Puerto Rican history – 2 of 3

An attempt by France to capture the island in 1528 started an era of Puerto Rican history where it often found itself under attack from other European nations.

Although the defense was successful, the attack demonstrated that it was necessary to fortify San Juan from further assaults.

The result was the construction of the fortress usually known as El Morro in 1539, paid by the Spanish crown to protect what they now recognized as an outpost of major strategic importance to the hugely wealthy Spanish Empire.

The wealth of Spain, the easy pickings of galleons laden with gold, and the strategic importance of the island meant a period of Puerto Rican history blighted by attacks from the English, French and Dutch, particularly at the end of the 16th century when Spain and England were at war.

The 17th century continued much in the same way as the previous one had ended. Spain was starting to lose its New World colonies to the English, Dutch and French and feelings its trade with South America under threat, turned its hand to turning San Juan into a military stronghold – fortifications were to eventually surround the whole of San Juan.


Suffering at the hands of Spain

While Spain squandered its wealth from its pickings in the New World, its colonies struggled.

Draconian mercantile laws restricted trade with anyone but Spain and all were exported to Seville for prices set by Spain.

This absurd situation meant that much of the population turned to the black market in order to survive – by the 1760s it is estimated that most of the colonies 45,000 inhabitants was involved in smuggling.

While Spain focused its attention on San Juan, smugglers traded with foreign ships that called in at the island’s more remote ports.

Eventually Spain decided to act and Irishman mercenary Alejandro O’Reilly arrived to sort Puerto Rico out.


The tide turns in Puerto Rico’s favor

O’Reilly set about modernizing Puerto Rico with new roads, more sugar cane production and providing schools. Most importantly, O’Reilly established the freedom to trade with other Spanish colonies. His measures led to massive immigration and in the 35 years from 1765 the population tripled to 155,000.

Merchants from the United States had traded with Hispaniola for their sugar and rum after defeating the British in the 1781 Revolutionary War.

When unrest in Hispaniola made trade with the United States impossible, the same merchants turned to Puerto Rico. While benefiting from the trade, an exodus from Hispaniola brought the additional benefit to Puerto Rico of introducing the more efficient methods of farming sugar cane and producing rum that had existed there.

However, Puerto Rico’s new found wealth attracted an old predator – a 9,000 strong British force arrived on 60 ships in an attempt to take the island. Deterred by the island’s militiamen, the British were defeated and Puerto Rico was able to continue its trade with the United States.

While Puerto Rico prospered, by the mid-1820s Spain had lost all but two of its New World colonies – Puerto Rico and Cuba.

In order to suppress any uprisings in the two islands, the Spanish king further liberalized the trade system further and appointed dictatorial military governors.

Important crops now included coffee and tobacco, and trade with the United States continued to grow. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s population expanded further – immigration saw the population swell from 155,000 at the end of the 18th century to almost one million by the end of the following century.

The history of Puerto Rico: 1|2|3

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