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Puerto Rico's History

XV Century - 1599

XV Century

Taíno [Glos.] Indians who inhabited the territory, called the island Boriken or Borinquen which means: "the great land of the valiant and noble Lord" or "land of the great lords". Today this word -used in various modifications- is still popularly used to designate the people and island of Puerto Rico. The Taíno Indians, who came from the Orinoco River in present Venezuela, inhabited the major portion of the island when the Spaniards arrived. The Taíno Indians, lived in small villages or "bateyes", and were organized in clans, led by a Cacique, or chief. They were a peaceful people who, with a limited knowledge of agriculture, lived on such domesticated tropical crops as pineapples, cassava, and sweet potatoes supplemented by seafood.


Christopher Columbus

On April 17, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain signed the agreement to finance and set the terms of Columbus's voyage to the Indies. The document is known as the Capitulations of Santa Fe. The agreement established that Columbus would become the viceroy and governor of all discovered land and rights to 10% of all assets brought to Spain, among other terms.

On August 3, the fleet of three ships --the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María-- set forth from Palos, Spain. The first sighting of land came at dawn on October 12. They landed at San Salvador, in the Bahamas. Thinking he had reached the East Indies, Columbus referred to the native inhabitants of the island as "Indians," a term that was ultimately applied to all indigenous peoples of the New World.


After the success of Columbus's first voyage, he had little trouble convincing Ferdinand and Isabela of Spain, to follow up immediately with a second voyage. Unlike the exploratory first voyage, the second voyage was a massive colonization effort. On September 25, Christopher Columbus set sail from Cádiz, Spain with 17 ships and almost 1,500 men. The second voyage brought European livestock (horses, sheep, and cattle) to America for the first time.

On November 19, Christopher Columbus discovered the island in his second voyage to the New World. He found the island populated by as many as 50,000 Taíno or Arawak Indians. The Taíno Indians who greeted Columbus made a big mistake when they showed him gold nuggets in the river and told him to take all he wanted. Originally the newcomers called the island San Juan Bautista, for St. John the Baptist and the town was named Puerto Rico ("rich port") for its abundance of natural resources, specially gold and its excellent location. It was not until later that the two names were switched. Thanks in part to the enthusiasm of ambitious Juan Ponce de León, a lieutenant to Columbus, the city of Puerto Rico, it quickly became Spain's most important military outpost in the Caribbean.

"El descubrimiento de Puerto Rico"
By Agustin Anavitate (1993)


The Spanish Crown permitted export of slaves to America.


Governor Nicolás de Ovando opposes the importing of slaves.

First slaves arrive in Hispañola.


On March 25, Vicente Yañez Pinzón Captain was appointed "corregidor" of the island San Juan Bautista and governor of the fort that he was to construct therein.


On May 20, Christopher Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain.


Spanish colonization begins. King Ferdinand II of Aragon assigned Ponce de León to lead an official expedition to the island.

On January 14, first school in Puerto Rico was established in Caparra.

On June 15, 1508, Nicolas de Ovando, the viceroy of Espanola (Hispaniola), granted Ponce de Leon the privilege to explore and subjugate the island of San Juan Bautista.

On August 8, Juan Ponce de León founded the Caparra Village near the bay on the north coast, not far from the modern city of San Juan. It became the first European settlement in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rican archeologist, Don Ricardo Alegria estimated that the island had some 30,000 inhabitants.


The Spanish authorities refused to grant to Diego Columbus (Christopher's son) privileges to all discovered land, as a results, the Crown officially appointed Juan Ponce de León governor of the island.

The first repartimiento in Puerto Rico was established, this system consisted of distributing among officials and colonists fixed numbers of Indians for wage-free and forced labor.

The Spanish Crown instituted the encomienda after several priests protested against the treatment to Indians under the repartimiento system. The terms of the new agreement specified that Spaniards were obliged to pay the Indians for their labor and to teach them the Christian religion, but they soon reduced the Indians to a condition of abject slavery, claiming that the Indians were inferior and subhuman; therefore Indians were forced to work from dawn until dusk, under threat of corporal punishment and death.

In his book "La colonización de Puuerto Rico", historian Salvador Brau states that the repartimiento recorded 60,000 Indians, six years later in 1515, only 14,636 remained.

Juan Garrido is the first African identified in Puerto Rico. A free man, he arrived with the Ponce De León expedition. Garrido later participates in the colonization of Florida and serves with Spanish explorer Hernan Cortex in the conquest of Mexico.


Differences between Spaniards and Taíno Indians began and conflicts soon arose as the settlers began subjugating the Taino.

The Cacique Urayoán ordered his warriors to drown Diego Salcedo to determine whether or not the Spaniards were immortal, as they believed that Spanish colonizers had divine powers. It is told that after they drowned Diego, they watched him for several days until they were sure that he was dead.


The Taíno Indians' after learning through the drowning of Diego Salcedo, that the Spanish were mortal, revolted against Spaniards with no success. Ponce de León orders 6,000 shot on the spot in the town square; survivors flee to mountains or left the island.

Diego Columbus won rights to all land discovered by his father after presenting his case to the courts in Madrid. King Ferdinand ordered Ponce de Leon to be replaced as governor by Diego Columbus. Ponce de León not wishing to serve Diego, obtained title to explore the Upper Bahamas and areas to the North.

On August 8, Pope Julius II created two dioceses in Puerto Rico, the bishop of which were all suffragans of the archbishopric of Seville. The Canon of Salamanca, Alonso Manso, was appointed bishop of the Puerto Rican diocese and took possession in 1513 - the first bishop to arrive in America.

On November 11, the Spanish Crown granted a Coat of Arms to the Island of Puerto Rico.


On September 26, the first school of advanced studies was established by Bishop Alonso Manso.

On December 27, the Burgos Law is issued, by Ferdinand II, the Catholic, of Aragón, regulated relations between Spaniards and the conquered Indians, particularly to ensure the spiritual and material welfare of the latter, who were often severely treated.

After the Taino upprising in 1511, a second settlement in San Germán was founded.


On January 27, with the decline of Taino slaves, African slaves were introduced into the island.

On July 28th, the Complementary Declaration was established. Granting natives who were clothed, Christian, and capable could live their own lives.

On March, Ponce de León sailed into the Bahamas headed toward Florida.


The Spanish Crown granted permission to Spaniards to marry native Taíno Indians.

Hernando de Peralta received permission to obtain 2 white slaves, possibly Arab or Arab Descent.

Caribe Indians attacked settlements along the banks of the Daguao and Macao rivers that had been founded by Diego Columbus.

Mona Island is officially annexed to Puerto Rico.


On July, a hurricane strikes the island, killing many Indians.


King Carlos V authorized the importation of 4,000 slaves to the Caribbean.


Government Center is moved from Villa de Caparra to the isle of San Juan.

Puerto Rico became the general headquarters of the Inquisition, after Pope Leo X declared the island the first ecclesiastical headquarters in the New World.


On July 12, King Charles I of Spain issued a royal decree collectively emancipating the remaining Taíno population. The order came into place due to the large number of Taino deaths attributed to the continuing bondage systems. A population of 60,000 was reduced to 4,000 in seven years.


Juan Ponce de Leon

Caribe Indians attacked the south coast.

The city and the Island exchanged names, and the City of San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico became the official capital.

Casa Blanca (White House) was built. The house was owned by Ponce de León's family until the late 18th century.

The ever arriving Spaniards settlers, many of them gold-seekers, brought no women on their ships. To populate the country, the Spaniard took Indian women. With the arrival of African slaves, other elements were added. This historic intermingling has resulted in a contemporary Puerto Rico without racial problems.

Juan Ponce de León organized an expedition, setting out for Florida, where he suffered serious injuries. He took refuge on La Habana, Cuba, where he died.


On January 24, San Jose Church is founded, it is the oldest church still in use in America.


The first sugar cane processing plant is built.

The Convento de Santo Domingo (Dominican Friars Community) was built. The convent organized the first library in the island.


The first hospital was built, called Concepción, by Bishop Alonso Manso.


On their attempt to capture the Island the French attacked many settlements. On October 11, the French sacked and burned San Germán. All the other first settlements-Guánica, Sotomayor, Daguao and Loíza-had disappeared. Only the capital remained.


Sugar became the most important agricultural product.

Governor Francisco Manuel de Landó conducted the first census. The Taino population had almost vanished. Lando's census reports only 1148 Tainos remaining in the island.

On July 26, August 23, and August 31, within 6 weeks three storms strikes the island.


The construction of Santa Catalina Palace, the governors house, began. Later the name was changed to La Fortaleza.


On July 26, a hurricane strikes the island.

A month later, on August 23, another hurricane strikes the island.


On July, a hurricane strikes the island. Few weeks later, on August another hurricane strikes the island. Many slaves died.


Concerned about potential threats from European enemies and recognizing the strategic importance of Puerto Rico, Spain began constructing massive defenses around San Juan. The construction of San Felipe del Morro Castle began. The fort featured 18-foot-thick walls; San Cristóbal and San Geronimo Forts also garrisoned troops, were built with the financial subsidy from the Mexican mines. Next the Spaniards constructed a wall, parts of which still survive, around the entire city.


The coconut tree was introduced to the island. The coconut is indigenous to the Indo-Malaysian region. It spread by sea currents with the average maximum distance of 3,000 miles, on which the coconut will remain afloat and still remain viable. Considering these limitations there were no or little chance of a coconut seed reach the New World. Most authorities agree that the coconut was introduced to the New World by Portuguese and Spanish traders.


The second hospital was built, called San Ildefonso.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain decreed that the natives be as free. In reality though, the declaration of equality did not end the colonial social class system.


Juan Ponce de León remains were brought to San Juan.


The gold mines were declared depleted.


Engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli lay out the main design for El Morro still seen today.


On November 22, Sir Francis Drake, hero of the battle of the Spanish Armada, with 26 vessels, in the company of Sir John Hawkins, tried fruitlessly to conquer the island and set San Juan city on fire (battlemap).


On June 15, the British Navy led by George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, landing in Santurce, conquered the island and held it for several months, it is forced to abandon his conquest owing to an outbreak of plague among his troops (battlemap).

Ginger replaces sugar as Puerto Rico's main cash crop.


Spain sent 400 soldiers, 46 cannon and a new governor, Alonso de Mercado, to rebuild San Juan.

XV Century - 1599 • 1600 - 17971800 - 18491851 - 18991900 - 19491950 - 19992000 - 2023

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Did You Know?

Puerto Rico has a larger population in the western hemisphere than Jamaica, Costa Rica, Panama, and the same or more population than 30 of the 50 states of the US.