WHEN Columbus landed in Porto Rico on his second voyage in 1493 and took possession in the name of Their Catholic Majesties, he saw about him evidences of one of the causes of economic difficulties which persists today. Throughout the island's history it has been visited on an average of once in thirty years by a disastrous hurricane. Once or twice, in particularly unfortunate years, two hurricanes have occurred. Though buildings which are well constructed easily withstand these storms, the trees and plants upon which the livelihood of a largely agricultural population must depend continue to suffer.
History records that the Spaniards had exhausted the island's gold mines by 1536 and that Charles V then authorized a loan of 6,000 pesos to encourage the planting of sugar cane. In the four centuries which have intervened no other important mineral resources have been discovered. Cane, tobacco, coffee, coconuts and, in recent years, citrus fruits have had to bear the greater part of the burden of keeping alive a population now estimated at about 1,500,000.
To these original difficulties -- recurrent hurricanes and the almost complete absence of mineral wealth -- others were added during the four centuries of Spanish rule. African slaves were imported to replace an Indian population which preferred death or exile to submission. A census taken in 1531, only 38 years after the discovery of the island by Columbus, showed a total adult population of 3,040, of which half were negro slaves. "The effect of the institution [of slavery] extended . . . beyond the number directly held in bondage. It gave a patriarchal complexion to colonial society and agricultural organization, traces of which still persist. Moreover, nominally free labor, as not infrequently happens when servile labor exists, was assimilated in some degree to the status of its unfree competitors. . . . The more intelligent peasants left the country for the towns where they might enjoy the advantages of civilization. The rest stayed because they could not get away. Thus developed the jibaro [cf. 'hill billy'] class, as badly off in 1900
Loading, please wait...