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Spanish Rule, The Loyal Colony

Roman Baldorioty, libertos, Luis Munoz Rivera, Cedula, slave rebellions

Puerto Rico remained loyal to Spain between 1810 and 1826, when most of the Spanish colonies in America achieved independence. There were many reasons why a strong independence movement did not develop on the island. First, many Spanish loyalists immigrated to Puerto Rico from nearby colonies, such as Venezuela, when the independence movements began. They often settled on the island, bringing with them families and enough wealth to begin new lives.

Second, although Puerto Rico did not have a very large slave population, it was large enough to cause many whites on the island to be fearful that an independence war might trigger a slave uprising similar to the one that had occurred in Saint-Domingue. The planters from Saint-Domingue who settled in Puerto Rico contributed to this attitude.

Finally, Puerto Rico was heavily garrisoned with Spanish troops who would have made a successful independence movement extremely unlikely. The island hosted many troops who were sent there to recuperate from military campaigns on the American mainland, as well as many naval ships that docked for repair and provisions.

Yet there were some separatists who wanted the colony to strike out for independence. In 1812 the authorities uncovered a planned rebellion before it could be carried out, and they executed two rebel leaders. During the following years, several Puerto Rican creoles (Puerto Ricans of Spanish heritage) were suspected of planning uprisings against the Spanish government in Puerto Rico and were deported or imprisoned.

By 1830 all Spanish American colonies were independent except Puerto Rico and Cuba. Spain rewarded its two loyal colonies by lifting economic restrictions. In 1815 Spain issued the Cedula de Gracias, a royal decree designed to improve the Puerto Rican economy. The decree reduced import taxes, known as tariffs, on items imported from Spain. This in turn increased imports of such items as agricultural equipment, which helped expand the sugar industry. Spain also permitted trade with friendly nations, which opened up trade between Puerto Rico and the United States.

The decree also encouraged whites and free people of color to immigrate to the island. It granted free white immigrant heads of households about 2.5 hectares (about 6 acres) of land, with another roughly 1.2 hectares (about 3 acres) for each slave they brought with them. Free black and mulatto immigrants who were heads of households received about 1.2 hectares (about 3 acres). If they brought slaves with them, they were granted additional allotments equal to about 0.6 hectares (about 1.5 acres) for each slave.

Spain was not as liberal towards Puerto Rico in the political sphere. During the period when many Spanish colonies became independent, the governor of Puerto Rico ruled with an iron hand and attempted to quash any liberal sentiment that called for greater self-government on the island. Spain’s new constitution of 1837 deprived Puerto Rico of representation in the Spanish parliament, which had been granted under the constitution of 1812. The new constitution stated that Spain would govern Puerto Rico by Leyes Especiales (Special Laws), which, supposedly, would be more attentive to the colony’s needs than traditional governmental means. However, Spain never implemented the Special Laws, and Puerto Rico remained under the near-absolute rule of the Spanish governor.

Between 1837 and the 1860s there was very little political unrest in Puerto Rico because the Spanish government and military maintained strong control over the island. Dissidents organized a separatist movement in 1838, but the government discovered the movement, executing several participants and imprisoning others. Additionally, some slave rebellions took place during this period.

The situation changed during the 1860s, when representatives from Puerto Rico were invited to Spain to help formulate new laws to better conditions in the colony. The Puerto Rican representatives supported laws to improve economic and political conditions and to abolish slavery. However, the representatives left Spain having only received vague promises that Spain might enact the laws. After having offered Puerto Ricans the possibility of change, the Spanish government had shattered the hopes of many Puerto Ricans.

Growing numbers of people began to support autonomy (self-government in internal matters) or even independence. Their reasons were varied. Some were dedicated abolitionists (individuals committed to ending slavery). Others were more concerned with the need to liberalize the political or economic systems. In addition, many Puerto Ricans who were born on the island came to resent the privileges extended to new immigrants from Spain. These immigrants received preferential treatment in areas ranging from hiring for government positions to the availability of credit.

Currents of unrest soon came together in Puerto Rico’s most famous uprising, which occurred in the town of Lares in 1868. In the uprising, known as El Grito de Lares (the Cry of Lares), several hundred men declared the independence of Puerto Rico and established a provisional government. But the Spanish government easily suppressed the revolt in a matter of days.

However, changes in the Spanish government soon had an impact on Puerto Rico. In September 1868 an insurrection in Spain deposed the Spanish queen Isabella II. A constitution establishing a constitutional monarchy was adopted in 1869, and a new king, Amadeo, accepted the throne in 1870.

As the Spanish government became more liberal, the abolitionist movement in Puerto Rico found support in Spain. In 1870 the Spanish parliament passed the Moret Law, which ordered the emancipation of all government-owned slaves in Puerto Rico, as well as slaves over the age of 60 or under the age of 2. The government in Puerto Rico soon emancipated about 10,000 slaves. By this time, the issue for slave owners was not whether there would be complete abolition, but whether the government would provide compensation when abolition occurred. In 1873 Spain abolished all slavery in Puerto Rico. The remaining slaves, about 30,000, were set free, but they were required to serve a three-year apprenticeship to their former masters. The government paid compensation to the slave owners over a ten-year period. Former slaves became known as libertos (Spanish for “freed”).

Spain also enacted political reforms, which had a profound effect on Puerto Rico. The colony was represented in the Spanish parliament for the first time since 1837, and the island’s press had greater freedom to discuss important issues. In this more liberal atmosphere, Puerto Rico’s first political parties were formed. The first was the Liberal Reformist Party (Partido Liberal Reformista), followed by the Liberal Conservative Party (Partido Liberal Conservador). The Liberal Reformist Party favored assimilation—that is, it wanted Puerto Rico to become a province of Spain rather than a colony. The Conservative Party wanted to maintain the island’s colonial status.

Dissent within the Liberal Reformist Party led to the creation of the Puerto Rican Autonomist Party (Partido Autonomista Puertorriqueno) in 1887. The Autonomists desired self-government for Puerto Rico in internal matters while maintaining Puerto Rico’s close association with Spain. The first leader of the Autonomists was Roman Baldorioty de Castro. When Baldorioty de Castro resigned due to poor health, Luis Munoz Rivera, a liberal newspaper editor, emerged as the party’s most influential member. The Autonomist Party decided to try to align itself with the Spanish Liberal Party, one of Spain’s two mainstream parties, to achieve Puerto Rican self-government. The proposed alliance caused great dissension within the party and led to a split in party ranks. From the split, Munoz Rivera created the Liberal Fusionist Party (Partido Liberal Fusionista), and members of the party went to Madrid to discuss the terms of the island’s self-government with the Spanish Liberals.

International events contributed to the fulfillment of Puerto Rican self-government. In 1895 a major rebellion against Spanish rule erupted in Cuba that eventually led to the Spanish-American War (1898). As the rebellion spread, Spain made efforts to keep Puerto Rico loyal. In 1897, following the assassination of the Spanish prime minister, a new government came to power in Spain led by the Spanish Liberal Party.

The new Spanish government lost no time in decreeing three fundamental reforms for Puerto Rico. It granted all Puerto Rican citizens full political and civil rights, extended the vote to all Puerto Rican male citizens who were 25 years of age or older, and gave Puerto Rico local self-government within the Spanish system.

The Autonomic Charter, as the reforms were known, granted Puerto Rico a governor-general, a cabinet, and a bicameral legislature. At the same time, it maintained the island’s representation in the Spanish parliament. The Spanish monarch appointed the governor-general, who could dissolve the legislature and suspend constitutional guarantees. Although the governor-general had extensive powers, the legislature had considerable influence in domestic affairs. The legislature consisted of an elected House of Representatives and an Administrative Council, of which 8 of its 15 members were elected. Elections took place under the new system, and the Puerto Rican legislature met for the first time in 1898.

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