Contour map of San Juan island at the end of the sixteenth century

Contour map of San Juan island at the end of the sixteenth century

In the 16th Century, the Antillean world consisted of a little land and a lot of water. The sea was the only link that joined the region to the rest of the world. On the island, the population was concentrated around the city of Puerto Rico (San Juan) and the settlements of San Germán, San Blas de Illescas (Coamo) and San Felipe de Arecibo. While the city began to grow more important because of its location beside the bay, the interior of the island suffered the effects of isolation. This is the setting in which the island’s society developed.

As in the rest of the Antilles, the population patterns were different from the Spanish colonies on the continents, where the indigenous people constituted the work force. The disappearance of the Amerindian population early in the century meant the population was made up largely of whites, blacks, and the mixed offspring born from the union of those two races. This racial diversity is one of the parameters for understanding our profile. We must consider the elements that affected our population growth, such as the migratory phenomenon, both of Spanish as well as Africans, and the illnesses, epidemics and malnutrition that affected this process.

Spanish men came to the West Indies voluntarily and spontaneously, although as the century progressed the numbers dropped. On the contrary, the number of women and children increased and by the end of the century accounted for 30% of the total immigrants. It should be noted, however, that the laws on immigration by women were strict, as were the laws for married men who traveled without their wives and families. In the latter case, married men had to return to Spain in three years or bring their women to America.

Nor can we neglect to mention the Andalusian character of the migration from Spain in this century, especially to the Antilles. Among the research that has been published on this topic is that of Alvarez Nazario, who followed the routes of the Spanish settlement of the island and was able to determine the geographic origin of the settlers during the first century. They came from the regions of Andalusia, Extremadura and two Castile regions. Although foreigners, like Jews and the Moors, were excluded from traveling to the West Indies, that did not stop them from arriving clandestinely. The Portuguese, especially, used all means available to arrive in the New World. Of particular benefit was the royal decree of 1570 that allowed foreigners who had lived 10 years in the Americas, owned homes and land and were married to Spanish women, to become subjects of the king. In the concrete case of Puerto Rico, at the end of the 16th century, we are able to confirm the presence of 60 foreigners, mostly Portuguese and Genovese farmers.

Another group of Spaniards who came to the island during this century were the soldiers. From 1520, when Puerto Rico was declared “the port for all navigation in the West Indies,” the island began to receive crews of soldiers who eventually numbered 400 troops. Although the law said that the soldiers could not mix with the rest of the population, this directive was ignored. Documentary sources are full of references to soldiers and their officers marrying or establishing relations with creoles and mixed-race, black and mulatto women of the island.

In 1594, the governor wrote to the king, “the majority of the soldiers have married and have deserted, which is good for the land but bad for defense.” The white population of Puerto Rico during the 16thcentury is difficult to count because the available sources use different words (neighbors, “confessed souls”) to refer to them. However, we believe that the number is somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 inhabitants. This was not a population dispersed throughout the island. However, we have located nuclei of residents in Río Piedras, Bayamón, Cataño, Caguas, Cangrejos, Loíza, Canóvanas, Ceiba, Bayroa, Toa, Cupey, Guayama and Trujillo Alto, among other sites.

The black slaves mostly worked in the sugar plantation

The black slaves mostly worked in the sugar plantation

Black immigration to the Antilles, unlike the white migration, was forced and conditioned on two factors: one, the demand for labor, and two, the economic ability of each region to pay for this labor, which was always costly. The price of a slave “without flaws,” or in other words, without any physical defects, rose rapidly. In Puerto Rico, the average price for a young male slave without any defects was 250 ducados. The cost of female slaves was lower. Various researchers have tried to determine the origin of the slaves that came to the island in that century. We have found that the most common ethnic designations in the documentation, in addition to creole, which meant born on the island, are the following: jelofes, berbesí, biafara, bañol, biocho, zape, lucumi, manicongo, angola, terranova, mandinga and brama. The slaves worked in the sugar cane fields, planting ginger, preparing hides, fabricating boats, producing food, building forts and churches and in domestic labor. We have tried to quantify the black migration to Puerto Rico during the 16th century and have reached the conclusion that there were approximately 6,661 Africans.

We also have to remember that there were free blacks and mulattos on the island. These blacks worked in crafts such as carpentry, masonry, in quarries, as ox drivers and in other jobs; the women were employed as domestic laborers such as cooks, seamstresses, laundresses and wet nurses. The only numerical reference we have found to this group is from 1581 and states that in San Juan there were 925 mulattos, mixed-race, and free blacks, which at that time represented 70% of the total population of the city. Therefore, we can affirm that the process of racial mixing that characterizes our current population had begun in this century.

Another factor we have to consider when studying the population is the frequency and seriousness of the diseases and epidemics that the island residents suffered. The documents show that the most common were the gout, head colds, syphilis and tetanus. There were also epidemics of measles, smallpox, plague and dysentery. This panorama of illnesses was complicated by malnutrition and food shortages caused by the hurricanes that were also frequent.

When the Spanish settled the Antilles, they brought with them the social ideas and institutions of their country and their era and tried to structure colonial society along those lines. We cannot forget, however, that part of this picture include the blacks, both slave and free, who were part of a societal hierarchy based on skin color. It is essential to understand this fact, because it assigned to the Spanish a position of social, economic and political preeminence. In this context, lineage, or in other words, the importance of the family, was fundamental in determining social standing. However, from the late 15th century, money became a powerful means of social mobility.

Meanwhile, the self-esteem, combative spirit and honor were characteristics of the nobility, which in time became the patrimony of the entire people. Honor, in particular, did not mean practicing virtue but rather being the object of others’ esteem. Impugning one’s honor mean offending and aggrieving, but above all, it meant staining the person. Therefore, it was necessary to remove the stain or offense through an act of vengeance.

Purity of blood was another concept that crossed the Atlantic. One had to be an “old Christian” and there could be no suspicion of having Jewish or Moorish blood in the family. For this reason, names were changed, family trees were falsified and special care was taken in avoiding marriages that could contaminate the descendents with the blood of converts. The presence of Indians and black slaves made the Spanish feel superior and gave them a new social order that placed at the top the “decent people” (the whites) and below them the “vile people” (mixed-race, mulattos and blacks). The documentation in Puerto Rico about this issue is considerable, as there are a multitude of references to the whites’ contempt for people of color.

Puerto Rican faces

Puerto Rican faces

In this way, the society was built on power structures by the groups that in one way or another displayed them. At the top were the governor and the officers of the Royal Treasury (treasurer and accountant), then the Church, in its two branches, the monastic and the secular, and finally, the town officials. This body represented an important pressure group because it consisted of powerful men who lived full-time on the island, while the royal functionaries came and went. Because of their work and privileges, the municipalities constituted a notable political force. Although the original intention was for them to be ruled by Spaniards, as the century passed along, the creoles were able to take control of the municipality. Also, we have to point out that in this group were the wealthiest and most powerful men of the island, who also controlled almost all economic activities, such as the sugar mills, the livestock ranches, the farms, and wholesale commerce. To maintain this control, these extensive lineages augmented their power through matrimonial alliances, godparent relationships, and patronage.
They were also able to place some of their family members within the Church as members of the capital corporation, the body that organized religious life, along with the bishop. For many, an ecclesiastical career was promising, because it granted its members a certain economic security, respectability and the possibility of improving social standing. Of the two memoirs written by bishops in 1577 and 1581, we learn that the majority of the capital corporation members were creoles who came from notable and powerful families in San Juan, although many of them knew little of the liturgy or Latin and were not known for their virtue and purity. The same occurred with the Dominican friars, with one result being that the Order of Preachers became another bastion for defending the interests of the oligarchy.

In this society, it was common for individuals to try to demonstrate their social status through efforts that ranged from holding council positions to owning property; purchasing slaves; and having servants, a large house, refined clothes and jewelry. Along with this came the ownership of one or more horses, as a caballo was the material symbol of the gentleman, or caballero. In the same way, marriages were important because they could gain or lose fortunes. Being married was more crucial for women than for men, because it was inconceivable for a woman to live without the protection and support of a man. If she did not marry or enter a convent, it was the general opinion that a woman was “lost” and dishonored her family. Precisely to preserve the honor of the decent women of the city, the crown authorized in 1526 the establishment of a public house of prostitution “for the honesty of the city and its married women and to excuse other damages or inconveniences.” The women there were required to be white, honest, modest and virtuous. The mentality of the era did not conceive of any other option for women beyond marriage or the convent. A young woman could become a financial burden for her parents or relatives because of the need to provide a dowry to her fiancé to help the marriage or pay, as well, to enter the convent, depending on which was the lower amount. This was an extremely serious negotiation and was legalized before a notary. In the cases in which we have found letters of dowry, the amount is considerable and surpassed 120,000 reales in silver. Therefore, we cannot forget the economic impact of this transfer of capital for the family and the consolidation of power.

Both the crown and the church favored marriages between equals and disapproved of ties between people of different classes or races. The documentation shows that the majority of ties between equals were between a peninsular (arrived from Spain) and a creole. Ranking second were marriages between two creoles. We have also seen a considerable number of marriages between widows and recent arrivals who wanted, above all, to ensure their permanence in the territory.

On the other hand, the easy access to women of lower status, such as servants and slaves, gave rise to promiscuity. Many times, this type of relationship occurred in parallel with the legitimate marriage and the legitimate children and the other children all lived together under the same roof. This was common and shows the distance between the familial ideal and the practice of those ideals. In the same way, the wives and children were obligated to maintain a strict moral code while the men gave in to promiscuity, giving rise to a society marked by the color of its skin and by illegitimacy from its beginnings in the 16th century.



Author: Elsa Gelpí-Baiz 
Published: September 16, 2014.

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