After the Spanish conquest and colonization, the 16th century began with three social groups of different races living in Puerto Rico: indigenous, Spanish and African. Each of these made significant contributions to today’s Puerto Ricans. Among these three races, the Spaniards, who imposed their culture through their socio-economic and political control, dominated the power hierarchy. The indigenous people and the Africans were the laborers, the workforce that constantly struggled to preserve their respective cultures.

In Historia general y natural de las Indias, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo wrote that by 1510 there were about 300 Spanish residents in Puerto Rico. But that population decreased significantly the following year due to disease and indigenous uprisings.

During the first 20 years of Spanish settlement of the island, arrived people from different social classes in Spain, from members of the nobility to gentlemen, craftsmen and laborers. In 1517, the Spanish government authorized support payments to any worker who wanted to come to the Antilles with their women. A year later, in 1518, tools, plants and seeds were offered to those who wanted to make the move. This was done because agriculture and the population had not grown up to that time. As a result of these offers, 207 people from 20 families came to Puerto Rico in 1520.

Special permission was required for anyone who wanted to come to the Americas. Moors, Jews and new Christians, which were those who had converted to Christianity during the previous 200 years after being Jewish or Muslim, were not allowed to make the trip. Most of the population that came to Puerto Rico was from Andalusia, Catalonia, Extremadura and the Canary Islands.

The exact number of residents who came to Puerto Rico in those years is not known, but there is some data that was collected by Francisco Manuel de Lando, who was ordered to report on the island’s situation and conduct a census in 1530. This census included both the Spaniards and the indigenous people and Africans. He reported that in 1530 there were 426 Spanish colonists.

As for the indigenous people, archaeological and anthropological research has calculated that there were around 20,000 to 40,000, while other work suggests that there were between 60,000 and 80,000 before the conquest. At the time of the colonization, according to Salvador Brau, there was an indigenous population of 60,000 in 1509, and by 1515 only 14,636 remained, so the decline in the indigenous population was significant even in the beginning of the conquest. There are various reasons for this decline. First was mistreatment, on top of physical displacement from their communities. Other reasons were the scarcity of food, the disruption that reduced fertility, diseases, social and cultural assimilation, and the fact that some fled to other islands.

By 1772, indigenous people were still counted in the censuses of Puerto Rico, but the numbers were reduced and they were probably not direct descendants of the original inhabitants of the island, but rather the product of the mixing of indigenous people with those from other places, such as Jamaica and Mexico. In the end, the indigenous society disintegrated, and their customs, beliefs and ways of relating as a group were lost.

The third element of the population, the Africans, arrived in the Americas initially in small numbers as domestic servants, but with the decline in the number of indigenous people who could be used as labor, the slaves became the substitute labor force. It is believed that the first black slaves came to Puerto Rico as domestic slaves with Ponce de León on his second voyage in 1509. It was not until 1513 that trafficking in black slaves was legalized through licenses to use them in agriculture and mining. Initially, these permits were granted to allow the importation of up to 20 African slaves. In 1518, 500 slaves were authorized, but many more were imported than were authorized. As a result, the African population on the island grew significantly. In Puerto Rico were living both slaves born there and slaves brought from Africa.

In 1530, there were 1,930 African slaves in San Juan and 333 in San Germán. The slaves that came to Puerto Rico were from various regions of Africa, so there were marked differences of language and tradition among them. Mixing these different groups with the Spanish created a new culture. All of these factors affected the distribution of the population of the three cultural groups.

Twenty years after the colonization began, the Spanish population had nearly doubled, but this population pattern would not continue.

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Published: September 12, 2014.

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