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Spanish Rule, Sugar and Slaves

Haitian Slave Revolt, sugar cultivation, Cedula, subsistence crops, mulattos

Puerto Rico’s economy underwent a major transformation with the introduction of large sugar plantations. Puerto Rico began growing sugarcane on the island in the early 16th century, but it did not become a dominant crop until the 19th century. By mid-19th century, the island had more than tripled the amount of sugar it was exporting. Along with Cuba, Puerto Rico became one of the leading Spanish sugar colonies.

There were several reasons why Puerto Rico’s sugar industry grew at such a rapid pace. One was the Haitian Slave Revolt, in which slaves in the nearby French colony of Saint-Domingue (on the island of Hispaniola) rose in rebellion against their masters in 1791. This uprising inspired a political revolution that led to the formation of the independent nation of Haiti in 1804. At the time of the revolt, Saint-Domingue was the world’s leading producer of sugar. By 1804 Saint-Domingue’s sugar production had declined sharply as a result of the turmoil and economic instability resulting from the revolt.

Without Saint-Domingue’s sugar on the world market, sugar prices rose. In response, Puerto Rico began to produce more sugar. Furthermore, many of Saint-Domingue’s French sugar planters immigrated to Puerto Rico, mainly to the western region of Mayaguez, and they brought with them money and expertise. The Spanish government helped expand Puerto Rican sugar production in 1815 by passing the Cedula de Gracias, which relaxed trade restrictions with foreign nations. They also encouraged whites and free blacks and mulattos to immigrate to the island, bringing their slaves with them.

Large-scale sugar production was heavily dependent upon slave labor, and Puerto Rico began to import more African slaves. Although slaves began to be imported in the 1500s, shortly after Spain authorized slavery, they remained a small part of the population for the next three centuries. In 1765 there were only about 5,000 slaves in the colony. By 1830, with a new emphasis on sugar cultivation, there were more than 30,000 slaves. Although the size of the slave population increased, Puerto Rico did not become a society whose central character was determined by sugar and slaves. In fact, between the mid-1800s and the abolition of slavery in 1873, the number of slaves actually decreased.

Because farmers cultivated several other important crops in addition to sugar, Puerto Rico had a much more balanced economy than colonies with stronger sugar sectors. Coffee, which small landholders could grow, became an important crop during the 19th century. In addition, a large population of farmers without slaves continued to grow tobacco, fruits and vegetables, and other subsistence crops.

The Puerto Rican slave population during the 19th century never amounted to more than roughly 10 percent of the island’s population. In several geographical regions, however, like Ponce and Mayaguez, the proportion of slaves was much higher and the slave system was harsher. Conditions for slaves varied greatly according to where they worked and what they did. Throughout the Americas, slaves on sugar plantations in general suffered the most brutal labor conditions of all slaves. Slaves who lived in the larger cities, such as San Juan, and worked as artisans, water carriers, or street vendors, to mention only a few possibilities, generally did not labor under as extreme conditions.



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