puerto Rican, the military engineer Tomás O’Daly, San Juan had evolved from a military garrison to a walled city, an invincible Fortified City or plaza capable of successfully resisting the last English attempt to take possession of the Island in 1797.

For fifteen years, the issue of the demolition of part of the walls and the expansion of San Juan eastward on the islet which would affect the military zone was debated by San Juan and Madrid. Several War and Overseas ministries’ advisory boards in Spain, the engineers of the Fortified City of San Juan, and sev­eral mixed commissions that included representatives of San Juan’s city government and the Treasury Department, as well as military personnel, played a part in the process. The presence of representatives of these two entities arose from their serious inter­est in the overcrowding due to population growth within the walls and by the limitations caused by that growth. To the military, the walls meant security for the fortress. Another element of the problem was military control of the areas that encompassed Fort San Cristóbal, San Antonio Fort and bridge, and San Gerónimo fortalice at the easternmost end of the islet where the fortified city of San Juan was located.

The dossier we consulted contains the opinions of three governors and Captain Generals who inter­vened directly in the process. They were: Segundo de la Portilla (1881-1882), Antonio Dabán-Ramírez de Arellano (1893-1895), and Sabas-Marín (1896-1898). The latter two played important roles in solving the issue. Antonio Dabán not only intervened in the pro­cess as Captain General of Puerto Rico, but, on his re­turn to Spain, Dabán presided the Advisory Board at the War Ministry at a decisive stage. Sabas Marín, for his part, was governor when the walls were finally demolished, after he had proposed new grounds that would allow for a solution to the problem.

This article is a passage from the essay by Luis E. González-Flores “Demolition of the Walls and Expansion of San Juan: Notes on a Dossier”, which is included in the book San Juan: The City that Grew Beyond Its Walls. Fundación Puertorriqueña de las Humanidades.

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Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: December 29, 2009.

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