A Brief History of Puerto Rico

James Greaves
May 24, 2020

Juan Ponce de León. Founder of San Juan, searcher for the fountain of youth, and namer of Florida.

Puerto Rico does a great job of defying expectations. Sometimes, but not always, in a good way.

How do you explain the culture to those who have never been here? It's neither American, nor latin, nor particularly Caribbean. It certainly doesn't feel like any of its geographical or geopolitical neighbors: Southern Florida, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, or the USVI.

The island can be charming, confusing, maddening, and breathtaking. Sometimes all at once.

You may be intrigued or confused about why things work the way they work around here. It's a favorite pastime of mainlanders who have relocated to make up reasons for why one thing or another doesn't meet our mainland expectations.

Clearly, the island has its own distinct culture and history. That rich culture is too big to do justice to in one article, but a brief history of Puerto Rico may help explain what's going on and how to navigate through, this complex and sometimes baffling paradise.

Taíno in Borikén

At the time Columbus first landed in Puerto Rico in 1493, the island was inhabited by 30-60 thousand Taíno indians. The Taínos can be traced back to the Orinoco River in Venezuela, from where they spread across the entire Lesser Antilles.

Before the Taínos other groups inhabited the islands including the Ortoiroid, Saladoid and the Arawak, perhaps as early as 4,000BC.

The Taínos left an enduring legacy. Most of Cuba, Hispaniola (the island split between modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti), Puerto Rico, and Jamaica can trace their roots back to the Taíno people. Although today these roots are always mixed with Spanish or African heritage, they are more prevalent than previously thought.

The word Taíno means "men of good." Columbus, upon arriving said the Taíno people were extremely kind.

"They traded with us and gave us everything they had, with good will…they took great delight in pleasing us…They are very gentle and without knowledge of what is evil; nor do they murder or steal…Your highness may believe that in all the world there can be no better people…They love their neighbours as themselves, and they have the sweetest talk in the world, and are gentle and always laughing."

Today the Taíno influence is still strong on the island. The Taíno word for Puerto Rico is Borikén. You will hear the word Borikén often. You may also hear Puerto Ricans call themselves Boricu'a, which is basically another way to call themselves Taíno.

Not only that, but Taíno words are still used as town names (such as Mayagüez and Arecibo), as well as streets and landmarks, and Taíno is the root for the English words maracas (maracas), hurricane (huracán), hammock (hamaca) and iguana (iwana)—among others—all of which were introduced to Europeans by the Taíno people.

Columbus Second Voyage

Columbus made four trips to the Americas. His first in 1492 took his three ships to the modern day Bahamas, Cuba and Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic).

The next year he returned with 17 ships and 1,000 men. They landed first in Dominica and worked their way north up the Lesser Antilles, naming the islands as they went, until they reached an island they called San Juan Bautista (St John the Baptist), modern day Puerto Rico.

Juan Ponce de León, one of Columbus' officers, founded the first Spanish settlement, Caparra, in modern-day Guaynabo in 1508 and later served as governor of the island.

Ponce de León was also the first Spaniard to set foot in North America when he discovered—and named—Florida in 1513 while searching for the fountain of youth. He would later die after being shot with a poisoned arrow by the Floridian natives. The fourth largest town in Puerto Rico bears his name, Ponce, and was founded by his great grandson.

Spanish colonization of San Juan Bautista was marred by the unwitting introduction of smallpox and other diseases that wiped out as many as 90% of the native Taínos. There was a brief period of slavery of the native people as the Spanish used them to mine for gold and other resources. This was made illegal in 1512 by the Spanish crown, but took longer to really end. As Taíno slaves were phased out they were replaced by African slaves, but this practice was much more prevalent in Hispaniola, Cuba and Jamaica where the islands were much better suited to agriculture and the economics of slavery, thus those countries have much stronger African heritage than Puerto Rico.

Wars and Pirates

By the late 1500s Spanish influence was waning in the Caribbean due to privateering and wars with other European nations. San Juan became one of the most heavily fortified and important ports in the Caribbean with forts including El Morro (the large fortress at the point of the harbor) and La Fortaleza (today the Governor's mansion).

These defenses were tested several times over the next 300-odd years as European powers fought for control of the West Indies.

In 1595 Elizabeth I sent Sir Francis Drake, a notorious British pirate, to take control of Spanish-controlled San Juan. He sailed into San with 27 ships and 2,500 men, but was defeated by the fortifications and never made landfall. He was injured and died a short time later near Panama.

In 1652 the Dutch sailed past El Morro, deep into the bay and occupied the port. However they were also defeated after being pummeled by cannon.

In 1797, during the Anglo-Spanish war, Sir Ralph Abercromby led 60 ships holding around 7,000 men to take possession of Puerto Rico for the British. He landed around 3,000 men on the island but was unsuccessful and withdrew after his men were routed. It was the last time the British would attack the Spanish in the region. The cannons they left behind were used to make a statue of Ponce de León, which still stands today in old San Juan.

Spanish Rule

In 1809 Puerto Rico became an overseas territory of Spain with equal representation in the Spanish Parliament to any other Spanish subjects.

Due to a wave of independence movements across the region at that time, the Spanish crown decreed in 1815 that any Europeans loyal to Spain who moved to Puerto Rico would receive free land. The influx of Catholic Europeans would stabilize Spanish control over the strategic island. This led to 450,000 Spanish settling on the island over the next eighty-odd years until 1898, a number which also included Germans, Scotts, French and Irish. Today there are many towns with strong European roots, often in the mountains.

Becoming a US Territory

In 1898 the US, who had several years earlier tried to buy Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain for $160 million and been denied, decided to aid the Cuban revolutionaries—who had themselves been fighting for three years against the Spanish. American interference led to Spain declaring war on America and kicked off the short Spanish-American war.

The war lasted only from May to July. Three thousand Americans died, mostly to typhoid and yellow fever. The most notable event was future president Theodore Roosevelt leading the "Rough Riders" in the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba.

At the end of the war a peace treaty signed in Paris gave Cuba its independence. Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the United States. The same year the US accepted Hawaii as a territory after several years of Hawaiian colonials asking. It had been offered for annexation after a coup in 1893, but previous administrations had not been keen on incorporating islands.

The current Puerto Rico flag was designed during this period, perhaps by anti-Spain revolutionaries based in New York. It's for this reason that the Puerto Rican and Cuban flags are identical with reversed colors. (Puerto Rico with red stripes and a blue triangle, and Cuba with a red triangle and blue stripes.)

In 1900 the Foraker Act granted Puerto Rico limited local government. It gained a Commissioner—a non-voting member of Congress, and a Puerto Rico Supreme Court to align the legal code with the US. There were also investments in infrastructure, health care, and education.

In 1917 the Jones Act granted all Puerto Ricans born after 1898 US Citizenship. The Puerto Rican House of Delegates voted unanimously against it, saying it was only done to draft Puerto Ricans into World War I.

Over the next several decades there would be several attempts at independence and appeals for full statehood. A number referenda have been held, the latest of which in 2017 found 97% of Puerto Ricans  in favor of becoming a State, although only those in favor voted. While countries of the same "vintage" (1898) were either granted independence (Philippines) or made states (Hawaii), Puerto Rico has done neither—and not because it hasn't tried.

That history has also been marked by some dark periods including the time the local army reserve fired on a crowd of civilians killing six and injuring 200.

Modern Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has been in economic decline for 11 of the past 12 years. In 2014 bonds rating agencies downgraded Puerto Rico municipal bonds to "junk," triggering a debt crises. Hurricane Maria decimated the island in 2017.

Puerto Rico has traditionally raised and educated talented musicians, artists, doctors and engineers, but the the island has been facing a brain drain to the US for decades and has unemployment rates double that of the mainland. The average income levels in Puerto Rico are half of the income rates in poorest state in the US, Mississippi.

In this context, it becomes clearer to see why Puerto Rico would look to use its in-between status to its advantage to stimulate economic growth through activities such as Act 60. It's looking to use any tool at its disposal to kickstart its economy.


Hopefully this has given you a small taste for the complex history of Puerto Rico. There is so much to cover.

Modern Puerto Rico is proud of its Taíno heritage. It's among the most European and least Latin or African islands in the Caribbean. It has been held in limbo by the vicissitudes of international politics for over a hundred years.

It is this limbo that creates frustration, but also unlocks tremendous opportunities.

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