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World of 1898: International Perspectives on the Spanish American War

The Changing of the Guard: Puerto Rico in 1898

Image of the harbor of Santiago, Photographic History of the Spanish-American War, p. 182.

by Marisabel Brás, Ph.D.

Of all Spanish colonial possessions in the Americas, Puerto Rico is the only territory that never gained its independence. Internal and geopolitical dynamics during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, nevertheless, brought dramatic political, social, and economic changes to the island, setting the stage for the development of its national institutions and the transformation of its political system as a United States territory during the twentieth century.

After four centuries of Spanish colonial rule, the period between 1860 and 1898 witnessed a pro-independence rebellion, colonial reform, the establishment of the first national political parties, the abolition of slavery, and a short-lived experiment in autonomy under Spanish rule. The political and military strategies of a decaying Spain and the emerging regional power of the United States at the end of the nineteenth century, however, placed Puerto Rico, along with Cuba, at center stage in the Caribbean. The dynamics of this power imbalance culminated in the formal transfer of the island to the United States in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War.

Last Decades under Spanish Rule.

Located at the north east of the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico was key to the Spanish Empire since the early years of conquest and colonization of the New World. The smallest of the Greater Antilles, Puerto Rico was a major military post during many wars between Spain and the other European powers for control of the region during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; a stepping stone in the passage from Europe to Cuba, Mexico, Central America, and the northern territories of South America. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, Puerto Rico and Cuba, remained the last two Spanish colonies in the New World and served as the final outposts in Spanish strategies to regain control of the American continent.

During the early 1860s, local Spanish authorities, alarmed by conspiracies from separatist groups, applied severe measures against all acts of dissidence on the island. Freedom of the press was non-existent, and group discussions were monitored by the government. The island was ruled by "leyes especiales"; extraordinary decrees dictated by the Captain Generals, or governors, appointed by Spain.

By 1867, Puerto Rico had 656,328 inhabitants; its population recorded as 346,437 whites and 309,891 "of color" (this category included blacks, mulattos and mestizos). Out of this heterogeneity, a sense of national culture had been established, as represented in music, the arts, colloquial language, and architecture. The majority of Puerto Ricans lived in extreme poverty and agriculture--the main source of income--was limited by lack of roads, rudimentary tools and equipment, and natural disasters--such as hurricanes and periods of drought. While illiteracy was 83.7 percent, the intellectual minority remained relatively active within the limitations imposed by local Spanish authorities.

Many supporters of Puerto Rican independence and others who simply called for liberal reforms under Spain were jailed or exiled during this period. In addition, Puerto Rico suffered at the time a severe economic crisis due to increasing tariffs and taxes imposed by a mercantilist Spain on most import and export goods--the Spanish Crown badly needed these funds to subsidize its troops in an effort to regain control of the Dominican Republic.

Frustrated by the lack of political and economic freedom, and enraged by the continuing repression on the island, an armed rebellion was staged by the pro-independence movement in 1868. The so-called "Grito de Lares" broke in September 23, 1868. The rebellion was planned by a group, led by Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances and Segundo Ruiz Belvis, who in January 6, 1868 founded the "Comité Revolucionario de Puerto Rico" (Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico) from their exile in the Dominican Republic. Betances authored several "Proclamas" or statements attacking the exploitation of the Puerto Ricans by the Spanish colonial system and called for immediate insurrection. These statements soon circulated throughout the island as local dissident groups began to organize. Secret cells of the Revolutionary Committee were established in Puerto Rico bringing together members from all sectors of society, to include landowners, merchants, professionals, peasants, and slaves. Most were "criollos" (born on the island). The critical state of the economy, along with the increasing repression imposed by the Spanish, served as catalysts for the rebellion. The stronghold of the movement was found in towns located on the mountains of the western part of the island.

Although original plans called for the insurrection to begin on September 29, Spanish authorities on the island discovered the plan forcing the rebels to move up the date. It was then agreed to first strike at the town of Lares on September 23. Some 400-600 rebels gathered on that day in the hacienda of Manuel Rojas, located in the vicinity of Pezuela, on the outskirts of Lares. Poorly trained and armed, the rebels reached the town by horse and foot around midnight. They looted local stores and offices owned by "peninsulares" (Spanish-born men) and took over the city hall, proclaiming the new Republic of Puerto Rico. Spanish merchants and local government authorities, considered by the rebels to be enemies of the fatherland, were taken as prisoners. The following day, September 24, the Republic of Puerto Rico was proclaimed under the presidency of Francisco Ramírez. All slaves that had joined the movement were declared free citizens. The rebel forces then departed to take over the next town, San Sebastián del Pepino. The Spanish militia, however, surprised the group with strong resistance, causing great confusion among the armed rebels who, led by Manuel Rojas, retreated back to Lares. Upon an order from the governor, Julián Pavía, the Spanish militia soon rounded up the rebels and quickly brought the insurrection to an end. Some 475 rebels were imprisoned, among them, Manuel Rojas. On November 17, a military court imposed the death penalty, for treason and sedition, on all prisoners. Nevertheless, in an effort to appease the already tense atmosphere on the island, the incoming governor, José Laureano Sanz, dictated a general amnesty early in 1869 and all prisoners were released.

Between 1869 and 1873, the establishment of a liberal government in Spain led to ample liberties in the Caribbean, including the rights of Cubans and Puerto Ricans to send representatives to the Spanish Cortes. The liberal reforms extended to the island, to include the status of Diputación Provincial (making the island a Province of Spain), and paved the way for the establishment of the first national political parties. While the pro-independence movement remained disbanded and most of its leadership was still in exile, conservative and liberal factions took over the local political arena, leading to a more open debate on the political status and social demands of the times. The conservative faction, mostly represented by "peninsulares", favored a continuation of the status quo that would maintain the local government under hand-picked Captain Generals ruling by decree, and favored slavery, as well as all the privileges until then given to the predominantly Spanish ruling class. The liberal faction, on the other hand, called for the total integration of Puerto Rico as a province of Spain, thereby extending to the island all the privileges of the then-liberal Spanish regime. They also called for the abolition of slavery and ample political reforms at the local level. In November 1870, the liberals founded the Partido Liberal Reformista (Liberal Reform Party), led by Román Baldorioty de Castro, José Julián Acosta, and Pedro Gerónimo Goico, among others. Its leadership, however, was divided into two factions; one supported total assimilation to Spain, while the other, the "autonomistas", called for self-government under the Spanish flag, similar to the British political arrangement with its former colonies. The newspaper El Progreso served as a vehicle for public expression of the liberals' views. Soon thereafter, the conservatives founded the Partido Liberal Conservador (Liberal Conservative Party), using the newspaper Boletín Mercantil as the conservative means for disseminating their views. Although Puerto Rican representatives to the Spanish Cortes succeeded in their efforts to obtain political reforms during this period, in practice, local Spanish authorities kept a tight grip on the island, threatened by rumors from abroad of plots and potential insurrection by the separatists. In this, censorship of the press was particularly effective as were government repression and political persecution directed at the liberal camp.

In 1873, the Spanish Constitutional Monarchy was replaced by a republican government. Although short-lived, the new Spanish Republic approved the abolition of slavery on the island on March 22, 1873. While the new law was considered a step forward by Puerto Rican liberals, it did not provide for immediate and total freedom of the island's black population. Efforts for further liberal reform on the island were aborted in 1874, when the Spanish Republic fell as the result of a military coup, leading to the return of the Spanish Monarchy. Spanish authorities once again appointed as governor José Laureano Sanz, who immediately overturned all established democratic practices. Thus, Puerto Rico returned to its colonial status, ruled by special laws dictated by a repressive ruler.

Between 1876 and 1898, the two liberal wings came together behind the idea of political autonomy, leaving behind the notion of assimilation with Spain. During the mid-1880s, they worked on a party platform calling for self government and renamed themselves the "Partido Autonomista Puertorriqueño" (Puerto Rican Autonomist Party). The pro-independence movement, meanwhile, planned several invasions from exile which never materialized for lack of funds and support.

Towards the end of the 1880s, the island's population suffered from a severe economic crisis. The local monopoly of Spanish merchants fueled resentment and led to the establishment of secret societies--organizations promoting the boycott of Spanish merchants and greater support for local business. There were many violent incidents against Spanish commercial establishments, particularly looting and arson. The government and its Civil Guard responded with a series of raids and imprisonments, applying severe torture measures which became known as "compontes". The social conditions of the island were also critical during this period. In addition to a lack of civil liberties, approximately 85 percent of the population remained illiterate. Malnutrition and extreme poverty were widespread throughout most of the countryside.

Puerto Ricans finally were granted self-government by Spain, when the "Carta Autonómica" (a form of constitutional autonomy) was approved by the Spanish Cortes in November 25, 1897. Nevertheless, by the time of the first elections in March 1898, tensions were already building up between Spain and the United States, and the short-lived self-government experiment came to an abrupt end one month later with the advent of the Spanish-American War.

The dawn of a new colonial era under the United States.

The strategic value of Puerto Rico for the United States at the end of the nineteenth century centered in economic and military interests. The island's value to US policy makers was as an outlet for excess manufactured goods, as well as a key naval station in the Caribbean. US Navy Captain Alfred T. Mahan became the leading strategist and advisor to his government during the 1880s. He joined the faculty of the US Naval War College in 1884 and became its president in 1886. Mahan formulated a strategic doctrine based on naval power as the main element of military supremacy. Thus, the strategic doctrine of the United States, until then focusing on ground warfare, was replaced by the primacy of naval power. US naval power in the hemisphere, resulting from the ascendancy of its naval technology at the time, thus became the strategic basis of US military doctrine and foreign policy during the late nineteenth century.

Mahan played a key role in the Spanish-American War, as a military strategist and close advisor to President McKinley throughout the conflict. Overall, the US war strategy called for a predominantly maritime conflict in which the newly upgraded US Navy could display its might.

During 1894 the first plans for a military conflict with Spain were formulated at the US Naval War College. In 1896, a formal war plan was developed by Lieutenant William W. Kimball, a naval intelligence officer at the War College. The stated objective was to 'liberate Cuba' from Spanish rule. The main theater of operations would be the Caribbean, focusing on the Cuban and Puerto Rican coastal regions, and the conflict would involve exclusively naval operations. According to this plan, US naval power would be employed against the Spanish Navy at those points where the enemy would face an equal or superior force.

Accordingly, the US Department of the Navy began operational preparations early in 1898. These took into consideration a wealth of intelligence reports on the weakening conditions of the Spanish forces. The mysterious explosion of the Maine battleship in the Havana harbor, killing some 300 US marines on February 15, 1898, was the turning point for the United States to start its war operations. On April 21st, President McKinley formally requested that the US Congress declare war against Spain. Although the US war effort had, in retrospect, its tactical and logistical faults, its unquestionable military superiority over Spanish forces led to a quick US victory.

The Spanish-American war lasted some four months. On May 1st, US forces destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, the Philippines dealing a decisive blow to the Spanish armada. Given the weakness of the Spanish forces, the US then decided to expand its campaign, and bring in ground troops. It also changed its strategy for Cuba and planned for military operations against Havana, the island's capital city and key post of Spain in the Caribbean. US troops landed in Cuba late in June and on July 17 destroyed the Spanish fleet stationed in Santiago de Cuba Bay, thus securing total control of the waterways in the Caribbean. Following these events, President McKinley set forth the conditions for peace negotiations. The evacuation of Cuba by Spanish forces and its transfer to the United States was the prelude to imposition of order and formation of a stable government on the island. McKinley's second demand was the transfer of Puerto Rico from Spanish authorities to the United States without compensation.

Although Spanish surrender was certain at this point, the occupation of Puerto Rico followed in an effort to secure the US presence on the island prior to the initial discussions of a peace settlement. On July 18, General Nelson A. Miles, commander of the invading forces, received orders to sail for Puerto Rico. Some 18,000 US troops with a naval escort departed for Puerto Rico from Guantánamo Bay and the east coast of the United States. They landed at Guánica Bay on July 25, immediately moving to the city of Ponce and other towns located on the southern part of the island. The US troops then proceeded north towards San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital and the main military post of Spanish forces on the island. But before they could reach San Juan, Spain agreed on August 13th to sign a peace treaty with the United States, putting an end to all military hostilities.

President McKinley's conditions for a peace agreement prevailed throughout the peace negotiations and were finally ratified in the Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898. The formal transfer of Puerto Rico to the United States took two months, from August 12 to October 18, when the last Spanish troops sailed back to Spain and the US flag was raised in most public buildings on the island. A military government was established under the command of General John R. Brooke.

The Treaty of Paris gave the United States full control over all former Spanish military installations as well as some 120,000 acres of land formerly owned by the Spanish Crown on the island. The main military posts were located in the capital city of San Juan along with military bases in the towns of Cayey, Aibonito, Ponce, Mayagüez, Aguadilla and the adjacent island of Vieques. Puerto Rico remained under direct control of US military forces until the US Congress ratified the Foraker Law on April 12th, 1900, bringing a civilian government to the island.