In the 19th century New World, politics and trade were greatly influenced by the neutrality as well as the purchasing power of the United States. Trade with America was important to the still-warring nations of Europe as a means to acquire necessities and export goods. Puerto Rico took advantage of its close proximity to this new national power.
This closeness was of particular importance in the early 1800s when the Napoleonic wars were wracking Europe. Spain was taken by Napoleon's troops, and though a new Spanish government was set up, King Ferdinand VII came back into power at the end of the war. This conflict gave the United States added importance in trade, though the War of 1812 disrupted operations.
While the Spanish government was having trouble holding on to its power in Europe, it completely lost its power in the New World. Led by Simón Bolívar, many of Spain's South American colonies (Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, and Bolivia) revolted. Spain attempted to regain control of the nations it had lost, but Puerto Rico saw a great influx of Spanish loyalists during this time.
Although some troops were sent to regain control of these South American colonies, Puerto Rico's role was fairly limited in the conflict in the region. However, the island began to grow concerned about its own autonomy. This seed was planted in the minds of the islanders by the United States, which suggested that they not submit to Napoleonic rule should Spain fall to the empire. They should instead declare allegiance to Spain or autonomy, rather than allegiance to another nation.
Cuba and Puerto Rico were each in a similar situation throughout most of history, but a brief period of British occupation in Havana changed the once sleepy, rural island into a sugar powerhouse. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, had remained extremely undeveloped. Therefore, while Spain's similar treatment of the two islands had once been reasonable, the differences between the two islands were quickly becoming apparent.
When monetary subsidies from the Spanish crown were cut off during wartime, Puerto Rico's need for economic development became clear. A new position of intendant – a civilian official in charge of finances – became important, and Alejandro Ramírez y Blanco was appointed. He openly encouraged trade with the United States and cleaned up a great deal of the island's economy.
But the restored Spanish king in 1815 made a decree called the Real Cédula de Gracias in which Puerto Rico was opened to world trade, with higher tariffs for the non-Spanish traders. It also confirmed the 1778 declaration of the island's opening to settlers, offering free land as well. Whites were offered land per person, and a smaller portion of land for each slave they brought. Blacks were offered a lesser amount of land per person, and a similarly smaller amount of land per slave as well.
During this time, coffee production became extremely important on the island. The bean had been introduced in the mid-1700s, but coffee plantations had spread throughout the interior of the island. Mayagüez and Ponce's ports were nearest to the coffee regions, helping to develop their ports.
Puerto Rico's history of immigrating freed blacks contributed greatly to its social status. Furthermore, the land grants given to those who came to the island helped to encourage both population growth and the number of islanders who were landowners.
However, Puerto Rico had an unusually low number of "colored" residents; these included freed blacks, mulattoes, and mestizos. Mulattoes are children of white and black parents, mestizos are children of white and Taíno parents.
The relatively low number of slaves imported to the island throughout its history kept their numbers small, but this was due as much to Spanish trade restrictions as anything else. In 1820, the slave trade was banned – in name at least – and after the British themselves banned the slave trade in 1845, they put pressure on Spain to ban the trade as well. Most Puerto Ricans could no longer afford the cost of illegally traded slaves.
Spain saw the large amount of peasant labor and large number of squatters as an easy-to-harness source of income, and a system of forced labor was set up in 1849. This system required all landless workers to gather outside of towns to wait for work and carry a booklet listing their employers. The law was difficult to enforce, and in 1873 it was abolished.
Emancipation became the buzz word of Puerto Rico's Creole (island-born) population and helped to form the Spanish Abolitionist Society in 1864. In 1873, the remaining slaves were freed with compensation to their owners after pressures from Puerto Rican members of the Spanish National Assembly.
The uprising in Spain's continental colonies caused it to tighten its grip on Puerto Rico and Cuba, and after 1825, the governor had unlimited powers. He could even deport people at will. During this time, a movement among the educated elite called for a reduction in the governor's power and more say in local government. A few wanted complete independence from Spain.
Those who sought independence organized revolts against the government's power. The Grito de Lares (Revolt of Lares) occurred on Sept. 23, 1868. The most important revolt against the government's power, it was led by Ramón Betances from St. Thomas. It was most popular among the workers who were operating under the passbook system.
The town of Lares was taken over by a few hundred men. These men declared their independence from Puerto Rico and even set up their own provisional government. They tried to take the next town, San Sebastian, but when they met organized resistance, they fled, and guerrilla battles took place throughout the countryside for a few days. To this day September 24 is considered a holiday to Puerto Ricans.
Beginning in the 1870s, the Creole elite in particular began to truly support the idea of autonomy for Puerto Rico. Further political turmoil in Spain led to many changes – including the declaration of Puerto Rico's autonomy. The legislature took office on July 17, but eight days later, U.S. troops landed, taking the island during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The Spanish-American War was primarily fought between the United States and Spain over Cuba's independence. Therefore most of the fighting took place away from Puerto Rico. Still, the island was a casualty of the war, and the United States was unsure of what to do with the island. It remained a commonwealth and did not become a state because the U.S. government did not want to make a non-English speaking nation, particularly one that was at least 40 percent non-white in population, into a state.
These actions brought the island into the 20th century, when Puerto Rico remained a part of the United States without becoming a state. It faced many challenges, both political and economic, as it worked through its new status.
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