Under Attack

1598 – 1700: Puerto Rico struggles to defend itself against many troubles

While the rest of Europe was searching for ways to take control of Puerto Rico, the islanders had their own problems. From epidemics to lack of supplies, their struggles made life difficult. Still, the colony continued to grow and progress.

Economic Development

Although subsistence farming was common, the island's economy was supported for a while by sugar. The high cost of sugar production, however, kept it from becoming a main industry on Puerto Rico. Instead, ginger became a main crop for export. Even smuggled, the spice was worth a great deal.

Spain's king even went so far as to forbid the growth of ginger – twice. In both 1598 and 1602 he made statements against the growth of ginger, even threatening the islanders with loss of privileges if they didn't stop growing ginger and begin growing sugar. Puerto Rico's planters replied to this with a statement that they did not care about losing these privileges.

Ginger could be exchanged for slaves, which made it extremely profitable, but soon a flood of ginger made the price drop. High import taxes levied on ginger by the crown also reduced the islanders' profits on the plant, and they soon began growing tobacco and cocoa. Cocoa's profitability was generally temporary, but was best felt near San Germán.

Raising livestock was also extremely important and profitable. Horses, cattle, oxen, sheep, pigs, and goats were all raised on the island. Puerto Rican bred horses were especially important in Spanish exploration: They were used in Florida, Peru, and throughout Central America. Meanwhile, local mills were driven by horses.

Poor shipping and trade to the island also made an impact on the islanders' lifestyles. From 1651 through 1662, there was not one Spanish ship in port. Trade restrictions made it illegal for other ships to dock there, but the need for supplies led illegal trading to become an important business in Puerto Rico.

First the Portuguese, then later the French and English, and finally the Dutch brought slaves to the island illicitly. Barter was the main form of trade; Puerto Rican goods like sugar, hides, tobacco, livestock, ginger, and wood were exchanged for basic supplies like wheat, clothes, agricultural and other tools, and household utensils - as well as slaves.

On other islands, the slave trade was particularly important because of sugar plantations. Puerto Rico developed somewhat differently: Each sugar mill also had a cattle ranch, called a hato, which raised the necessary animals for beef, agriculture, and industry. The governors of the island encouraged these hatos as a means of feeding both troops and population, though the hides also brought in money through both legal and illegal trade.

Island Living

Although Puerto Rico was able to develop a system for maintaining the necessities on the island, such as subsistence farming and illegal trade when Spanish ships came through only irregularly at best, there were still plenty of problems the islanders faced. Many of the conflicts were handled by the Catholic church, which had come to the island in its earliest days of settlement.

Although some churches were founded in the early days of the colony, the convent church was not finished until the 1630s. Franciscan monks, too, arrived and built a church and convent, which was under construction from 1642 through 1670. After 1651, women could enter the Carmelite convent on Puerto Rico.

San Juan was home to the largest concentration of clergy by far. The rest of the island had a few priests, but even the large settlement of San Germán had only primitive churches until 1688 when its stone church was built. Other regions of the island had little assistance from the church.

The church did not earn enough to support itself from the tithes given by the islanders but gained additional support from annual gifts by the Situado in Spain and occasional grants from the crown or donations from private citizens. However, these churches played an extremely important role in island life.

Two hospitals, Hospital de San Alfonso and Hospitales de Concepción, in San Juan and San Germán helped to care for the sick. Epidemics were common in the earliest days and occurred in 1602, 1608, 1609 as well as 1689 and 1690. The hospitals helped care for those who were struck by the diseases.

Education was also a top priority for the churches. Although a grammar school was developed early in the island's history, a second school was also created in the 1680s. King Fredinand's edict that Taínos be taught to read and write was also carried out by the clergy and encomenderos. Bishop Francisco Padilla, who encouraged the second school in San Juan, also worked hard to encourage the settlers to send their children to school – even asking the government to provide clothes for the children whose families could not afford them.

Military Troubles

Puerto Rico was a prize to be won in the Caribbean Sea, and the island still faced many issues in self-protection. Dutch invasion helped to spur some additional protections, but this was not enough to truly protect the island.


In 1625, Dutch merchants had become extremely troublesome to the settlers on Puerto Rico. Finally Boudewijn Hendriksz (called Baldwino Enrico by the Spanish) set sail for the island, and on September 24 of that year his ships were sighted offshore. By the next day, they had taken off for El Cañuelo. San Juan's governor, captain-general Juan de Haro, took steps to defend both Boquerón and Cambrón, but the Dutch simply sailed into the harbor instead of attacking the fortifications.

In response, de Haro ordered a retreat into El Morro, and on September 26 and 27 the Dutch landed and made camp at El Calvario in front of El Morro. They then lay siege to the fort, but the Spanish troops inside would not give in easily. Small groups left the fort to attack the Dutch soldiers, taking supplies to supplement their own poor stock inside the fort.

Captain Juan de Amézquita led one such group of 50 soldiers on a sneak attack in which they killed 60 Dutch soldiers, including two officers. This surprise attack against the Dutch escalated affairs. De Haro suggested that Hendriksz leave, but Hendricksz threatened instead to burn the town if they did not surrender.

Although he did burn the town, this only incited the Spanish soldiers further. On October 22 the siege ended, but the Dutch did not leave port until November 2. It was this siege that led the crown to believe that Puerto Rico needed further defensive improvements.


King Phillip IV began considering plans for improvements of San Juan's defenses, and, though some thought to protect La Puntilla in the southwestern part of the city, the city council's perennial plan to wall the city was reinvigorated. Governor Enrique Enríquez de Sotomayor spearheaded the campaign to get the plan approved by the crown.

Finally, in July of 1634, construction efforts began. In the end, the wall would have three doors and would stretch from La Fortaleza around the city. The three gates were called the Puerta de San Juan, Puerta de San Justo, and Puerta de Santiago. This third gate was often called Puerta de Tierra as the only gate to face land.

Although the city's wall was fortified by 1638, there were still problems with protecting the island. In fact, even after a 1645 declaration of the island's importance to Spain, Puerto Rico still lacked troops to defend the wall it had built. Epidemics, Spain's own negligence, and late pay worsened the situation as soldiers in Puerto Rico died or deserted.

Puerto Rico's governor attempted to solve this problem by employing locals as soldiers – rather than Spanish imports. Local volunteers became the milicias urbanas, and there was one in each of the territorial districts: San Germán, Arecibo, Aguada, Coamo, Loíza, and Ponce.

Militiamen, called milicianos, used machetes, wooden sticks, and knives when they fought and were led by new officers, the Capitán a Guerra and the Teniente a Guerra, whose positions were created for that purpose. Although it was against the will of the crown, these men were used to protect the island. They organized during wartime and defended the island because it was their home.

Back to Puerto Rico History Overview

History Resources, References, and Further Reading


Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.