Agriculture In Puerto Rico
After the cessation of the gold produce, when the colonists were
forced by necessity to dedicate themselves to agriculture, they met
with many adverse conditions:
The incursions of the Caribs, the hurricanes of 1530 and 1537, the
emigration to Peru and Mexico, the internal dissensions, and last, but
not least, the heavy taxes. The colonists had found the soil of Puerto
Rico admirably adapted to sugar-cane
which they brought from Santo
Domingo, where Columbus had introduced it on his second voyage, and
the nascent sugar industry was beginning to prosper and expand when a
royal decree imposing a heavy tax on sugar came to strangle it in its
birth. Bishop Bastidas called the Government's attention to the fact
in a letter dated March 20, 1544, in which he says: " ... The new tax
to be paid on sugar in this island, as ordained by your Majesty, will
still further reduce the number of mills, which have been diminishing
of late. Let this tax be suspended and the mills in course of
construction will be finished, while the erection of others will be
The prelate's efforts seem to have produced a favorable effect.
Treasurer Castellanos, in 1546, loaned 6,000 pesos for the
Government's account, to two colonists for the erection of two
sugar-cane mills. In 1548 Gregorio Santolaya built, in the
neighborhood of the capital, the first cane-mill turned by
water-power, and two mills moved by horse-power. Another water-power
mill was mounted in 1549 on the estate of Alonzo Perez Martel with the
assistance of 1,500 pesos lent by the king. Loans for the same purpose
continued to be made for years after.
But if the Government encouraged the sugar industry with one hand,
with the other it checked its development, together with that of other
agricultural industries appropriate to the island, by means of
prohibitive legislation, monopolies, and other oppressive measures.
The effects of this administrative stupidity were still patent a
century later. Bishop Fray Lopez de Haro wrote in 1644: " ... The only
crop in this island is ginger, and it is so depreciated that nobody
buys it or wants to take it to Spain.... There are many cattle farms
in the country, and 7 sugar mills, where the families live with their
slaves the whole year round."
Canon Torres Vargas, in his Memoirs, amplifies the bishop's statement,
stating that the principal articles of commerce of the island were
ginger, hides, and sugar, and he gives the location of the
above-mentioned 7 sugar-cane mills. The total annual produce of ginger
had been as much as 14,000 centals, but, with the war and excessive
supply, the price had gone down, and in the year he wrote (1646) only
4,000 centals had been harvested. He informs us, too, that cacao had
been planted in sufficient quantity to send ship-loads to Spain
within four years. The number of hides annually exported to Spain was
8,000 to 10,000. Tobacco had begun to be cultivated within the last
ten years, and its exportation had commenced. He pronounces it better
than the tobacco of Havana, Santo Domingo, and Margarita, but not as
good as that of Barinas.
The cultivation of tobacco in Puerto Rico was permitted by a special
law in 1614, but the sale of it to foreigners was prohibited under
penalty of death and confiscation of property. These and other
stringent measures dictated in 1777 and 1784 by their very severity
defeated their own purpose, and the laws, to a great extent, remained
a dead letter.
The cultivation of cacao in Puerto Rico did not prosper for the reason
that the plant takes a long time in coming to maturity, and during
that period is exceedingly sensible to the effects of strong winds,
which, in this island, prevail from July to October. The first
plantations being destroyed by hurricanes, few new plantations were
Of the other staple products of Puerto Rico, the most valuable,
coffee, was first planted in Martinique in 1720 by M. Declieux, who
brought the seeds from the Botanical Garden in Paris. The coco-palm
was introduced by Diego Lorenzo, a canon in the Cape de Verde Islands,
who also brought the first guinea-fowls; and, possibly, the plantain
species known in this island under the name of "guineo" came from the
same part of the world. According to Oviedo, it was first planted in
Santo Domingo in 1516 by a monk named Berlangas.
Abbad gives the detailed agricultural statistics of the island in
1776, from which it appears that the cultivation of the new articles
introduced was general at the time, and that, under the influence of
climate and abundant pastures, the animal industry had become one of
the principal sources of wealth for the inhabitants.
There were in that year 5,581 farms, and 234 cattle-ranches (hatos).
On the farms or estates there were under cultivation:
Sugar-cane 3,156 cuerdas
Plantains 8,315 "
On the cattle-ranches there were:
Head of horned cattle 77,384
Asses, swine, goats, and sheep 49,050
This was a comparatively large capital in stock and produce for a
population of 80,000 souls, but the reverend historian severely
criticizes the agricultural population of that day, and says of them:
" ... They scarcely know what implements are; ... they bring down a
tree, principally by means of fire; with a saber, which they call a
'machete,' they clear the jungle and clean the ground; with the point
of this machete, or a pointed stick, they dig the holes or furrows in
which they set their plants or sow their seeds. Thus they provide for
their subsistence, and when a hurricane or other mishap destroys their
crops, they supply their wants by fishing or collect edible roots.
"Indolence, rather than want of means, makes them confine their
cultivation to the level lands, which they abandon as soon as they
perceive that the fertility of the soil decreases, which happens very
soon, because they do not plow, nor do they turn over the soil, much
less manure it, so that the superficies soon becomes sterile; then
they make a clearing on some mountainside. Neither the knowledge of
the soil and climate acquired during many years of residence, nor the
increased facilities for obtaining the necessary agricultural
implements, nor the large number of cattle they possess that could be
used for agricultural purposes, nor the Government's dispositions to
improve the system of cultivation, have been sufficient to make these
islanders abandon the indolence with which they regard the most
important of all arts, and the first obligation imposed by God on
man - namely, the cultivation of the soil. They leave this to the
slaves, who are few and ill-fed, and know no more of agriculture than
their masters do; ... their great laziness, together with a silly,
baseless vanity, makes them look upon all manual labor as degrading,
proper only for slaves, and so they prefer poverty to doing honest
work. To this must be added their ambition to make rapid fortunes, as
some of them do, by contraband trading, which makes good sailors of
them but bad agriculturists.
"These are the reasons why they prefer the cultivation of produce that
requires little labor. Most proprietors have a small portion of their
land planted with cane, but few have made it their principal crop,
because of the expense of erecting a mill and the greater number of
slaves and implements required; yet this industry alone, if properly
fostered, would soon remove all obstacles to their progress.
"It is useless, therefore, to look for gardens and orchards in a
country where the plow is yet unknown, and which has not even made the
first step in agricultural development."
* * * * *
Under the royal decree of 1815 commerce, both foreign and inland,
From the official returns made to the Government in 1828 to 1830,
Colonel Flinter drew up the following statement of the agricultural
wealth of the island in the latter year (1830):
Wooden sugar-cane mills 1,277
Iron sugar-cane mills 800
Coffee estates with machinery 148
Stills for distilling rum 340
Brick ovens 80
Lime kilns 45
Land under Cultivation
Cane 14,803 acres.
Plantains 30,706 "
Rice 14,850 "
Maize 16,194 "
Tobacco 2,599 "
Manioc 1,150 "
Sweet potatoes 1,224 "
Yams 6,696 "
Pulse 1,100 "
Horticulture 31 "
Coffee-plants 16,750 acres 16,992,857
Cotton-trees 3,079 " 3,079,310
Coco-palms 2,402 " 60,050
Orange-trees 3,430 " 85,760
Aguacate-trees 2,230 " 55,760
Pepper or chilli or aji trees 500
The live stock of the island in the same year consisted of:
Cows 42,500 head.
Bulls 6,720 "
Oxen 20,910 "
Horses 25,760 "
Mares 27,210 "
Asses 315 "
Mules 1,112 "
Sheep 7,560 "
Goats 5,969 "
Swine 25,087 "
Turkeys 8,671 "
Other fowls 838,454 "
This agricultural wealth of the island, houses, lands, and slaves
not included, was valued at $37,993,600, and its annual produce at
$6,883,371, half of which was exported. These statistics may be
considered as only approximately correct, as the returns made by the
proprietors to the Government, in order to escape taxation, were less
than the real numbers existing.
The natural wealth of Puerto Rico may be divided into agricultural,
pastoral, and sylvan. According to the Spanish Government measurements
the island's area is 2,584,000 English acres. Of these, there were
Under cultivation in 1830, as above
detailed 117,244 acres.
In pastures 634,506 "
In forests 728,703 "
- - - - - -
Total tax-paying lands 1,480,453 "
The pasture lands on the north and east coasts are equal to the best
lands of the kind in the West Indies for the breeding and fattening of
cattle. On the south coast excessive droughts often parch the grass,
in which case the cattle are fed on cane-tops at harvest time. There
are excellent and nutritive native grasses of different species to be
found in every valley. The cattle bred in the island are generally
From 1865 to 1872 was the era of greatest prosperity ever experienced
in Puerto Rico under Spanish rule. The land was not yet exhausted,
harvests were abundant, labor cheap, the quality of the sugar produced
was excellent, prices were high, contributions and taxes were
moderate. There were no export duties, and although, during this
period, the growing manufacture of beet-root sugar was lowering the
price of "mascabado" all over the world, no effect was felt in Puerto
Rico, because it was the nearest market to the United States, where
the civil war had put an end to the annual product by the Southern
States of half a million bocoyes, or about 675,000,000 gallons;
and the abolition of all import duties on sugar in England also
favored the maintenance of high prices for a number of years.
However, the production of beet-root sugar and the increase of cane
cultivation in the East caused the fall in prices which, in
combination with the numberless oppressive restrictions imposed by the
Spanish Government, brought Puerto Rico to the verge of ruin.
"The misfortunes that afflict us," says Mr. James McCormick to the
Provincial Deputation in his official report on the condition of the
sugar industry in this island in 1880, "come under different forms
from different directions, and every inhabitant knows what causes
have contributed to reduce this island, once prosperous and happy, to
its actual condition of prostration and anguish."
That condition he paints in the following words: "Mechanical arts and
industries languish because there is no demand or profitable market
for its products; commerce is paralyzed by the obstacles placed in its
way; the country never has had sufficient capital and what there is
hides itself or is withdrawn from circulation; foreign capital has
been frightened away; Puerto Rican landowners are looked upon with
special disfavor and credit is denied them, unfortunately with good
reason, seeing the lamentable condition of our agriculture. The
production of sugar scarcely amounts to half of what it was in former
years. From the year 1873 a great proportion of the existing sugar
estates have fallen to ruin; in 8 districts their number has been
reduced from 104 to 38, and of these the majority are in an agonizing
condition. In other parts of the island many estates, in which large
capitals in machinery, drainage, etc., have been invested, have been
abandoned and the land is returning to its primitive condition of
jungle and swamp. Ten years ago the island exported 100,000 tons of
sugar annually, the product of 553 mills; during the last three years
(1878-1880) the average export has been 60,000 tons, the product of
325 mills that have been able to continue working. Everywhere in this
province the evidences of the ruin which has overtaken the planters
meet the eye, and nothing is heard but the lamentations of proprietors
reduced to misery and desperation."
This state of things continued notwithstanding the representations
made before the "high spheres of Government" by the leading men in
commerce and agriculture, by the press of all political colors, and by
Congress. The Minister of Ultramar in Madrid recognized the gravity of
the situation, and it is said that the lamentations of the people of
Puerto Rico found an echo even at the foot of the throne.
And there they died. Nothing was done to remedy the growing evil, and
the writer of the pamphlet, not daring openly to accuse the Government
as the only cause of the island's desperate situation, counsels
patience, and timidly expresses the hope that the exorbitant taxes
and contributions will be lowered; that economy in the Government
expenditures will be practised; that monopolies will be abolished, and
odious, oppressive practises of all kinds be discontinued.
Such was the condition of Puerto Rico in 1880. The Government's
oppressive practises, and they only, were the causes of the ruin of
this and all the other rich and beautiful colonies that destiny laid
at the feet of Ferdinand and Isabel four centuries ago.
The following statement of the proportion of sugar to each acre of
land under cane cultivation in the Antilles, compared with Puerto
Rico, may be of interest.
The computation of the average sugar produce per acre, according to
the best and most correct information from intelligent planters, who
had no motives for deception, was, in 1830:
For Jamaica 10 centals per acre.
Dominica 10 " "
Granada 15 " "
St. Vincent 25 " "
Tobago 20 " "
Antigua 7-12 " "
Saint Kitts 20 " "
Puerto Rico 30 " "