The Hammock Swingers

A few things seemed to happen all at once. Spanish purchase of Puerto Rican goods nearly ground to a halt. The United States, newly free of English rule, had money to spend. And a slave uprising in western Hispaniola (now Haiti) threw that island's lucrative sugar and rum industry into disarray and caused many plantation owners to flee to Puerto Rico. During the 19th century, the Puerto Rican economy began, slowly, to bloom, thanks in large part to growing trade with the United States, especially in sugar, tobacco and coffee. Immigrants poured in from other Caribbean islands and former Spanish colonies, and the agricultural production depended less on slavery (though the practice did exist in its most despicable form, and wasn't abolished until 1872) than on the labor of free men from across the racial spectrum. An 1830 Spanish census put the island population at roughly 325,000, with 34,000 slaves and 127,000 "free people of (all types of) color." Most of the island countryside was populated by peasants, who worked on plantations or on small farm plots around their homes. These peasants, who lived meagerly but in relative comfort, became known as jibaros. Col. George Dawson Flinter, a Spanish com mander who fled to the island from Venezuela after independence, described them as follows: "They swing themselves to and fro in their hammocks all day long, smoking their cigars, and scraping a guitar."

Regardless of the accuracy of Flinter's remark, and whether or not island intellectuals of the time would have agreed, jíbaro peasants became the backbone of something new and growing in Puerto Rico - a sense of a national identity. With US dollars flowing in, population exploded to nearly a million people by the end of the century, and a new class of educated Puerto Ricans began to feel it was time to throw off the yoke of Spanish rule.

ABOUT JIBAROS: "Like the peasantry of Ireland, they are proverbial for their hospitality: and, like them, they are ever ready to fight on the slightest provocation." - Col. George Dawson Flinter, describing jíbaros.

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