History of Puerto Rico – 1 of 3

As the solid city walls of Old San Juan can attest, the history of Puerto Rico has been plagued by warfare ever since Spanish colonization.

Much of the bloodiest history of Puerto Rico has been seen by the walls of El MorroHowever, the bloodshed started before Columbus arrived in 1493, when the inhabitants of the island – the Taíno Indians – were already under attack from the warlike Caribs.

Charging up through the Lesser Antilles from South America, communities of Taínos sheltered in the central mountains to escape the Carib raids on the southeastern coast.


Pre-European history of Puerto Rico

The earliest we can go back in the history of Puerto Rico is to the first century AD. Although we know little about the original inhabitants, archeological finds suggest that they could have been nomads who arrived from Florida.

Approximately 300 years later and the Igneris arrived from Venezuela. An Arawak tribe, the Igneris settled on coastal areas and were skilled at pottery, fishing and canoe making.

After another 300 years another Arawak tribe arrived on the island. Calling the island Borinquen, the Taínos settled throughout the West Indies and were skilled farmers. Although lacking the pottery skills of their predecessor, the Taínos were also skilled toolmakers and absorbed Igneri crafts and customs into their own culture.


The Spanish arrival

Christopher Columbus discovered the island on his second voyage to the New World. Christening it San Juan Bautista – St. John the Baptist – he departed from the island to explore Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba and Jamaica.

However, one of his fellow colonists reached a secret agreement with the Spanish government in 1508 to mine gold on the still un-colonized island Puerto Rico and landing in the southwest, Juan Ponce de León and his fellow colonists were greeted by a group of Taínos.

Promised safe passage, the Spanish colonists set up a settlement in the north called Caparra and the following year Ponce de León was nominated as the first governor in the history of Puerto Rico by Royal Decree.


Conquest of the Taínos

Initially the Spanish tried to trade the Taíno gold for European goods. However, when it was clear that the Taínos had no interest in what they had to offer, Ponce de León forced the Taínos to mine for gold on behalf of the Spanish.

By 1511, the Taínos had suffered enough at the hands of their Spanish masters, whom they considered immortal. When the Taínos drowned a Spanish soldier – named Diego Salcedo – at the orders of a tribal chieftain, it was at last clear that the Spanish were mortals too.

The remaining Taínos – many had fled the island due to their treatment at the hands of the Spanish – joined forces with the Caribs and after repeated attacks from both Indians and malaria, Caparra was abandoned for the site on which Old San Juan now stands.

Ponce de León thwarted the Indian rebellion following the murder of Cristóbal Sotomayor, who founded San Germán in the south. Ponce de León organized a vicious raid on a Taíno village in retaliation that resulted in the death of 200 Indians.

The success of the attack spurred on further raids until the death of rebel leader Guaybana put an end to the immediate bloodshed.

In 1511, Columbus’ son, Diego successfully petitioned the courts in Madrid for rights to the lands discovered by his father. As a result he replaced Ponce de León as the first governor in the history of Puerto Rico, who later departed from Puerto Rico for the Bahamas and then Florida.

The Spanish dealt with further uprisings in 1513 and 1518 equally as ruthlessly as the first and by the middle of the century there were few Taínos left in Puerto Rico.

It is not clear exactly when or why, but around 1521, the names of the island and its capital traded places, possibly due to an error on a map – now the island was called Puerto Rico while the town became San Juan.

With the settlers now turning to agriculture rather than gold prospecting, the dwindling numbers of Taínos meant that a new source of forced labor was required to work the plantations. African slaves arrived on the island, brought by Dutch and Portuguese slave traders and by 1530 they numbered about half Puerto Rico’s population of 3,000.

The history of Puerto Rico: 1|2|3