Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Nineteenth - and Early-Twentieth-Century Perspectives
U.S. History: American Expansionism and the Spanish-American War
Rudolph Adams Middeldyk’s "History of Puerto Rico" can be used to explore American interest in the Spanish Antilles and the causes and immediate results of the Spanish-American War. In the preface, Martin Brumbraugh, the editor of the text, provided a general overview of Middeldyk’s work and wrote about the island’s liberation from Spanish colonial rule and its transformation to a democratic society under the tutelage of the United States.
These people do not suffer from the lack of civilization. They suffer from the kind of civilization they have endured. The life of the people is static. Her institutions and customs are so set upon them that one is most impressed with the absence of legitimate activities. The people are stoically content. Such, at least, was the condition in 1898. Under the military government of the United States much was done to prepare the way for future advance. . . The outlook of the people is now infinitely better than ever before. . . President McKinley declared to the writer that it was his desire "to put the conscience of the American people into the islands of the sea." This has been done. The result is apparent. Under wise and conservative guidance by the Amreican executive officers, the people of Puerto Rico have turned to this Republic with a patriotism, a zeal, an enthusiasm that is, perhaps without a parallel.
From "History of Puerto Rico," images vi-viii
Read the preface and discuss these questions:
- What problems under Spanish rule did editor Brumbaugh cite?
- What did Brumbaugh see as the Americans’ purpose in claiming Puerto Rico?
- What positive consequences of the American takeover did Brumbaugh discuss? What negative consequences?
- How would you characterize Brumbaugh’s attitude toward colonialism by Spain and the United States? List words and phrases from the preface to support your answer.
Read Chapter XXVI, "General Conditions of the Island--The Dawn of Freedom 1874—1898." Compare the narrative in this chapter with the preface.
- According to Middeldyk, what were the causes of the economic problems that hit Puerto Rico in the 1870s and 1880s?
- How did the government of Spain try to address the problems in Puerto Rico? Why did Middeldyk call these efforts "tardy"?
- What did Middeldyk say about the Spanish-American War? Based on what he said, why do you think the United States claimed Puerto Rico?
- Why do you think Middeldyk wrote so little about the Spanish-American War and events in Puerto Rico after the U.S. takeover? Does this suggest bias on the author’s part? Why or why not?
Two other English-language sources in the collection provide more information about the Spanish-American War. Karl Stephen Herrmann’s "A Recent Campaign in Puerto Rico by the Independent Regular Brigade Under the Command of Brig. General Schwan" gives an account of the Independent Regular Brigade’s encounters with Spanish forces in the western region of the island following the U.S. landing in July 1898. Herrmann was a participant in the campaign in Puerto Rico; he wrote a first-person account of events without losing sight of the broader scope of the conflict. His account includes General Nelson A. Miles’s proclamation to the inhabitants of Puerto Rico on July 28, 1898, three days after landing U.S. forces on the island:
To the Inhabitants of Puerto Rico:
In the prosecution of the war against the kingdom of Spain by the people of the United States, in the cause of liberty, justice, and humanity, its military forces have come to occupy the island of Puerto Rico. They come bearing the banner of freedom, inspired by a noble purpose to seek the enemies of our country and yours, and to destroy or capture all who are in armed resistance. They bring you the fostering arm of a free people, whose greatest power is in its justice and humanity to all those living within its fold. Hence the first effect of this occupation will be the immediate release from your former relations, and it is hoped a cheerful acceptance of the government of the United States. The chief object of the American military forces will be to overthrow the armed authority of Spain, and to give the people of your beautiful island the largest measure of liberty consistent with this occupation. We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves, but to your property; to promote your prosperity, and bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government. It is not our purpose to interfere with any existing laws and customs that are wholesome and beneficial to your people so long as they conform to the rules of military administration of order and justice. This is not a war of devastation, but one to give all within the control of its military and naval forces the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization.
Nelson A. Miles,
Major-General, Commanding United States Army.
From "A Recent Campaign in Puerto Rico by the Independent Regular Brigade under the Command of Brig General Schwan," images 32-33
- How did General Miles try to convince the Puerto Rican people to support the U.S. invasion? What benefits did he promise for Puerto Rico?
- According to Karl Stephen Herrmann, were these promises kept? What evidence did he give to support his answer?
- What were the consequences for the U.S. soldier? Do you think there have been similar dynamics in more recent conflicts? Find evidence in other sources to support your answer.
Yellow Fever was a major cause of death during the Spanish-American War. George King wrote in "Letters of a Volunteer in the Spanish-American War" of the ravages of the epidemic among U.S. troops in Puerto Rico:
. . . The life in that swamp was an awful thing. It developed among 1,080 men, 116 pronounced cases of fever, three or four of them already fatal. We have had no ordeal like it, and of course shall have no other like it. For a week or so after we came up to town, fellows who had staved it off for the few days were constantly coming to light, but now for a week, everybody outside the hospital is bracing up.
The life we had been living was a terrible strain. I had been going as much on my nerve as anything else. When a chance came, I slept and squared up; but when it didn't come I lived on my nerve. Just how long I could have done it I don't know; luckily better quarters and news of peace came while I was still well within my strength.
From "Letters of a Volunteer in the Spanish-American War," image 88
Read textbook accounts of the effects of the Yellow Fever epidemic during the Spanish-American War and compare them with this and other references to the fever throughout King’s "Letters of a Volunteer." What can you learn from reading a primary source, like King’s letters, that you cannot learn from a textbook? What does this suggest about the uses of primary sources and secondary sources like texts?
During and after the Spanish-American War, U.S. soldiers and civilians wrote of the classes of people who inhabited the island and drew a distinct difference between the aristocrat of Spanish lineage and the mestizo (a person of mixed European and American Indian heritage). These writers observed the class-consciousness of the inhabitants of the island and typically characterized the average Puerto Rican as indolent and with few redeeming qualities. Karl Herrmann described the classes in Puerto Rican society, expressing criticism of the average Puerto Rican and hostility to the Catholic Church.
About one-sixth of the population in this island--the educated class, and chiefly of pure Spanish blood--can be set down as valuable acquisitions to our citizenship and the peer, if not the superior, of most Americans in chivalry, domesticity, fidelity, and culture. Of the rest, perhaps one-half can be moulded by a firm hand into something approaching decency; but the remainder are going to give us a great deal of trouble. They are ignorant, filthy, untruthful, lazy, treacherous, murderous, brutal, and black. Spain has kept her hand at their throats for many weary years, and the only thing that has saved them from being throttled is the powerful influence in their discipline effected by the Roman Catholic Church. When our zealous missionaries have succeeded in leading them into the confines of other creeds, we shall have all the excitement we want in Puerto Rico, and the part of our army stationed there will have no lack of exercise.
From "A Recent Campaign in Puerto Rico by the Independent Regular Brigade under the Command of Brig General Schwan," images 34-35
Writing from Utuado shortly before the end of the Spanish-American War, George King, a volunteer from Concord, Massachusetts, expressed a similar view.
- How would you summarize Herrmann’s and King’s attitudes toward Puerto Ricans? How could you find out if their attitudes reflected the views of most Americans at the time?
- How do these two writers suggest that the United States should deal with Puerto Ricans?
- Conduct research on the subsequent relations between the United States and Puerto Rico. What attitudes or interests seem to have shaped U.S. policy?
- Read the "American Perceptions, Puerto Rican Realities" section of the "In Search of a National Identity" essay that accompanies the collection. What insights does this essay provide regarding the influence of attitudes on U.S.-Puerto Rican relations?