Home About Puerto Rico Brief History of Puerto Rico

Brief History of Puerto Rico

  1  Discovery
  2  Ponce de León & Taínos
  3  African Slaves
  4  Sugar Becomes Gold
  5  Short-lived Autonomy
  6  Slave Trade Stopped
  7  Spanish-American War
  8  U.S. Rule
  9  WWI & U.S. Citizenship
10 WWII & Migration
11 PRERA & Korean War
12 Commonwealth & Economic Boom
13 Other Historical Highlights

Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to discover the island of Puerto Rico on Nov. 19, 1493. They found the island populated by about 60,000 Arawak Indians, who called themselves Taínos (Tah-ee-nos), thriving on their fishing and agricultural skills. The Taínos called the island Borikén (Boh-ree-kén). However, the Taíno culture would soon cease to exist due to exploitation, war, and diseases brought by the Spanish.

The Spanish newcomers originally named the island San Juan Bautista, in honor of St. John the Baptist, and named the capital Puerto Rico, which in Spanish means "rich port." Years later, the names were switched, the capital became San Juan and the island Puerto Rico. San Juan was used by the Spaniards as a transshipment port for gold mined on the island, as well as gold and silver from Mexico and South America, to Spain.

Ponce de León & Taínos

San Juan Bautista remained unsettled by Europeans until 1508, when Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León colonized it, and became the island's first Spanish governor in 1510. His primary responsibility was to defend the Spanish settlement on Hispaniola by protecting the Mona Passage between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico (as San Juan Bautista became known). The Mona Passage was the principal gateway to the Caribbean, and the main sea routes to the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and Central and South America passed through its waters.

Cacique (Chieftain) Agüebaná, supreme leader of the Taíno tribes, greeted Ponce de León and his entourage when they arrived on the island. Agüeybaná maintained the peace between the Taínos and the Spaniards. However, it was short-lived. The Spaniards soon enslaved and forced them to work in the gold mines and building forts. Many Taínos died as a result of the cruel treatment or died of smallpox, a disease introduced by the Spaniards. After the failed Taíno revolt of 1511, many committed suicide, managed to leave the island, or sought refuge in the central mountain range.

In 1512, an outraged, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas , who accompanied Ponce de León to the New World, protested the Spaniards' merciless treatment of the Taínos before the Council of Burgos of the Spanish Courts. The Spanish colonists protested, arguing they needed the manpower not only for the mines and on the fortifications, but

also to work in the thriving sugar industry. Friar Bartolomé secured the freedom and rights of the island's natives. As an alternative, the Spanish Crown allowed its subjects to import 12 slaves each, in what was the beginning of the slave trade in the New World.


African Slaves

According to historians, the first free black man to arrive on the island was Juan Garrido, a conquistador and member of Juan Ponce de León's entourage, also said to have been the first free black man to have set foot in the New World, in 1509. Another free black man who accompanied de León was Pedro Mejías. It is believed that Mejías married a Taíno woman chieftain (a cacica ) by the name of Luisa.

Unlike other immigrants, the migration of Africans to Puerto Rico was a result of the slave trade, brought to the island to build fortifications and work the fields. Historian Luis M. Diaz states the largest group of Africans brought to Puerto Rico came from the Yorubas tribe in Nigeria, the Bantus in the Guineas, and the Dahomey in the region known as the Guineas. The number of slaves in Puerto Rico skyrocketed from 1,500 in 1530 to 15,000 by 1555.

African slaves were branded like cattle, educated by their masters, and forced to convert to Christianity. Many assumed their masters' surnames. African slaves greatly influenced and contributed to the music, art, language, and the heritage that is the foundation of Puerto Rican culture. The majority of the conquistadors and farmers who settled the island arrived without women. Most took as wives Taíno or African women, whose offspring, respectively called mestizos and mulatos, .became the racial and ethnic basis of the Puerto Rican people.

In 1521, concerned about threats from European enemies, Spain began to build massive walls around San Juan, to strengthen its three local forts, El Morro, San Cristóbal, and San Gerónimo, which combined were the stronghold elements of the island's successful defenses. Puerto Rico was a major military post during many wars between Spain and other European powers for control of the region during the 16 th , 17 th , and 18 th centuries.


Sugar Becomes Gold

Puerto Rico's gold mines were declared depleted in 1570, and growing sugar cane became the island's most important export product, contributing to its economic growth. During the 1600s, Puerto Rico's settlements expanded, establishing San Germán, followed by San Blás de Illesca (later renamed Coamo), and Ponce on the south coast, and Arecibo on its northern coastline.

The 18th century brought hurricanes, droughts, plagues, and the constant threat of attack to Puerto Rico. The British, Dutch, and French were intent on capturing Spain's possessions in the New World. The island was a stepping-stone in the passage from Europe to Cuba, Mexico, Central America, and the northern territories of South America.

In 1765 the King of Spain commissioned Don Alejandro O'Reilly to visit the colony and report his findings. In his report, O'Reilly recommended the Crown send skilled artisans and farmers to the island; confiscate neglected lands and divide them among the new farmers; build a government-owned sugar mill; and order that all sugar cane crops be delivered to the mill. Also, he recommended the Crown provide vocational education in agriculture; and establish markets for local crops.

By 1776, the official census indicated the population had grown to 70,210 people.


Short-lived Autonomy

In 1809, while Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the majority of the Iberian peninsula, a populist assembly based in Cadiz recognized its colonies, including Puerto Rico, as overseas provinces of Spain, with the right to send representatives to the Spanish Court. The island sent Ramon Power y Giralt, and the Power Law soon followed, declaring five ports for free commerce, Fajardo, Mayagüez, Aguadilla, Cabo Rojo and Ponce, and also enacted economic reforms to stimulate the island's economy.

In 1812, the Cádiz Constitution was adopted, dividing Spain and its territories into provinces, each with a local corporation or council to promote its prosperity and defend its interests, and granted Puerto Ricans conditional citizenship. That year, Spanish immigrants established the Puerto Rico Volunteers Corp ( Instituto de Voluntarios de Puerto Rico ), a military organization roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Guard. The mission of these "week-end warriors" was to train and be ready to assist the regular Spanish Army in the event of a war. Besides being part-time soldiers, every voluntario was also a member of a political party known as "Unconditionally Spanish" ( Incondicionalmente español ). In essence, they were an armed political party. Loyal native Puerto Ricans, aka criollos (cree-o-yos), were later allowed to join.


On Aug. 15, 1815 Spain issued the Royal Decree of Graces, allowing foreigners to enter and settle in Puerto Rico, including French refugees from Hispaniola, and opened the port to trade with nations other than Spain. This was the beginning of an agriculture-based economic growth, with coffee, tobacco, and sugar the main crops. The Decree also gave free land to anyone who swore their loyalty to the Spanish Crown and their allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. Many people from Germany, Corsica, Ireland, France, Portugal, the Canary Islands and other parts of Europe, in an attempt to escape from harsh economic times in Europe and lured by the offer of free land, immigrated to Puerto Rico.

However, these small gains in autonomy and rights were short-lived. After the fall of Napoleon, Spain regained absolute power, revoked the Cádiz Constitution and reinstated Puerto Rico to its former condition as a colony, subject to the unrestricted power of the Spanish monarchy.


Slave Trade Stopped

Aside from the integration of immigrants to Puerto Rican culture other events further changed Puerto Rican society. On June 25, 1835, Queen María Cristina abolished the slave trade to Spanish colonies.

In 1851, Governor Juan de la Pezuela Cevallos founded the Royal Academy of Belles Letters. The academy hired primary school teachers, formulated school curriculums, and held literary contests that promoted the intellectual and literary progress of the island. In 1858, the telegraph was introduced into the island with the assistance of Samuel Morse, when he installed a line in the town of Arroyo, at Hacienda La Enriqueta.

Ten years later, a small group of landowners in the mountain town of Lares organized the Separatist Party, and led an armed revolt against the Spanish forces on the island. The uprising was quickly quashed. To date it is commemorated as El Grito de Lares . In 1897, Puerto Rico was granted a Letter of Autonomy from Spain, allowing it to enter into free commerce with the U.S. and European colonies in America.

In 1870, the Spanish provincial government in Puerto Rico established the Liberal Reform Party, and the Liberal Conservative Party as the first true political organizations. On March 22, 1873, the Spanish National Assembly finally abolished slavery in Puerto Rico. The owners were compensated with 35 million pesetas per slave, and slaves were required to continue working for three more years. In 1887, Ramón Baldorioty de Castro formed the Autonomous Party that tried to create a political and legal identity for Puerto Rico while emulating Spain in all political matters.


Spanish-American War

In late 1897, bowing to U.S. pressure to improve its relationships with its colonies, Spain, under the leadership of Prime Minister Práxedes Mateo Segasta agreed to an autonomous constitution for Puerto Rico. It allowed the island to retain its representation in the Spanish Courts, and provided for a two-chamber legislature. This legislature consisted of Council of Administration with eight elected and seven appointed members, and a Chamber of Representatives with one member for every 25,000 inhabitants. Governor General Manuel Macías inaugurated Puerto Rico's new government under the Autonomous Charter. Subsequently, the governor had no authority to intervene in civil and political matters unless authorized by the Cabinet.

At the same time, just prior to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Spanish military authorities in Puerto Rico issued orders calling for disarmament of the 8,000 part-time soldiers. The militant, pro-Spanish sentiments of the voluntarios were viewed as detrimental to the peaceful establishment of the newly empowered autonomist government of Puerto Rico.

When the Spanish-American war broke out, the governor general of Puerto Rico ordered the voluntarios back into service. It was decreed they would not be allowed to fight in their distinct units, and were to be inducted individually into the regular Spanish Army. The majority of the part-time soldiers refused to respond to the Spanish call to arms when U.S. forces invaded the island on July 25, 1898. The Corp disbanded at the close of the Spanish American War.


U.S. Rule

As a result of the war of 1898, the U.S. gains control of Hawaii, and Spain signs an armistice relinquishing its sovereignty over its territories of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Philippines. That year, Puerto Rico had two governors: U.S. Gen. Brooke became the governor of the island, head of the new military government; who was succeeded by Gen. Guy V. Henry. In 1899, Gen. George W. Davis succeeded Gen. Henry.

In 1900, the island was hit by San Ciriaco, one of the most destructive hurricanes in the history of the island. It caused several thousand deaths and a major economic crisis.That year, Congress passed the Foraker Act, which decreed Puerto Rico would have a civilian government under U.S. rule. The Act provided for an elected House of Representatives on the island, but not for a vote in Washington. The following year, with the inauguration of Gov. Charles H. Allen, the U.S. civilian government on the island begins. Federico Degetau takes office in Washington as the first Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico.

Four years later, Luis Muñoz Rivera and José de Diego found the Unionist Party of Puerto Rico, opposed to the colonial government established under the Foraker Act (aka Organic Act of 1900). A new electoral law gave the vote to all males 21 and older. In 1906, the Unionist Party won the elections to the Legislative Assembly and sent Tulio Larrinaga to Washington as Resident Commissioner. Beeckman Winthrop became governor of Puerto Rico, and served until 1907.

In 1912, Rosendo Matienzo Cintrón, Manuel Zeno Gandía, Luis Llorens Torres, Eugenio Benítez Castaño, and Pedro Franceschi found the Independence party, the first party in the history of the island to exclusively want Puerto Rican independence. Though short-lived, it established a precedent for future organizations with similar ideologies. In 1914, the first Puerto Rican officials are assigned to the Executive Cabinet, allowing islanders a majority, they were: Secretary Martin Travieso, and Commissioner of Interior Manuel V. Domenech.


WWI & U.S. Citizenship

In 1914, when the U.S. entered World War I, of about 200,000 Hispanics mobilized 18,000 inductees were Puerto Ricans. The majority served in six local segregated infantry regiments, guarding key installations on the island and the Panama Canal zone. Three of the regiments, the 373rd, 374th, and 375th (a unit of black Puerto Ricans) made up the Provisional Division of Puerto Rico. The four-year war ended before the unit could deploy overseas, and was demobilized in 1919.

In 1915, a delegation from Puerto Rico, accompanied by Gov. Arthur Yager, traveled to Washington, D.C., to request Congress grant the island more autonomy.

In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act. It granting Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, a bill of rights, and established a locally elected Senate and House of Representatives. However, the Foraker Act still determined economic and fiscal aspects of government.

In 1922, the legal case of Balzac y Porto Rico , 258 U.S. 308, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Puerto Rico was a territory, not a part of the Union, and as such the U.S. Constitution did not apply in Puerto Rico. Women's right to vote was recognized in 1928. The Great Depression of 1929 impoverished the island. Some political leaders demanded change; some, like Pedro Albizu Campos, head of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, lead a nationalist movement in favor of independence. In 1940, the Popular Democratic Party wins control of the Puerto Rico Senate, and initiates a change in the island's political orientation.


WWII & Migration

Some 350,000 Puerto Ricans registered for military service in World War II, although only 65,000 were called. Most served in segregated units, such as the Army's 65th Infantry Regiment or the Puerto Rican National Guard's 295th and 296th Infantry Regiments in Puerto Rico, Panama, the Caribbean, Hawaii, North Africa, Italy, the Maritime Alps of France, and Germany. Large numbers were also in support units such as the 245th Quartermaster Battalion, providing life-saving services and supplies. Some 200 Puerto Rican women served in the Women's Army Corps during the war.

After WWII, returning soldiers-now familiarized with the language and culture-found few job opportunities back home. They spearheaded a heavy migration from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland in search of the American Dream. In 1945 there were 13,000 Puerto Ricans living in New York City. By 1955 there were 700,000, and in the mid-1960s there were over 1 million.

Harry S. Truman in 1946 appointed the island's first Puerto Rican-born governor, Jesus T. Piñero. The next year, the U.S. granted Puerto rico the right to democratically elect its governor.


PRERA & Korean War

In 1947, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Puerto Rican Reconstruction Administration (PRERA), to stimulate agricultural development-sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco were the major crops, establish utilities (electricity, running water, sewers), and major paved roads. Luis Muñoz Marín became the first elected governor of Puerto Rico in the 1948 general elections. That year

Puerto Rico participated for the first time in the Olympic Games.

In 1950, of the 148,000 Hispanics who served in the U.S. military in the war in Korea, 61,000 were Puerto Rican, including 18,000 living on the U.S. mainland. The majority served in the Army and Marines. With over 4,000 U.S. soldiers, Puerto Rico's 65th Infantry Regiment arrived in Korea in September 1950 well led and well trained. The largest U.S. Infantry regiment on the U.S. side, it fought in every major campaign of the war thereafter.

The 65th Infantry, dubbed the "Borinqueneers", comprised of Puerto Rican soldiers and sergeants, and mostly continental officers, won nine Distinguished Service Crosses, some 250 Silver Stars and more than 500 Bronze Stars for valor in three years of fighting. Over the next three years, the 65th Infantry was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation, a Meritorious Unit Commendation, two Republic of Korea Presidential Unit Citations and the Gold Bravery Medal of Greece. The all-Puerto Rican unit was finally integrated in March 1953 and remained in Korea until November 1954.


Commonwealth & Economic Boom

In 1952, Puerto Rico acquires the right to establish its own government and constitution, and is declared a semi-autonomous commonwealth territory of the U.S. on July 25. What followed was a 20-year period of unprecedented economic development, as the new local government heavily promoted an industrialization program called "Operation Bootstrap" ( Manos a la obra ), which attracted manufacturing plants from the U.S. mainland.

By the 1960s, the island's fast-paced growth was being referred to around the world as the "Puerto Rico Miracle," with other developing economies looking to the island as an example of industrialization. The pro-Commonwealth consensus that ruled for 28 years lost its hold in 1968, when the opposing pro-statehood party won the general elections. The 1970 census showed Puerto Rico was mostly urban for the first time in its history, practically within the span of one generation.

Puerto Ricans were among the 80,000 Hispanics who served in the U.S. armed forces during the 10-year involvement in Vietnam. Of the 20,000 Hispanics who took part in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm (1990-1991), 1,700 were Puerto Rico National Guardsmen. The current war in Iraq has been no exception.

The island's economy has diversified to include extensive trade and service industries, and the island's status once again dominates its politics. Commonwealth and statehood are now at rough parity, with independence holding between 2% and 3% share of electoral support. Status plebiscites in 1993 and 1998 were inconclusive, and both the public and political leadership remain deeply divided. During the last 4 years the island's economy has been in a very strong recession. However, Puerto Rico largely resembles most U.S. mainland states with regards to business, education, and day-to-day activities.


Other Historical Highlights




A constitution for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is adopted.


Local government holds a status plebiscite, and the Commonwealth formula obtaining 60.41% of the vote, statehood, 38.98% and independence, 0.6%.


After 28 years in power, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) is defeated by the New Progressive Party (NPP), which favors statehood. Luis A. Ferré, founder of the NPP, becomes Governor.


PDP wins the elections; attorney Rafael Hernández Colón is elected governor, at age 42, the island's youngest.


NPP wins the elections; attorney Carlos Romero Barceló is elected governor.


The Pan American Games are held in Puerto Rico.


Romero Barceló (NPP) is re-elected governor. The PDP is the majority in the Legislature. Former Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín dies.


PDP wins the elections; Hernández Colón is again elected governor.


PDP wins the elections; Hernández Colón is re-elected.


Under Gov. Hernández Colón, Spanish is declared the island's official language.


NPP wins the elections. Pediatric surgeon Pedro Rosselló becomes governor. He repeals the law declaring Spanish the official language, and declares both Spanish and English the official languages.


A second status plebiscite is held; the Commonwealth formula receives 48.58% votes, the statehood formula 46.34% and the independence formula 4.45%.


NPP wins the elections. Rosselló is re-elected governor.


A third status plebiscite is held; 50.3% of the voters select the none-of-the-above option, statehood receives 46.5%, independence 2.5%, free association 0.3% and Commonwealth 0.1%.


PDP wins the elections; former San Juan Mayor Sila M. Calderón becomes the first woman to be elected governor.


Layman Carlos Manuel Rodríguez becomes the first Puerto Rican to be beatified. Pope John Paul II performs the ceremony in the Vatican.


Roosevelt Roads U.S. Naval Base in Ceiba closes. NPP founder and former Gov. Luis A. Ferré dies.


PDP wins the elections; former Resident Commissioner Aníbal Acevedo Vilá is elected governor. The NPP is the majority in both legislative chambers.


A referendum is held June 10 to vote for a one-chamber legislature or the existing two-chamber (Senate and House of Representatives). The majority voted in favor of one chamber. Another referendum is scheduled for July 9, 2007, to vote to amend the Constitution to provide for a one-chamber legislature.


A sales tax of 5.5% was implemented after derogating the 6.6% excise tax. Some municipalities also implemented a municipal tax ranging from 1% to 1.5%.


The New Progressive Party (NPP) wins the elections in an electoral landslide without precedent in the Island. Former Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño is elected Governor.


PDP wins the elections; Alejandro García Padilla is elected governor. Another status plebiscite is held; 53.97% voters weren't not in favor of maintaining nonterritorial political status while 46.03% voted for keeping the current status. Of those 53.97% of voters, Statehood received 61.16%, Sovereign Commonwealth 33.34% and Independence 5.49%.

Source: CARIBBEAN BUSINESS Book of Lists and other historical sources.