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Puerto Rico is an archipelago of islands that forms a nation found in the West Pacific. This country has been an autonomous commonwealth in an alliance with the United States since 1952. According to Pitzer and Tara (34), this nation has close ties with the United States and in certain instances; it is usually referred to as one of its last colonies. Though these Islands have been in existent before the exploration age, it was only until 1493 that they were discovered by Christopher Columbus (Eagen 3). The history of Puerto Rico can be divided into four phases that is; the pre-Columbian period, Spanish colonization era, Colonization by the United States, and the Commonwealth era. This paper discusses the all these phases of the history of Puerto Rico.
The Pre-Columbian Period
According to Adams (23) and Eagen (10), Puerto Rico was occupied by the Taino Indians before it was discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to explore the western hemisphere. Eagen (10) asserts that, these natives had referred to these islands of Puerto Rico as Borinquen or Boriken. The Taino Indians were a branch of the greater Arawak family that covered most parts of Cuba and the neighboring islands. They had migrated from areas of South America and they were the occupants of these islands before the Spanish colonization. Adams (23) says that these natives lived in small villages that were organized into clans led by a chief by the title of Cacique. The natives possessed little knowledge on agriculture and mostly lived on the domesticated tropical crops like cassava, pineapple, and sweet potatoes. They supplemented these tropical foods with seafood obtained through fishing.
According to Pitzer and Tara (38), the ancient history of the Puerto Rico islands before the arrival of Christopher Columbus is not well known as such. These scholars claim that the earlier inhabitants; unlike other indigenous communities of the new World like the Aztec, had left very little archeological and physical evidence. Presently, only a few rock and cave carvings and scanty ancient recreational activity sites have been discovered. Their reliability in providing historical information of the earlier dwellers of these islands is questionable.
Nevertheless, Pitzer and Tara (38), argue that these earlier inhabitants are thought of to have been the Amerindian hunters and fishermen; a category of the Ortoiroid people. These Amerindians must have occupied the island long before the Taino Indians migrated into it. They further claim that the Taino culture must have developed in this island between the seventh and eleventh centuries and became the dominant tribe in the island until the time of Columbia’s arrival.
Contacts with Spain
The contact of Puerto Rico with Spain began in the beginning of 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain approved its financing and set the terms of Columbus’s first voyage to the Indies (Eagen 23). According to this contract, Columbus would become the governor and viceroy of all the lands that his voyage shall discover while Spain was given the right to ten percent of assets. Consequently after this agreement was sealed, a fleet of three ships that is the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria were set fort from Palos in Spain on the third of August 1492 (Eagen 23).
According to Eagen (23), this fleet to the Indies cited a land at dawn which happened to be the Bahamas. After landing at San Salvador in the Bahamas, they thought that they had reached the East Indies. This belief made Columbus refer to the native inhabitants they found in the Bahamas as ‘Indians’. According to Eagen (23), this name was ultimately used to refer to all the indigenous peoples of the New World from then henceforth. This voyage marked the beginning of the Spaniard contacts with the Indies, and opened an avenue for more expeditions. After the success of the first voyage, Christopher Columbus easily convinced Ferdinand and Isabela of Spain about the need follow up second voyage. Unlike the first voyage which was more exploratory, the second voyage entailed a massive colonization effort.
Discovery of Puerto Rico
According to Eagen (24), the discovery of Puerto Rico came in the Second voyage to the Indies. The islands that form Puerto Rico were discovered on the November fifteenth, 1943 by Columbus. At this time it was populated by nearly fifty thousand Taino or the Arawak Indians who jovially welcomed him. The only big mistake that these natives did was to show Columbus the gold nuggets in their rivers and to tell him to take as much as he wanted.
According to Eagen (23), the Spanish voyages called this island of Puerto Rico San Juan Bautista a name after St. John the Baptist. The name Puerto Rico was coined later due to the rich potential this island had. Eagen (10) claims that Puerto Rico means the city of the rich port. From 1493, these Islands had remained unvisited by the Spaniards for almost fifteen years. It was only in August 1508 that Juan Ponce de Leone made an invasion of these islands with a small army of soldiers and became the first governor of Puerto Rico.
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Colonization by the Spaniards
According to Eagen (12), the Spanish colonization is thought of to have begun in 1508, when King Ferdinand II of Aragon assigned Ponce de Leon to lead an official expedition to San Juan Bautista or Puerto Rico. Colonization started off by the establishment of schools with the first school being built in Caparra. After the death of Columbus, the Spanish authorities refused to grant Diego Columbus; the son to Christopher Columbus, privileges to the discovered land. They instead appointed Juan Ponce the governor of Juan Bautista.
According to Pickett and Pickett (34), the onset of the colonization led to the creation of a repartimiento in Puerto Rico. This repartimiento created a provision of distributing among the Spanish officials and colonists, a fixed number of the local natives for a forced and wage-free labor. As a result, the Spaniards reduced the native Indians to a condition of abject slavery claiming that they were inferior and subhuman. According to Pickett and Pickett (34), the use of forced labor and slavery led to the emergence of differences between the Taino native Indian community and the Spaniards in 1510. Later in 1511, through the initiative of Cacique Urayoan, the Spanish soldiers realized that the Spaniards were also immortal and not gods as they thought (Adams, 23).
The revelation that the Spanish soldiers were immortal led to numerous revolts against the Spaniards. Adams (23) says that the native revolts were in form of bloody raids against isolated Spanish settlements. Unfortunately, these revolts were not successful as Ponce de Leon managed to kill six thousand of the native soldiers. Some of the survivors had to seek refuge on top of the mountains as others opted to leave the island. Adams (23) also notes that majority of them used to commit suicide and kill their young ones once they were enslaved.
African slaves were introduced to work in the plantations that had been established in this island in 1513 to strengthen the slave population. In this same year 1513, Diego Columbus; the son to Christopher won rights to ownership of all the lands that his father had discovered. Pickett and Pickett (34), claim that the island of Puerto Rico received its name in 1521 after it exchanged the titles with the City of Puerto Rico which became known as the City of can Juan Bautista. To populate the island the Spanish government passed a law to allow them to take Indian women or the African slave girls as wives. This intermingling in Pickett and Pickett’s (34) view, has created a contemporary Puerto Rico that experiences no racial problems.
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British and Dutch Invasions
In 1598, the British Navy organized an invasion of this island and consequently conquered it on June fifteenth. According to Pickett and Pickett (34), this Navy was led by George Clifford, and it managed to hold the island captive for five months. The British Navy only abandoned the conquest when a plaque outbreak attacked the troops. In 1625, the Dutch made an attack and burned down San Juan. The British attacked again in 1720, this time focusing on Arecibo but were unsuccessful. Apart from the invasions experienced throughout the years of 1673 and 1785, this island had experienced a series of hurricanes making conditions hard for the natives and the settlers from Spain.
According to Pickett and Pickett (34), a war was declared by the French and Spaniards on England in 1797. Consequently, the British made a third attempt to conquer this island under the command of General Ralph Abercrombly. This attack was carried out by an invasion by seven thousand British troops and sixty four warships on San Juan. The attack was strongly resisted by the Spanish army led by Captain general Don Ramón de Castro.
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Stability in Puerto Rico
By 1898, Puerto Rico had become relatively stable with a government in place and a governor overseeing the running of sate affairs. In the view of McPherson (25), word started spreading around about the intimated plans of the then president of the United States; McKinley and his Senate. These plans were about including Puerto Rico in the United States’ intervention plans for Cuba. In a bid to strengthen their grip on the island, the Spanish government sent a fleet from Spain to Puerto Rico and Cuba. The United States’ government deployed their troops in San Juan sparking off the Spanish-American war which marked the end of Spanish rule in the Island.
Colonization by the United States
In the view of McPherson (25), the end of the Spanish control of the Island was caused by their war with the Americans in 1898. It marked the beginning of the United States acquisition of territories in Latin America and the western Pacific. In December 1899, the Treaty of Paris was signed which concluded this war and led to Spain’s renunciation of all claims to Cuba. According to McPherson (25), this renunciation eventually ceded Puerto Rico together with its associated isles to the United States. Eventually, after acquiring the ownership of Puerto Rico, the United States made several changes in its governance and structure.
According to McPherson (25), these changes included; first of all decreeing a freedom of speech, press and assembly in Puerto Rico, and establishing an eight-hour day work for government employees. The other changes included the introduction of a public education system and an extension of the postal services to Puerto Rico. Additionally, these changes involved enlarging the highway systems and building bridges over most important rivers among others.
Developments towards Commonwealth Status
The developments towards achieving the commonwealth status from being a protectorate and a colony is seen in a number of laws the congress enacted. The first law was the Foraker Law which was approved in 1900. According to McPherson (25), the Foraker Law; officially known as the 1900 Organic Act enabled the establishment of a civil government and carrying out of a free commerce between Puerto Rico and the United States. A year later the Hollander Law was approved which gave Puerto Rico the ability to have a resident Commissioner in Washington. Additionally, the Jones act enabled Puerto Ricans to elect their own governor, besides making them citizens of the United States.As a result of these Acts, an election was carried out in 1949. McPherson (25) says that during these elections, Luis Munoz was established in office as the first governor elect of Puerto Rico. In 1950, the Public Act 600 was signed by President Truman Harry that gave authority to Puerto Ricans to outline their own charter. According to McPherson (25), this Act provided an opportunity for the institution of the Puerto Rico commonwealth. The commonwealth status upgraded Puerto Rico from being a protectorate of the United States to a commonwealth.
The Commonwealth Era
In 1952, after the approval of a new constitution in a referendum, Puerto Rico was proclaimed as a commonwealth of Puerto Rico to the United States. McPherson (25) notes that even after this, the Congress still treated Puerto Rico as one of its last remaining colonies due to the commonwealth status. Hover, an attempt to review the commonwealth status was rejected in 1991. Currently, Puerto Rico is a self governing-commonwealth in union with the United States. Due to this association Presidents of The United States are declared chiefs of Puerto Rico, whereas the head of the government is the elected governor. According to McPherson (25), Puerto Rico controls its own internal affairs whereas the United States controls the interstate trade, foreign relations and commerce, jurisdiction and legal procedures, and customs administration among others.
In conclusion, the history of Puerto Rico dates back to the pre-Columbian era when the native Taino Indians dominated this archipelago of a nation. The coming of the Spanish settlers, colonization, and the slave trade characterized the Spanish domain of these islands. Attempts were made by the British to route them out but it failed. It is only in the Spanish-American war that the authority of Spain ended. The Americans came with the idea of a commonwealth nation to which Puerto Rico still is to date.
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