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Collection Puerto Rico at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Perspectives

Society and the Economy in Early-Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico

The first half of the 1800s witnessed unprecedented population growth in Puerto Rico. Most of the growth resulted from Spanish immigration as a Spanish subjects from other parts of the hemisphere--including troops and other peninsulares from former Spanish possessions that had recently achieved their independence--and refugees from adjacent Caribbean islands came to Puerto Rico. While Puerto Rico had approximately 183,000 inhabitants in 1812, it is estimated that by mid-1800s the population had increased to approximately half a million.

Increased sugarcane production was a second major trend that shaped Puerto Rican life between 1800 and mid-century. During the last decades of the eighteenth century and throughout most of the nineteenth, Spain promoted an export-based agrarian Puerto Rican economy, centering on the production of sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco, that served to finance and support its military troops on the island. Few, if any, funds were ever allocated to improve the island's infrastructure (roads, railroads, ports) or social conditions. Trade was tightly controlled by Spanish authorities, who directed it through three main ports, each with its own customs for tax collection. Most imported goods reached the island through the port of San Juan, the capital city, where a strong merchant elite of peninsulares controlled their sale and distribution. And as the interior and the southwestern coastal regions became the centers of local agricultural production, proximity dictated that export goods be shipped mainly from the port cities of Ponce and Mayagüez.

"The Market Place at Ponce, Puerto Rico." [Detail] A little journey to Puerto Rico; for intermediate and upper grades. General Collections, Library of Congress.

The result of the population increase and Spain's economic policies was a division in Puerto Rican life between the official government of the Spanish colonial authorities centered in San Juan and the popular culture emerging on the rest of the island. A strong local criollo elite--composed, that is, of people of Spanish descent who had been born on the island--evolved around the centers of agricultural production, and with it, popular traditions and popular ideas emerged. Indeed, the city of Ponce has been called by some historians the cradle of Puerto Rican national values and traditions. Ponce and Mayagüez also became strong centers of political dissent where anti-Spanish and secessionist ideas flourished among the most educated men. Antislavery and pro-independence activities grew during the 1850s and 1860s, particularly in Mayagüez, under the leadership of Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances, José Francisco Basora, and Segundo Ruiz Belvis.

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