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Developing Trade

1701 – 1800: Trade, pirates, and culture develop in Puerto Rico

The 18th century was a time of development in Puerto Rico. The island's earliest trials had been faced and overcome, and the kings in Spain began taking a closer look at the region – and its economy.

Three of the most important aspects of this century were trade – both legal and illegal – the population and its lifestyle, and the military defenses of the island. Trade was needed to help develop the island into a prosperous center, but, interested as Spain was in the island market, it was unable to keep up with the demands of the islanders because of outdated trade regulations. As always, Puerto Rico was seen as an important position for all of the imperial powers.

Fighting Piracy

At the start of the 18th century, Spain and Britain were at war. The European War of the Spanish Succession lasted from 1701 through 1714, and during this time some tensions also spilled over into Caribbean waters. Piracy grew rapidly, and even Puerto Rico had famous privateers.

Privateers from Puerto Rico were often called guarda costas, or "coast guards." They plundered and pillaged like any other pirates, but they did so in the name of protecting Spanish trade restrictions. This would later cause more problems for Spain.

Almost all of Puerto Rico's economy was based on illegal trade, so there were nearly always ships from other countries for these Spanish guarda costas to stop. They would then be taken into a harbor to be looked over. British ships in particular were targeted by these privateers.

Sea Captain

Puerto Rico's most important privateer was Miguel Henríquez, a mulatto. His importance demonstrated that anyone could take control of their destiny and make a name for themselves in this new world. Henríquez was named Capitán de Mar y Guerra y Armados de los Corsos de Puerto Rico (Captain of Sea and War and Provider of the Corsairs of Puerto Rico) in 1713 and was eventually made a Caballero de la Real Efigie (Knight of the Royal Image).

In Trade and War

Spain and Britain had been at odds for quite some time, and the actions of privateers on both sides had caused a bit of a stir. However, it was the British who officially protested the damages by the Spanish guarda costas in 1730. It was clear that they had reason to protest: In 1734, six British ships were taken during the month of February alone.

In a few more years, a man named Jenkins would take his ear to the British House of Commons with the story of its removal by a Spanish captain. The lost ear acted as a call to action – as well as a challenge to British pride. This caused the aptly named War of Jenkins' Ear to begin. The war itself flowed into the War of Austrian Succession after 1742, but that war ended in the late 1740s.

Creating Company

Many of the other European powers had created trade companies for their territories in the East and West Indies, but Spain had not. Spain preferred to continue its previous system of trade among the islands. However, in 1755 the crown began its own trading company. The Compañia de Barcelona sent ships to the Caribbean, but many of these ships also became smuggling ships.

Creating a Culture

The island of Puerto Rico was filled with smuggling and illegal trade, in part due to Spanish laws that dictated that the only legal port of entry was San Juan. San Juan was far from many of the other population centers of the island, and with little internal infrastructure, it was nearly impossible to trade through only one port.

In 1753, Felipe Remírez de Estenós became the Capitan General for four years. He set to work improving the island: encouraging coffee growth, new settlements, and even promoting trade with Spain. A focus on increasing island production also helped to improve the situation. Although Estenós began planning to issue titles to land that was currently being used in hatos, the idea was ignored by his successor, Esteban Bravo de Rivera.

Distinguished Visits

Spain's largest concern with Puerto Rico was smuggling, especially because it continued to hold a monopoly on the island's legal trade. In 1765, Alejandro O'Reilly was the delegate chosen by the crown to report on the smuggling situation on the island. His and other visits have helped to paint a picture of life at the time.

O'Reilly found there were 24 towns and villages, mostly coastal. The population of the island was relatively young, and many of the settlers were young soldiers and deserters who had little interest in working. Another vast majority of people were not urban – they were uneducated and lived far from cities.

Building Change

Spain had goals of making Puerto Rico both profitable and prosperous, and with that in mind, O'Reilly suggested some changes. Both encouraging farmers to begin farming sugar again and ending a great deal of military corruption would help to strengthen Puerto Rico. He also helped to reorganize the local militas.

As always, there were also suggestions of strengthening the fortifications around San Juan. In 1765, the Junta de Guerra (war council) convened and discussed plans. Both San Cristóbal and El Morro fortresses were strengthened. Workers brought in for these fortifications helped to grow the population.

Education, too, was to be developed. Ethnically integrated schools were to be provided for all children. These would be encouraged by the establishment of new towns and the building of roads and bridges – which also helped to improve communication on the island.

In the earlier days of the island's colonization, there had been only five urban centers, but by 1760 there were 18, and at the turn of the century there were 39. Cities founded during this period included: Ponce (1752), Mayagüez (1760), Fajardo (1760), and Humacao (1793). Population growth exploded, too.

Date Population
1765 44,883
1775 70,200
1787 103,051
1799 153,232


Integration on Puerto Rico was more common in its earlier history than on other islands. The education system with integrated schools is just one example of the culture's strides in integration. Another example is the importance of the mulatto privateer Henríquez. Still, there were slaves on the island. When O'Reilly took his census in 1765, he counted 39,846 people on Puerto Rico, and 5, 037 were slaves.

However, another element of life on Puerto Rico was that, as an encouragement to immigration, blacks from non-Spanish islands were allowed to settle Puerto Rico as free men. This meant that, while there were relatively few slaves, the population itself was heavily black. Few Europeans wished to settle the island.

Clandestine Trade

Illegal trade continued into the 1800s in Puerto Rico. Spain's trade was insignificant – the island only imported oil, wines, flour, and a few other items. It exported only hides and achiote (also called annato, a spice). The illegal traders imported textiles, hats, agricultural tools, flour, and aguardiente (liquor). Exports were most often fruits, livestock, and woods.

Spain's many social reforms for Puerto Rico were meant to stimulate legal trade. In fact, a royal cédula in 1765 opened up trade between Puerto Rico and seven additional ports. The only legal port on the island remained San Juan. Other reforms also allowed certain products to enter in foreign ships. These reforms did make a difference and boosted legal trade: Customs taxes rose from 1,200 pesos in 1765 to 16,000 pesos just 13 years later. In 1785, the Real Factoría was a royal monopoly on import-export trade with The Netherlands.

Under Attack

The American Revolutionary War had far-reaching effects, and it even made a difference to Puerto Rico. The British had again set their sights on Puerto Rico just before and during the American Revolution. When Spain joined France in the war against Britain in 1796, Britain began planning attacks on the Spanish territories in the Caribbean.

Trinidad became the first choice of the British strategists, but, when it fell easily in 1797, the commanders chose to move on to Puerto Rico. However, San Juan had been the focus of island defensive improvements for 200 years, and it was hard to breach.

Although the British forces were strong in number, they were a mix of German, Irish, and even French troops. On the other hand, the Puerto Rican troops were led by Governor Don Ramón de Castro, who had a strong military record. They also were united to protect their island with soldiers, militiamen, and even French privateers joining forces.

In April of 1797, the British anchored off Cangrejos Point, just east of San Juan. British General Abercromby demanded a surrender, which the Puerto Ricans rejected. Abercromby landed and occupied the majority of the area that is now called Santurce in San Juan – to the southeast of the walled portion of the city.

The Spanish soldiers focused on protecting San Juan while the militiamen began assembling. Believing themselves to have been outmaneuvered, the British began to retreat in the first days of May. The attack helped to inspire a further sense of social cohesion among the islanders.

This unity would be disrupted by further mis-management by the Spanish during the following century. However, the 1800s opened on a positive note with a social unity among the Puerto Rican people.

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