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History of Puerto Rico
 
 
 

Early History

The settlement of Puerto Rico began with the establishment of the Ortoiroid culture from the Orinoco region in South America. Some scholars suggest that their settlement dates back 4000 years. An archeological dig at the island of Vieques in 1990 found the remains of what is believed to be an Ortoiroid man (named Puerto Ferro man) which was dated to around 2000 BC. The Ortoiroid were displaced by the Saladoid, a culture from the same region that arrived on the island between 430 and 250 BC.

Between the seventh and 11th centuries, Arawaks are thought to have settled the island. During this time the Taíno culture developed, and by approximately 1000 AD it had become dominant. Taíno culture has been traced to the village of Saladero at the basin of the Orinoco River in Venezuela; the Taínos migrated to Puerto Rico by crossing the Lesser Antilles.

At the time of Columbus' arrival, an estimated 30 to 60 thousand Taíno Amerindians, led by cacique (chief) Agüeybaná, inhabited the island. They called it Boriken, "the great land of the valiant and noble Lord". The natives lived in small villages led by a cacique and subsisted on hunting, fishing and gathering of indigenous cassava root and fruit. When the Spaniards arrived in 1493, conflicts with raiding Caribs, who were moving up the Antilles chain, were taking place. The Taíno domination of the island was nearing its end and the Spanish arrival would mark the beginning of their extinction. Their culture, however, remains strongly embedded in that of contemporary Puerto Rico.

Spanish Colony

On September 25, 1493, Christopher Columbus set sail on his second voyage with 17 ships and 1,200-1,500 men from Cádiz. On November 19, 1493 he landed on the island, naming it San Juan Bautista in honour of Saint John the Baptist. The first settlement, Caparra, was founded on August 8, 1508 by Juan Ponce de León, a lieutenant under Columbus, who later became the first governor of the island. The following year, the settlement was abandoned in favour of a nearby islet on the coast, named Puerto Rico (Rich Port), which had a suitable harbour. In 1511, a second settlement, San Germán was established in the southwestern part of the island. During the 1520s, the island took the name of Puerto Rico while the port became San Juan.

Colonisation took the form of encomienda settlements, where settlers enslaved Taínos, providing them with military protection in return for labour. On December 27, 1512, under pressure from the Roman Catholic Church, Ferdinand II of Aragon issued the Burgos' Laws, which modified the encomiendas into a system called repartimientos, aimed at ending the exploitation. The laws prohibited the use of any form of punishment toward the indigenous people, regulated their work hours, pay, hygiene, and care, and ordered them to be catechised. In 1511, the Taínos revolted against the Spanish; cacique Urayoán, as planned by Agüeybaná II, ordered his warriors to drown the Spanish soldier Diego Salcedo to determine whether the Spaniards were immortal. After drowning Salcedo, they kept watch over his body for three days to confirm his death. The revolt was easily crushed by Ponce de León and within a few decades much of the native population had been decimated by disease, violence, and a high occurrence of suicide.

The Roman Catholic Church, realising the opportunity to expand its influence, also participated in colonising the island. On August 8, 1511, Pope Julius II established three dioceses in the New World, one in Puerto Rico and two on the island of Hispaniola under the archbishop of Seville. The Canon of Salamanca, Alonso Manso, was appointed bishop of the Puerto Rican diocese. On September 26, 1512, before his arrival on the island, the first school of advanced studies was established by the bishop. Taking possession in 1513, he became the first bishop to arrive in the Americas. Puerto Rico would also become the first ecclesiastical headquarters in the New World during the reign of Pope Leo X and the general headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition in the New World.

As part of the colonisation process, African slaves were brought to the island in 1513. Following the decline of the Taíno population, more slaves were brought to Puerto Rico; however, the number of slaves on the island paled in comparison to those in neighbouring islands. Also, early in the colonisation of Puerto Rico, attempts were made to wrest control of Puerto Rico from Spain. The Caribs, a raiding tribe of the Caribbean, attacked Spanish settlements along the banks of the Daguao and Macao rivers in 1514 and again in 1521 but each time they were easily repelled by the superior Spanish firepower. However, these would not be the last attempts at control of Puerto Rico. The European powers quickly realised the potential of the newly discovered lands and attempted to gain control of them.

European Threats

Sparked by the possibility of immense wealth, many European powers made attempts to wrest control of the Americas from Spain in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Success in invasion varied, and ultimately all Spanish opponents failed to maintain permanent control of the island. In 1528, the French, recognising the strategic value of Puerto Rico, sacked and burned the southwestern town of San Germán. They also destroyed many of the island's first settlements, including Guánica, Sotomayor, Daguao and Loíza before the local militia forced them to retreat. The only settlement that remained was the capital, San Juan. French corsairs would again sack San Germán in 1538 and 1554.

Spain, determined to defend its possession, began the fortification of the inlet of San Juan in the early 16th century. In 1532, construction of the first fortifications began with La Fortaleza (the Fortress) near the entrance to San Juan bay. Seven years later the construction of massive defenses around San Juan began, including Fort San Felipe del Morro astride the entrance to San Juan bay. Later, Fort San Cristóbal and Fort San Jerónimo – built with a financial subsidy from the Mexican mines – garrisoned troops and defended against land attacks. In 1587, engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli redesigned Fort San Felipe del Morro; these changes endure. Politically, Puerto Rico was reorganised in 1580 into a captaincy general to provide for more autonomy and quick administrative responses to military threats.


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