If you have visited the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, then you know very well why it is called the “Island of Enchantment”. It has a mystical feel to it and attracts thousands of tourist everyday. The presence of the United States is found across the island, reminding the visitor of the territory’s status as a commonwealth. Regardless, Old San Juan is like a step back in time several hundred years earlier as European explorers under the command of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) make their way to the new world. The history of Puerto Rico is often misunderstood or unknown. The American occupation and the events that followed still ring fresh in the minds of Puerto Ricans both on the island and across the continental United States. But for a large number of people, the history of Puerto Rico prior to American intervention is often a mystery. This book by Rudolph Adams Van Middeldyk addresses that very topic, providing a true history of how Puerto Rico came into existence and why it ended up in the possession of the United States.
The story begins in 1493 as Columbus and his entourage makes another journey to the Caribbean at the service of the Spanish monarchy. Gold, spices and human labor are on the list of items to obtain as Spain seeks to expand its global influence. However, Columbus had bigger plans and does not stay on the island long. In fact, he is only mentioned early in the story before departing for Hispaniola where he would establish Santo Domingo. Other figures take prominence such as Juan Ponce de León (1474-1521), whom the town in the southern part of the island is named after. There are many players active in the story, each with their own agenda and claim to a stake in a part of the new territory. Ponce establishes a capital named Capárra from which he served the Spanish Government. But his tenure is short lived as Columbus’ son Diego (1479-1526) embraces chicanery and Ponce decides to continue exploring resulting in his discovery of new territory that he names Florida.
Ponce’s actions are literally the tip of the iceberg. As the new settlers move in, the fate of the island population is sealed. Murder, rape, pillage disease mixed into a deadly brew that systematically erased the native population, some of which had already been enslaved and sent to Europe. Here we learn of the tragic story of the Boriquén population which does not exist today. They are often referred to as the Tainos, which apparently is a name that might have been given to them by the Europeans. The Caribs are also mentioned in the book providing a better understanding of their culture and the clash between the natives and the explorers. The natives do stand idly by waiting to be extinguished. Revolts take place and the author details them in the book.
Spain had become alarmed by what was happening to the native population and dispatched the Jerome Friars to attend to the island. Ordinances were passed to protect the natives’ lives and prevent their eradication but too much had taken place for too long. When the Friars arrived, the island was split in two with capitals in the north and south. The southern capital of San German and its dark fate are discussed here in depth. Visitors to modern day San German will take high interest in this part of the book. Needless to say, it is quite a story and shows how close Puerto Rico came to being under the rule of several different empires.
Similar to the West Indies and South America, the French, British and Dutch empires all make an appearance as they steal territory from one another in an attempt at world domination. The story of the British is perhaps the most famous and as an American, it is entrenched in the history of the place I call home. However, the focus here is on Puerto Rico and the number of foreign invasions are simply mind-boggling. And it is a near miracle the the island eventually became a commonwealth of the United States and not territory of a number of nations. The author discusses in detail each invasion for the reader to digest.
In September, 2017, Hurricane Maria barreled through the Caribbean and damaged Puerto Rico extensively. Hurricanes are nothing new for the region and the number of those that have occurred over the past several hundred years are staggering. Middeldyk provides a timeline for the major hurricanes that took place after the founding of Puerto Rico up until the time of U.S. intervention. History truly does have a way of repeating itself.
Towards the end of the book, I did feel as if the author had strayed a bit off topic. He asserts his own beliefs about the characteristics of some groups which could be viewed as prejudiced. I did feel as if he made several judgments which were quite broad and unfounded. However, the book was published in 1903, a time in which diversity and acceptance were nearly unheard of. I do believe that the book has enough value to be of interest without that part included. But we do not have the ability to go back in time and change his mind.
If you are looking for a quick primer on the history of Puerto Rico prior to commonwealth status, then this book is a good addition. The information is straight forward and clearly presented. And maybe after finishing the book, you will see why Puerto Ricans say “Yo soy Boricua!”