As a colonizer and a European power, Spain had to face various challenges during the 17th century. Puerto Rico was affected by the imperial policies that were put into effect by the Spanish throne, as well as the various challenges that were part of the historical setting in the Caribbean. Over the course of the century, mechanisms developed that were responses to the urgent situations of the time. At the same time, governing institutions were put into place to address the gradually increasing complexity of colonial society.

The European military conflicts gave rise to international scenarios involving struggles for supremacy in several geographic areas. The Eighty Years War, the Thirty Years War, the English Revolution and the Anglo-Dutch Wars made the Caribbean an extremely dynamic environment. The warring tradition of the old continent had affected the Spanish colonies in the Americas since the 16th century, so many of those colonies were dramatically militarized. It was in that context that the city of San Juan was included in a broad plan for fortifications during the reign of King Felipe II.

Maintaining the soldiers who defended San Juan and underwriting the costs of building fortifications such as El Morro required a huge investment by the crown. Because the Royal Treasury of Puerto Rico could not support the economic load, Felipe II decreed in 1582 that the funds would come from Santo Domingo. However, the Royal Treasury of Hispaniola was also incapable of supporting the military operations in San Juan. So in 1584, the king decided that Puerto Rico would periodically receive money from the Royal Treasury in New Spain. This was known as the Mexican situado.

Over the course of the 17th century, and in later periods, the military defense of San Juan depended on the funds that came from the Mexican situado. However, there were periods of time when the money did not arrive to the Royal Treasury of Puerto Rico. The government in San Juan was not self-sufficient in financially maintaining the soldiers and the construction projects and repairs of the fortifications. Under these circumstances, the island’s Royal Treasury had to resort to taking private loans on various occasions. In other words, wealthy individuals financed the military operations of the Puerto Rican capital. This was not viewed favorably by the crown.

Historians such as Francisco Moscoso and José Cruz de Arrigoitia have pointed out the scarce historical research on the 17th century. Insights into the period are limited. According to Moscoso, in the first half of the 17th century, there were 8,300 residents in Puerto Rico. He recognizes the lack of precision in sources from the era, and clarifies that demographic statistics for that time are approximate. Among the main population centers of Puerto Rico in the era were San Juan, San Germán, Coamo and Arecibo.

In terms of religion, historical sources are more revealing. The church in Puerto Rico, as in the other Spanish colonies in the Americas, was subordinate to the Spanish crown through the Royal Foundation. Texts from the era mention religious buildings in San Juan, such as the Cathedral, the Convent of St. Thomas, the Convent of St. Francis and the Convent of the Order of Carmen. In addition to the church’s evangelical role, it was also in charge of education. The presence of the clergy in this area included the participation of Bishop Bernardo de Balbuena from 1623 to 1627. He had extensive academic preparation and he tried to educate the members of the clergy in Puerto Rico so the priests could pass on their new knowledge to the faithful.

In 1645, Puerto Rico was the site of a religious event of great historical importance: the synod, which was attended by members of the clergy from other Spanish territories. The purpose of this meeting, held in the Cathedral of San Juan, was to set new guidelines for the policies to be followed by the church. Religious activity was not confined to San Juan, however. Based on information from various texts of the era and historical research, it is known that religious buildings were constructed in San Germán, Coamo, Arecibo, on the banks of the Loíza, in Manatí, on the banks of the Toa and on the banks of the Bayamón. Thus the evangelical work of the church in Puerto Rico extended beyond the immediate surroundings of the main city of the island.

As for the economy, Puerto Rico must be considered from a regional perspective. Historians such as ángel López Cantos and Enriqueta Vila Vilar have argued that the island passed through a precarious time. Their studies show that legal trade declined significantly during the 17th century. In other words, trade ships authorized by the House of Trade in Seville were fewer in number. This meant the residents of Puerto Rico had to resort to other kinds of trade to meet their needs.

Historians agree that there was a huge trade in contraband in Puerto Rico during the 17th century. This illegal trade resulted from the reduction in legal trade. The trade allowed by the Indies judicial code was subject to a variety of taxes. This made legally imported goods more expensive. In search of alternatives, some residents of Puerto Rico traded with other Europeans who frequented the coasts, including the French, English and Dutch.

The incursions of other Europeans in Puerto Rico were not always friendly, however. Examples are the attack on San Juan led by the Dutch commander Balduino Enrico in 1625. After failing to get Governor Juan de Haro to surrender his military bastion, the Dutchman decided to burn the city. The destruction of the city was so severe that it took years to recover.

The desolate situation in Puerto Rico in the 17th century, considering the precarious economic state and the effects of the Dutch attack, was complicated further by the decline of an industry that had its peak in the previous century. The processing of sugar cane, the island’s main product, became less important. Historian Moscoso notes that Puerto Rico turned to other crops that were in greater demand in the Caribbean market. Among these were ginger, annatto and cocoa. Documents from the era show these products were highly coveted in the region, especially considering the assaults by pirates and corsairs on the ships that transported them, as well as the illegal trade with other Europeans.

It was raising livestock that became most important economically in Puerto Rico in the 17th century, however. The island’s large expanses served as grazing land for the livestock that began proliferating in the 16th century. Along with this arose a small sector of society that controlled these tracts of land, which were known as hatos. The owners of the hatos became a very influential sector in Puerto Rico as the 17th century ended and the 18thbegan.

The large tracts of land devoted to raising livestock and timber allowed certain groups of Puerto Ricans to trade with ships under French, English and Dutch flags. These ships visited the island’s coasts, ignoring the Spanish trade regulations, to buy leather, meat and wood. These were products they very much needed but were not abundant in other European colonies in the Caribbean.

During the 17th century, the society that developed in Puerto Rico had to face challenges of various types and develop means for finding solutions to the problems of the era. The lack of public funds to maintain the military operations, the reduction in legal trade, the decline of sugar production and the attack by Balduino Enrico in 1625 were significant challenges. At the same time, the rise of smuggling and the consolidation of the livestock industry were historical processes that responded to these circumstances. In institutional terms, the church continued to expand its influence and focus on its evangelical responsibilities.


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

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