Among the characteristics of the 17th century time period in Puerto Rico stand out its small population and the relative isolation of the Spanish colony from the mother land. It was a difficult time marked by migration problems and the increasingly rural distribution of the residents, who turned to agriculture and raising livestock for subsistence in the adverse circumstances. Additionally, generalized smuggling became a growing trend among island residents.

With the militarization of San Juan and the resulting separation from the rest of the island interior, due to the attacks by the English and the Dutch, along with the scarce trade with Spain, the colonial economy continued to deteriorate. By contrast, other European territorial possessions in the region flourished by exploiting their natural resources and trade. The English and French colonized other geographic and strategic parts of the Lesser Antilles. The enemies of Spain colonized nearby lands and eyed trade with the island. Under the situation, small-scale agriculture, livestock and smuggling goods were alternatives for facing the crisis in Puerto Rico. With Antillean neighbors eager to participate in this lucrative trade, smuggling was the main way of earning a living in the 17th and 18th centuries.

During this historical period, the island had a lower population level than during its early history. In this lapse between 1625 — the date of the Dutch attack by Balduino Enrico on the city of San Juan — and 1700, emigration, the uneven ratio of men to women and the frequent epidemics severely limited population growth. The decline was obvious, not only in the capital city, but also in San Germán, Aguada, Arecibo, Ponce and Coamo. Young men emigrated in search of better opportunities. The emigration caused a double imbalance. Not only did the productive potential of these male adults escaped Puerto Rican soil, but it also affected the birth rate. Added to this unpromising scene was the number of deaths caused by deadly diseases such as smallpox and bubonic plague.

The livestock industry, however, began to take off. The rural residents spread throughout the island territory faced the conditions imposed by trade relations with Spain by trading with residents of the islands colonized by other European countries. Curaçao, Jamaica and Martinique were smuggling ports. Smugglers from these colonies came to the coasts of Puerto Rico in search of the products of the hatos, or ranches, that raised cattle, horses, mules and pigs. These products were traded to the foreigners.

The livestock ranches emerged in the 16th century when the uninhabited land was converted into grazing space for livestock. The evolution of this practice led to the demarcation of agricultural land and grazing land. The ranchers were assigned a portion of land to build a corral for cattle. These ranches were called hatos and were the fundamental agrarian units for centuries.

Today, the ranches remain as memories of those times. Although they no longer are part of the geography of the zones where the dairy and livestock industries are still significant, their legacy remains in the names of Puerto Rican neighborhoods: Hato Tejas, Hato Viejo, Hato Abajo, Hato Rey, Hato Nuevo, etc.

While in the early 17th century the ranches were mostly located along the coasts near San Juan and San Germán, they later extended throughout all of Puerto Rico. A considerable number of residents worked on the ranches. Smuggling influenced this practice, because the farther away they were from governmental authorities, lower were the risks of illegal trading.

There were so many ranchers that it was necessary to create collective lands, or communal ranches, among the various residents who had the right to graze their cattle on the land. Trade practices specific to the ranching economy arose. Buying rights allowed one individual to graze more cattle in a given area. The wealthy controlled their own individual grounds and did not participate in the collectives, they did not have to tie themselves to other owners to increase their herds or production. However, that was not the reality for the majority, so the communal model predominated.

Rural laborers and ranchers were the mainstay of labor for a century. With the Atlantic Ocean and governmental policy between them, the colony and the homeland remained far apart. Further, the distance between the walled city of San Juan and the rest of the territory was seen in the makeup of the countryside, the rural areas, as a separate culture. The militarization of the city against attacks by the enemy broadened the divide. The rustic environment of the rural ranches was chosen by those who had learned to live within the established limits and their own ways of life. Smuggling, livestock, subsistence agriculture and growing sugar cane co-existed and made up part of the formation of the ethnic and social identity of the population beyond the city during the 17th century.


Author: Martín Cruz Santos
Published: November 05, 2015.

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