The Age of Piracy

Spanish courts granted jurisdiction over all the lands discovered by Columbus to his son Diego, and a demoted Ponce de Leon left the island in 1513 for what is now Florida, in search of the mythical Fountain of Youth. He never found it, of course, and died in relative obscurity in Cuba some years later. But the island he first settled began to take on its own identity in his absence. Because nearly all settlers were men, they mixed freely with Taino women and (in later generations) the daughters of Yoruba and Mandingo slaves. Their children were of mixed ancestry, and were called criollos. Today, more than 60% of Puerto Ricans have some trace of Taino blood, and many share some African as well as European ancestry.

Although Spain officially controlled all gubernatorial aspects of island life, Puerto Rico never became the cash cow the crown had hoped it would. Sparsely populated and producing only meager amounts of gold, it survived as a producer of sugar, tobacco, coffee and other agricultural goods and as a trade and military center. Colonists strengthened the walls around the San Juan peninsula and constructed a fort called El Morro, with formidable rows of cannons and 18-foot-thick ramparts to protect the bay. The storied fort withstood waves of attacks by British and Dutch invaders, due to its awesome firepower and impregnable defenses. San Juan became a stopping-off point and safety deposit box for ships traveling between Spain and its more lucrative colonies in Mexico and Central and South America. This made the waters around Puerto Rico prime turf for pirates. Legendary buccaneers and privateers such as Henry Morgan and Francis Drake plundered countless Spanish ships around the Mona Passage and surrounding Caribbean waters, throwing trade into disarray and prompting the Spanish government to invest even more money into fortifying the San Juan bay. Away from San Juan and the eye of the throne, however, the rest of Puerto Rico developed as a rogue, if indolent, nation. Most settlements around the island were small, with residents living a hand-to-mouth lifestyle that one Spanish visitor described as "undisciplined." Due to unreasonable trade restrictions by the desperate Spanish government, Puerto Ricans turned to smuggling and illegal trade, and the lively contraband industry brought wealth to residents of far-flung island outposts such as Ponce, Cabo Rojo and Fajardo. Eventually, to avoid heavy taxation from the mother country, even residents and government officials in San Juan became contrabandistas. By the 18th century, practically no revenues flowed from Puerto Rico to Spain.

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