On March 19, 1812, an event occurred in Spain (the colonial power of Puerto Rico before 1898) that was unusual in the history of this country and its overseas American territories. Made vulnerable by its arrogance, Spain was going through a political and social crisis like few it had ever seen in its history and saw the need to dramatically alter the relationship between the empire and its daughters — the colonies in the Americas — including a small and forgotten Caribbean island: Puerto Rico.
In the 19th century, Europe experienced a convulsive era in its history, all due to the imposing figure of the French-Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte, a skillful French military officer who became the ruler of his nation in 1799 and lashed all the European nations in his way. A product of the great French Revolution of 1789, Napoleon knew how to rise in the French military and politics to reach the top. He was able to extend control and bring under his rule a good part of the European continent and the Americas, as well as important positions in North Africa and the Middle East. How did this man obtain all this power? Through the old tactic of invading territories and confronting any adversary with a powerful army, reinforced by a significant number of mercenaries from various locations.
Among the obstacles he faced in his plans for hegemony was Spain under the Bourbon rule, a Spain that was much larger than it is today, but led by a distracted king who was not inclined toward politics: Carlos IV, called “the Hunter” for his enthusiasm for hunting. Napoleon Bonaparte used intrigue, tricks and strategies to invade Iberia with a contingent of 20,000 men. He intended to control the peninsula and, in this way, line up his cannons against his eternal enemy, Great Britain, as well as acquiring the huge American territories of the Spanish crown in the hands of the Bourbons and the Portuguese crown under the House of Braganza. And he did so, at least for a while.
The Spanish organized to face the onslaught of Napoleon’s forces on their territory. To stop France’s consolidation of power, they organized both political and military opposition. In military terms, it was a war of warriors, or militias, that fought the French and finally ran them out of the kingdom in what would come to be known in the nation’s history as the War of Spanish Independence.
In political terms, the Spanish, without legitimate monarchs — Carlos IV and his son, Ferdinand, were held in captivity by Napoleon in France — organized Provincial Juntas, which controlled sovereignty in the absence of the king. These organisms were later reorganized into a Supreme Junta to coordinate their activities, which ended with the expulsion of the French from Spanish territory in 1813 and led to the restoration of the Bourbons, this time under the reign of “the Desired One,” Ferdinand VII of Spain. But for the self-proclaimed Emperor, this was not something that kept him awake at night. With his army occupying the north of Spain, he proclaimed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, briefly known as José I (and called “Pepe Bottle” by the Spanish people, due to his enjoyment of fine wine), as the new king of Spain and overseer of its European and American domains.
While this was happening in Spain, the news came to the Spanish Caribbean in the spring of 1808 by emissaries from both sides. Puerto Rico was the first Spanish territory in the Americas to take a position on the delicate question of whether it should remain loyal to Spain — and to Ferdinand, “the Desired One” — or accept José I. The Spanish authorities and the highest ecclesiastical leader on the island, the local bishop Juan Alejo de Arizmendi, met with the most important families and unanimously reached a consensus to remain loyal to the legitimate Spanish crown of the Bourbons under Ferdinand VII. This opened one of the few opportunities to demand new and important reforms for the island from the new Spanish authorities organized under the Supreme Junta. The colony’s loyalty at its most critical time would not go unnoticed and would be repaid.
In May of 1809, the news that arrived in Puerto Rico directly from Spain filled the loyal island subjects with desires and hopes for change. Earlier, they had begun the march toward an incipient but firm political maturity, in line with the liberal currents of the era. By the 19th century, their highest aspirations were to redefine the political relationship with the mother country. The seed of the idea of a constitutional monarchy was planted in Puerto Ricans’ political thinking. The example of the former colonists to the north, “no taxation without representation,” resonated firmly in the emerging political class on the island. In tune with that sentiment, the Supreme Junta, imbued with a spirit of liberation, called the colonies to participate in the Cortes, or national Parliament, for the first time. This was something that had never happened over three centuries of Spanish rule in the Antillean archipelago. The opportunity to crystallize all the hopes for reforms by the island natives through political representation and political integration with the mother country would not be wasted. Soon, preparations were made to elect a delegate who would carry on his shoulders the hopes of an entire people eager for change. The Puerto Rican chosen as the worthy representative was Ramón Power y Giralt, a figure with a renowned and brave military career. This San Juan native, born in October of 1775, would become one of the emblematic figures of the nascent Puerto Rican nationality and has been considered by many scholars as one of the first to think of himself as Puerto Rican. He is considered one of the precursors of that awareness that had begun to take off in Puerto Rican society. This emerging sentiment among island natives in the 19th century let them see themselves as Americans and not Spaniards, without denying their Spanish roots but self-identifying as something other than Spanish.
This educated military officer who served the Spanish armada fought with the same effort as those born in Spain against the cowardly acts of the English pirates on the coasts of Puerto Rico. Additionally, Power y Giralt fought against the French in defense of the sister colony of Santo Domingo, after the Napoleonic invasion.
Power was elected delegate by the five regions of Puerto Rico to take with him the pleas, claims and demands of the dominant class on the island, which wanted to ensure its social and economic position. The main demands of this group were economic in nature, such as exemptions from several old taxes that limited the island’s economic output, support of agriculture, free trade and upgrades of the main ports on the island. Education was also a source of concern for island residents. On this topic, they demanded the establishment of a university and support for public education. These claims reflected the genuine interest in physical and material progress that united Puerto Ricans in a single voice. Power would be the spokesman who would look out for the interests and “the rights of his compatriots, the natives of Puerto Rico,” said none other than Bishop Arizmendi, as he took off his pastoral ring and gave it to Power as a reminder of how important his task was on the other side of the Atlantic.
When Power arrived in Spain in 1810, the Junta had been converted into the Regency Council and the Cortes. Power was the only delegate sent from the Americas, as the rest of the Spanish Americas decided to recognize that distinctive detail of the Spanish monarchy — the reversion of powers — and move toward establishing a Revolutionary Junta. Therefore, Power became the representative of the Americas and was given the vice presidency of this important legislative body. Power took advantage of his position to lobby for the defense of the islanders’ rights, and in 1811, under his vice presidency, a measure that came to be known as the Power Law was approved. This important law represented a small but important victory for the natives of Puerto Rico. The measure, although timid in political terms, brought fundamental changes to the island’s economy, such as: improvements to the main ports (Fajardo, Mayagüez, Cabo Rojo, Aguadilla and Ponce); the elimination of old and absurd taxes; easing the monopoly on trade; and, in terms of education, founding an important cultural institution: the Economic Society of Friends of the Country. It was an institution with great educational importance, which believed that education was the primordial basis of the state, and expected to promote the culture as an indispensable element for good governance. The approval of this law is seen in national history as an important first victory for Puerto Rican liberalism.
It was in the wake of this victory that one of the most important documents in Spanish history was born on March 19, 1812. In ninety-six pages, enclosed in a red velvet cover with a ribbon in the red and yellow colors of the flag, it contained the aspirations for political freedom of eleven million Spaniards. The Spanish Constitution of 1812, better know as “la Pepa” (so called because it was released on St. Joseph’s Day or San José) was the first constitution promulgated in Spain, and is also considered one of the most liberal of its time, because it established national sovereignty, the constitutional monarchy, the separation of powers and universal suffrage for men, among other freedoms.
In relation to the colonists in Puerto Rico, the new constitution made formidable changes in the relationship between Spain and its colonies. It changed the colonies to Spanish provinces and, therefore, their inhabitants became citizens rather than subjects, with the same rights and privileges as those in Spain. In addition, they finally obtained permanent representation in the Spanish Parliament and a Provincial Delegation was established to attend to the needs of local government. Despite the enthusiasm and the excitement over such important changes, “la Pepa” did not last long, as the Spanish and Portuguese, “helped” by the British, were able to defeat the French armies in 1813, which allowed Ferdinand, son of Carlos, to ascend to the Spanish throne in 1814 as Ferdinand the VII. The same year, on June 10, 1813, Power died in Cadiz, far from the homeland he so loved and defended as the most passionate defender of the rights of Puerto Ricans, his compatriots. Power was the victim of an epidemic of yellow fever that swept Europe. Two hundred years after his death, his remains were sent to the island he swore to defend in the San Juan Cathedral back in 1809, were he now rests.
The arrival in 1814 of Ferdinand VII, known as “the Desired One,” put an end to the ephemeral constitutional period and reinstated the absolute monarchy. The provincial delegation and the councils were suppressed. Puerto Rico returned to its old colonial status. But now it had all been written, and the election of Ramón Power, his vice presidency, the promulgation of the Power Law along with the unveiling of “la Pepa” served to expose the liberal feelings of the Puerto Rican majority. A long road remained ahead for this liberal sector in the defense of their natural rights.
Author: Víctor Colón Zayas
Published: June 15, 2015.
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