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 "

Coffee-trees 1,196,184

Cotton-plants 103,591

On the cattle-ranches there were:

Head of horned cattle 77,384

Horses 23,195

Mules 1,534

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,

rapidly developed.

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 " "