Discovery of Puerto Rico

1400-1597: Puerto Rico strengthens itself against foreign invaders

The history of human life on Puerto Rico began centuries before records were kept. The earliest known documents date back to the Spanish discovery and settlement of the island, but archaeologists have excavated items that help piece together a bit more about early life on the island. Still, the years since European discovery are at the center of most historical studies.

Earliest Occupants

The Taíno Indians had a strong civilization on Puerto Rico when Columbus arrived. The Taíno called the island Boriquén, "the land of the brave lord," and native place names survive to this day in locations such as Caguas, Humacao, Mayagüez, and Utuado, as well as in the name Puerto Ricans use to describe themselves: borinquen.

Columbus "discovered" the island on Nov. 19, 1493, and called it San Juan Bautista – Saint John the Baptist. However, it would be more than a decade before the first permanent colony would be established. During this time, the Spanish certainly made contact with the Taíno, but little conflict ever developed between the two groups.

Just before the arrival of the Spanish explorers, a different group of explorers had made its way to the island. The Caribs, a more warlike group than the Taíno, had traveled up the Caribbean archipelago to the eastern shores of Puerto Rico, and conflicts had begun between the two groups.

Spanish Settlement

Famous explorer Juan Ponce de León founded Puerto Rico's first permanent colony in 1508 when he led settlers from Hispaniola to the island. He contacted the Taíno cacique (chief) Agüeybaná and founded the city of Caparra not far from where San Juan stands currently.

However, the settlers did not treat Puerto Rico's Taíno natives well, and soon conflicts arose. In 1511, the Taíno rebelled from their slave-like positions, but their rebellion's defeat by the Spanish ended much of the resistance. The native people were either forced to surrender or flee – many chose to make their homes with the Caribs who had taken hold in the eastern portion of the island.

Near Caparra, a new city developed: It was called Puerto Rico ("rich port" in Spanish) and was located on a bay. This city would soon become one of the most important in the Caribbean, and certainly the island's most important. Over time, the city and the island switched names, and so Puerto Rico became the island and San Juan became this port city.

Leadership Positions

Island politics, too, went through several changes in the earliest years. Although Ponce de León was given governorship of the island, Diego Columbus' legal battle to take control was finally granted by the Council of Castille in 1511. Governorship then passed through the Columbus line until 1536, when the Columbus family sold its political rights back to the Spanish Crown.

Then the island was given two Cabildos (municipal councils) and two Alcaldes-Ordinarios (judges). Alcaldes-Gobernadores were chosen and governed for a year, but in 1545 this system, too, was discarded. The gobernador letrado then led the colony; he was appointed by the Audiencia in Spain. In 1564 this, too, changed, and the position was filled by the military Captain-general until 1898.

Economic Growth

The settlers on Puerto Rico couldn't continue their colonies without a source of income, but by 1540 the gold on the island was nearly tapped out. However, settlers could not buy their own lands. They petitioned the king for land grants. It would be some two centuries before settlers were allowed to possess the land they worked.

By this time, slavery had been well-established on the island, so the farms that developed, devoted as they were to agricultural pursuits and livestock production, made use of slaves. Subsistence farming developed with cassava, corn, tobacco, plantains, rice, ginger, cocoa, cereals, vegetables, tropical fruits, and medicinal plants. Woods were also cultivated and had high value at market.

Sugar, however, quickly became the top industry on the island. It required investments in machinery and human and animal labor, and could only have been developed with the assistance of the crown. However, Spain did grant loans for the building of sugar mills, transportation, and even the purchase of slaves.

By 1550, the island had 10 sugar mills. But, after the boom, the number had again declined to just 11 by 1582. A shortage in slave labor and transportation made the production of sugar simply too expensive for most islanders. A few years later, ginger overtook sugar as the top crop.

Location and Power

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI gave Spain control over much of the "New World" in the division of the unexplored territories of the world between Spain and Portugal. However, this did not sit well with the other European powers, particularly England, France, and the Netherlands. These powers soon began to turn their eyes to the Caribbean territories.

Puerto Rico was a particularly important island because of its location. It was the first Spanish port in the region, and the last when sailors left the islands. But, though it was extremely important to Spanish trade, it was poorly fortified.

When French troops and warships began preparing for an attack on Puerto Rico, the city was guarded in 1522 by an order that all Spanish ships move to the port for defense. The first defenses built were a bulwark placed at the port of entry, and the Casa Blanca was replaced by a stone building. There were requests in both 1529 and 1530 and from authorities seeking defensive help.

The main complaint of the island's leaders was that settlers wouldn't stay. The threat of piracy was so strong that it became important to defend the island simply to keep people in the colony. By 1532, construction began on La Fortaleza, Santa Catalina, though it was not completed for another eight years. This fort, however, was poorly positioned at the back of the harbor.

In the 1540s, the El Morro fort was built at the entrance to the harbor. Although San Juan was now protected, French privateers took advantage of the lack of defenses found in other portions of the island. San Germán was destroyed several times before it was able to maintain its current location. The fort here, too, was begun in 1540 and was completed in 1542.

These French attacks on the San Germán region were the beginning of international aggression, but they tapered off in the 1570s. It was at this time that the English came onto the scene with their theories of "aggressive commerce."

Although Puerto Rico's location was important to the Spanish, the crown was more concerned with exploring Florida and other colonies than protecting this one. It was during this time that Ponce de León explored Florida during his fabled search for the Fountain of Youth, and the settlement of St. Augustine (San Augustín) was developed by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

English Attacks

Hostilities between England and Spain were the cause of further fighting in the Caribbean. The First Anglo-Spanish War broke out in 1585 but was part of the larger Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Netherlands. It was during this First Anglo-Spanish War that the Spanish Armada was defeated by Queen Elizabeth of England.

Even before the defeat of the Armada in 1588, fighting had occurred in the Caribbean. In 1586, Sir Francis Drake destroyed many Spanish settlements, but the destruction of its Armada convinced Spain to take further precautions in protecting its Caribbean colonies, including Puerto Rico.

Drake, John Hawkins, and Queen Elizabeth had their eyes set on the prize of Puerto Rico, but Elizabeth was hesitant to make a move against the well-defended port city. News of a treasure fleet's troubles in 1595 went a long way toward changing the Queen's mind. Spanish treasures were being stored in La Fortaleza.

The English fleet led by Sir Francis Drake and Hawkins left Plymouth on August 28 of that year but met with failure along the way at both the Canary Islands as well as Guadeloupe as the Spanish raised their defenses. When the battered fleet reached La Fortaleza, the British quickly learned that they would not be able to take the city as easily as they had believed.

Hawkins died on November 22 of that year, the same day as Spanish reinforcements reached the island. The Spanish had won this battle, but the queen continued planning to take Puerto Rico. On the island, however, Spain increased both protection and the number of soldiers. Improvements continued on El Morro during this time.

This would not be the last attempt by a foreign power to take control of Puerto Rico. As conflicts intensified, the fight for important positions also increased.

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