The island of Puerto Rico, over which the flag of the United States was raised in token of formal possession on October 18, 1898, is the most eastern of the Greater Antilles in the West Indies. It is separated on the east from the Danish islands of St. Thomas by a distance of about fifty miles, and from Haiti on the west by the Mona passage, seventy miles wide. The island is 108 miles from the east to the west, and from 37 to 43 miles across from north to south, the area being about 3,600 square miles. The population in 1887 was 798,656, of whom 474,933 were whites, 246,647 mulattoes and 76,905 negroes. An enumeration taken by the United States Government in 1900 showed a population of 953,243. Puerto Rico is unusually fertile, and its dominant industries are agriculture and lumbering. In elevated regions the vegetation of the temperate zone is not unknown. There are more than 500 varieties of trees found in the forests, and the plains are full of palm, orange and other trees. The principal crops are sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton, and maize, but bananas, rice, pineapples, and many other fruits are important products. The largest article of export from Puerto Rico is coffee, which is over 63 per cent. of the whole. The next largest is sugar, 28 per cent. The other exports in order of amount are tobacco, honey, molasses, cattle, timber, and hides. The principal minerals found in Puerto Rico are gold, carbonates and sulphides of copper and magnetic oxide of iron in large quantities. Lignite is found at Utuado and Moca, and also yellow amber. A large variety of marble, limestone, and other building stones are found on the island, but these resources are very undeveloped. There are salt works at Guanica and Salinac on the south coast, and at Cape Bojo on the west, and these constitute the principal mineral industry in Puerto Rico. There are 137 miles of railway, with 170 miles under construction, and 470 miles of telegraph lines. These connect the capital with the principal ports south and west. Submarine cables run from San Juan to St. Thomas and Jamaica. The principal cities are Ponce, 27,952 inhabitants; Arecibo, with 30,000, and San Juan, the capital, with 32,048.]
A writer in the Forum thus describes the condition of the people:
"The school system in Puerto Rico has been utterly worthless. With few schools and no schoolhouses, and with the Roman Catholic catechism as the principal text-book, it is not strange that not exceeding 10 per cent. of the population can read or write. Other disadvantages of living in Puerto Rico can also be enumerated. The tax for making and recording deeds is so high as to be well-nigh prohibitive; while the charge for recording wills is not definitely fixed by law, but is in proportion to the value of the estate. It not infrequently happens that excellent properties are entirely dissipated in fees, leaving nothing for the widow or other heirs. Most remarkable of all, however, is the fact that over one-half of the children of Puerto Rico are illegitimate-not because of the wanton immorality of their parents, but because the expense connected with a marriage in a church made the formal ceremony impossible among the poorer classes. While thus placing the barrier of money at the church door, the priests discouraged any form of civil marriage; so that the poor, and some of the rich, cut the Gordian knot by simply living together in the marital state. There was not, in this mode of living, a deliberate desire to offend against recognized custom; nor were the relations thus informally assumed regarded as lacking force. On the contrary, both men and women, compelled by poverty to live together without legal or religious sanction, remained true to each other."
The act providing a civil government for Puerto Rico was passed by the Fifty-sixth Congress and received the assent of the President on April 12, 1900, and came into force in May. In his annual message delivered to Congress on the 5th day of December, 1899, the President said: "The markets of the United States should be opened up to her (Puerto Rico's) products. Our plain duty is to abolish all customs tariffs between the United States and Puerto Rico and give her products free access to our markets." A later proposal was successfully made to impose customs duties equal to 25 per cent. of the rates provided for in the tariff laws of the United States, applying the sum so raised to local government. There was much suffering and stagnation of trade in the island, through bad seasons and general unrest. In March a special bill was passed authorizing the President to apply to internal improvements the two millions of customs revenue received on importations by the United States from Puerto Rico since the evacuation of the island by the Spanish forces on the 18th of October, 1898, to the 1st of January, 1900. In the language of the bill, this sum "shall be placed at the disposal of the President, to be used for the government now existing and which may hereafter be established in Puerto Rico, and for public education, public works, and other governmental and public purposes therein; and the said sum, or so much thereof as may be necessary, is hereby appropriated for the purposes herein specified, out of any moneys in the treasury not otherwise appropriated."
The nation is deeply interested in the operation of the new civil government. The island is recovering its prosperity. Its people are beginning to make up their heavy losses by the cyclone of October, 1899. They are now marketing a heavy coffee crop. The sugar-cane will soon be ready for thousands of laborious hands in the fields and mills. Fruit is plentiful. More ships laden heavily are coming into the ports, and in turn take heavy cargoes back to the States. The new steamer lines have seen the wonderful outlook in Puerto Rico, and are on regular routes. The island is practically at rest. Every man who cares for work and is fit for his desired place has work. The insular police system is the best thing the island has ever had to subdue the bad elements, the bandit robbers and maintain order. Churches of many denominations are sending down from the States money and missionaries for opening of private schools and mission chapels. Railroad, electric light and telephone franchise are being considered and each of these concerns has ample capital.
A sugar combine from New Jersey with $1,600,000 capital is here purchasing large tracts of land and will erect central factories. The sanitary conditions of the island are being improved daily. There is but little sickness among the soldiers. Those who are ill are well cared for in the United States barracks, which are equipped with the finest of hospital service.]
Vigorous objections are made against the extension of the territorial system of government to Puerto Rico. It is urged that admission as a Territory implies ultimate admission to statehood; and statehood for islands separated as Hawaii and Puerto Rico are by from 1,200 to 2,500 miles from the United States should not be thought of for a moment. Further, territorial organization involves the relinquishment of customs duties, and the cane and tobacco growers of our West India possessions would have free access to the markets of the United States, and thus come into injurious competition with our farmers. Third, the people of Puerto Rico are not competent for the measure of self-government which the territorial system provides. These arguments are met by such pleadings as those urged in the Forum by Mr. H. K. Carroll, who claims that if we buy freely from the Puerto Ricans they will quickly attain a greater prosperity than the island has ever known.
"Give the agricultural producers good markets, and they will be able to pay better wages. The area of production would be vastly increased; and with better and more economical methods, the fertile soil will yield such crops of cane, coffee, tobacco, fruits, and vegetables that there will be a demand for labor, and idle peasants will be few and far between. The peones will not then be satisfied with the poorest cotton fabrics and with an almost exclusive vegetable diet; they will not wear pacotilla or shoddy shoes, or go barefoot; they will not shelter themselves from the rains with banana leaves instead of umbrellas; they will have plates for their food instead of taking it direct from their one cooking vessel; they will have knives and forks, metal spoons and ladles, instead of pieces of gourd; chairs in their houses instead of rude boxes or nothing at all; houses instead of thatched huts; when they are sick they will not be deprived of medical care, but will have the service of doctors; and when they die they will not be tumbled into the grave without even a box, but in coffins. We shall get our winter vegetables from Puerto Rico instead of Bermuda; our oranges, when the frosts kill the crop in Florida, from a country where the orange-tree never fails, unless injured by the hurricane, which comes about once in a generation. If we deal generously with Puerto Rico we will get liberal returns; if in a niggardly spirit, we must not expect prosperity or profit.
"As a matter of fact, free Puerto Rican sugar and tobacco will not greatly disturb the market, if the entire crop comes in free. The island's export of sugar is to our production of cane and sorghum sugar as one to six; and its export of tobacco as one to one hundred and eighty-two. As to the tobacco, it is very different from that which is raised in this country; and if we get it we shall manufacture it and send much of it back to Puerto Rico in that form. Formerly the bulk of the crop went to Cuba to be made into cigars. Our farmers will not be hurt by allowing Puerto Rican produce to come in free. They were not hurt when Oklahoma was opened to extensive agriculture."
Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 4)