By the beginning of the 17th century, the population of San Juan, Puerto Rico had experienced ups and downs during the more than 100 years between the government of Juan López de Melgarejo (1581) and that of Bernardo Lancho Ferrer y Espejo (1680). The growth of the population was affected by the many pirate attacks and by diseases. It was calculated that the total population of the city of San Juan in 1640 was between 5,000 and 6,000 inhabitants.

Beyond San Juan, San Germán was the most populous city. It is estimated that in 1607 there were 100 residents, often in families of about five or six members. The main economic activity was raising livestock. In 1650, San Germán had 30 thatched houses. In San Felipe de Arecibo, in 1680, there were some 80 residents, dedicated to fishing and raising ginger and cocoa. In 1617, Coamo had approximately 40 residents. In 1650, it was calculated that the population of the interior of the island was about 2,000 people: 1,000 in San Germán, 300 in Arecibo and 700 in Coamo. By 1683, there was an urban nucleus both in San Francisco de Aguada and in Ponce.

African slaves were a significant sector of the population of Puerto Rico in the 17th century. Based on accounts of the Royal Treasury, between 1607 and 1633 about 2,240 slaves entered the island legally. This quantity of slaves was not sufficient to meet the huge demand for labor. So the system of issuing licenses to regulate the transport of African slaves was replaced by a new system that granted a person or company an exclusive contract to transport a set number of slaves to the Americas from Africa. In the case of Puerto Rico, these contracts were never fulfilled and the amount of slaves needed to meet the demand for labor never arrived. In response, smuggling met the need for slaves, which were traded for salted meat, pigs, annatto, ginger and hides.

In the first census conducted in the 18th century, under the supervision of field marshal Alejandro O’Reilly, 21 settlements were mentioned with a total free population of 39,846 persons. The census noted that other areas outside of San Juan grew in population. Ponce, Añasco, Aguada and Arecibo surpassed 3,000 inhabitants respectively and new settlements, such as Guayama and Manatí, had more than 2,400 persons.

According to the O’Reilly’s census, in 1765 the number of free people in Puerto Rico was 39,846, while the number of slaves was 5,037. In general, it is estimated that there was one slave for each free person in Puerto Rico. The census also noted that children were 43% of the population in 1765. The youth of the population had specific consequences, mainly in social terms. Children were more exposed to the risk of diseases because of the lack of health care, so their life expectancy was limited. According to O’Reilly, there were only two schools on the entire island, one in San Juan and another in San Germán. There is evidence, however, that confirms the existence of others in Bayamón and Guaynabo, and that San Juan had a primary school run by the Franciscans and higher education was taught at the Cathedral and the Dominican convent. This high percentage of children meant that a good part of the population was outside the labor force.

In 1756, there was still a difference in Puerto Rico between San Juan and the rest of the island. The towns maintained a rural lifestyle and the people mostly dedicated themselves to raising livestock and to agriculture for subsistence. It is known that by the 17th century there were different social classes in Puerto Rico, but because everyone suffered from basically the same economic problems, the difference was not so marked. The distinctions were between the landowners and the military and the rest. The people of San Juan generally acquired land in the interior and often established their ranches in Río Piedras.

The Church, meanwhile, was an important factor in the population and settlement of Puerto Rico. It significantly influenced the development of Puerto Rico during the 17th and 18th centuries. Its influence was seen in the founding of new towns, because the general custom was to establish a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary or to a saint. In many cases, residents settled near these chapels and the towns that arose around the chapels still remain today.

Published: September 12, 2014.

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