The first century of Spanish colonialism in Puerto Rico was a crucial time that laid the foundation of a society that would become more complex in the years to come. The historical events and actions of the era emerged in the context of the expansion of Spanish domination. In that sense, the island served as a laboratory for the policies that would later be implemented in the continental territories. As part of these efforts, a society was configured that consisted of social sectors with very marked differences between them. No less important was the strategic value that Puerto Rico acquired when considered from a Caribbean perspective.

The Spanish colonial process began in Puerto Rico in 1505 with the agreements granted to Vicente Yáñez Pinzón. This agreement with the crown legitimized the business of conquest and colonization of the island, but Yáñez Pinzón did not lead the process. It was Juan Ponce de León, the experienced conqueror of Hispaniola, who led the conquest of Puerto Rico. Before leading his expedition to the island, Ponce de León made an exploratory trip in 1506. The permanent Spanish settlement in Puerto Rico required the signing of two agreements: one in 1508 and the other in 1509. These agreements named Ponce de León the captain general, who was accompanied on his journey to Puerto Rico by 50 people who were in Hispaniola.

Villa de Caparra was the first population nucleus created by the Spanish conquistadors in Puerto Rico. The community founded in late 1508 and early 1509 had two permanent buildings: a fort and another structure of stone. There were possibly other wooden houses nearby. The economic interests of the conquistadors and subsequent colonists unfolded Villa Caparra’s establishment. As part of the mercantilist mentality that predominated in that era, the Spanish crown provided incentives for the acquisition of territories in the Americas for mining. Puerto Rico was a site where the extraction of gold became of primordial importance in the colonial economy.

To regulate mining and encourage the settlement of Puerto Rico, the institution known as the encomienda was put into place. This economic system divided up the indigenous people, the Tainos, in the case of the island, among the colonialists. Ponce de León was the first to make this distribution. The encomenderos, or the people who benefited from the distribution, used the indigenous people mainly in mining. Under the Real Cédula of July 20, 1500, the “Indians” were to be considered free vassals of the Spanish crown. In other words, the indigenous people were not to be enslaved. Another disposition of the Indies judicial code, as the legal system in place in that era was historically called, stipulated that the indigenous people had to be compensated. In other words, the aborigines had to be paid a salary for their work. However, the common practice among the encomenderos was to pay them with pieces of clothing. Writing about the encomiendas in Puerto Rico, historian Francisco Moscoso said that the encomenderos used the socioeconomic structure of the chieftainships to make the labor regime viable. Historian José Cruz de Arrigoitia points out that the encomenderos were obligated by law to evangelize the indigenous people as part of the Spanish colonization project in the Indies.

Factors such as the arduous labor, the wars of resistance against colonization and the spread of epidemics such as smallpox and measles led to a decline in the indigenous population. By the 1530s, the number of indigenous people in Puerto Rico had been dramatically reduced and the chieftainships were totally upended. This required a change of labor and, with it, a refocus of the island’s colonial economy. In response to the reduction in the number of “Indians,” between 1519 and 1521 the colonists began importing blacks from Africa. This was made possible by the Real Cédula of King Carlos I of Castile, granted on August 18, 1518. This decree authorized the slave trade in the Spanish colonies in the Americas. With respect to Puerto Rico, slavery became one of the crucial elements of colonial life. Slaves were forced to work in domestic spaces, in construction, in specialized crafts and to a large extent in sugar production. Planting, cutting and processing sugar cane grew in importance in the 1540s. During the second half of the 16th century, 16 sugar mills were operating in Puerto Rico.

While the colonial society continued to become more complex in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean surroundings became more dynamic. The rivals to the Spanish crown, dominated by the House of the Asturias, and other European powers, had direct effects on the region. The Caribbean became a space that served as an extension of the rivalries for European supremacy. One of the disputes that most impacted Puerto Rico occurred between Carlos I of Castile and Francis I of France. The presence of French corsairs in the Caribbean waters was especially felt in the Villa de San Germán. The French attacked several times this settlement in the western part of Puerto Rico. The recurrence of the assaults led to the Villa de San Germán being moved several times. After several relocations due to the recurrence of the assaults, this settlement, established in 1512, came to its current location in 1573.

The violent situation in the Caribbean, and therefore on the coasts of Puerto Rico, due to the attacks by pirates and corsairs, led to the militarization of the colony. At first, the political administration of the island fell on the shoulders of the regular mayors. Later, between 1544 and 1564, the officials with the most authority were the civil governors. Later, the military governors served as the top representatives of the king’s interests. By 1580, the governor had also been given the military rank of Captain General. In other words, the governor and captain general were the same person. The institutional administrative changes were responses to the changing needs of the times. The final militarization of Puerto Rico, during the Habsburg era, was a response to the need to defend the territory from foreign threats in the form of the French and English incursions. The island was of vital importance for the Spanish throne because if an enemy captured it, it could be used to launch offensives against other Spanish territories in the Caribbean.

Felipe II, King of Spain, understood the importance of the military defenses in Puerto Rico. That is why, during his reign, he ordered the completion of a plan to fortify his territories in the Caribbean region. The city of San Juan de Puerto Rico, established in 1521 because the Villa de Caparra was not viable, was deem by the king as a military bastion to be impregnable. To achieve that goal, field marshal Juan de Tejeda and military engineer Batista Antonelli were sent to San Juan. After an inspection of the city, based on its natural and geographic characteristics, they recommended the construction of El Morro. This fort was put to the test and was successful during the failed attack in 1595 by Francis Drake, the English commander who tried to capture a ship carrying part of the Indies treasure that had just left Puerto Rico. In 1598, however, George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, sacked the city.

Despite the international conflicts that affected Puerto Rico, the colony’s development continued. As part of the sophisticated Indies judicial code, several institutions were established to rule the administration and some of the daily life of the residents. One of those was the Royal Treasury, established in 1510, which was in charge of collecting the king’s share, as well as supervising the use of the money. As for religion, the Royal Foundation was established. It established the rule that the Spanish monarchs had the right to choose the members of the clergy in the colonies. In other words, the church in the Spanish Americas was under the supervision of the crown. In Puerto Rico, the first bishop was Alonso Manso. Another institution of importance was the town hall, where municipal issues were discussed and decided. In the 16th century, there were two municipal structures, in San Juan and the Villa de San Germán.

During the 16th century, Puerto Rico was the site of dynamic social, political and economic development. The historical processes that were unleashed in that era were driven by the interests of various social groups, the international conflicts and the crown’s desire to preserve and encourage the financing of its new domains in the Caribbean.


Author: Dorian López León
Published: June 17, 2015.

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