The first inhabitants of Puerto Rico were the Taino, hunter-gatherers who lived in small villages led by a cacique, or chief. Despite their limited knowledge of agriculture, they grow pineapples, cassava, and sweet potatoes and supplement their diet with seafood. They called the island Boriken. (PBS)
On his second voyage to the Indies, Christopher Columbus arrived on November 19, 1493 on the island and claimed it for Spain, renaming it San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist.)
Juan Ponce de León, who had accompanied Columbus and worked to colonize nearby Hispaniola, was given permission by Queen Isabella to explore the island. On a well-protected bay on the north coast, he founds Caparra, where the island’s first mining and farming begins. (PBS)
Puerto Rico chasf three geological formations: a system of deeply ribbed mountains; lower hills and playa plains, consisting of alluvial soil and old estuaries.
It is roughly estimated that nine-tenths of the Island is mountainous and the remaining tenth is of the foothill and playa character. (Alvrez; Pacific Commercial Advertiser, June 25, 1901)
The brief Spanish-American War ended with the Treaty of Paris (December 10, 1898) that resulted in Spain relinquishing its holdings in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico.
The island was governed by a US military governor from October 1898 until May 1900; then it became an “organized but unincorporated” territory of the US. (President’s Task Force on Puerto Rico’s Status)
On August 7 and 8, 1899, the San Ciriaco hurricane swept through Puerto Rico with winds up to 100-miles per hour. Twenty-eight days of torrential rain caused approximately thirty-four hundred fatalities, massive flooding, and at least $7-million dollars in agricultural damage. (Poblete)
Tens of thousands of people lost their homes and means of livelihood. The 1899 coffee crop destroyed; it would take at least 5-years before coffee would be profitable again. (Poblete)
Besides no jobs, no homes and no education (as there was no system of compulsory public education,) the poor also had no money. (Souza)
At the same time, the booming Hawaiʻi sugar industry was looking for more workers. Puerto Ricans looked for alternatives and were drawn to another US territory, Hawaiʻi, and its sugar plantations.
Workers and their families left Puerto Rico with hopes that life in the Pacific Islands would be less bleak and provide more opportunity for stability and success.
The first group, that included 114 men, women and children, left San Juan by steamboat on November 22, 1900. The journey took them by ship to New Orleans, by train across the land to San Francisco. About fifty refused to continue their voyage to Hawaiʻi and founded the San Francisco Puerto Rican community. (Chapin; HHS)
The rest (families, young single men and women, and some underage boys who left without parents’ permission) were forced to board the steamship Rio de Janeiro and endured a harrowing trip to Hawaiʻi, arriving on December 24, 1900. (Vélez)
Between 1900 and 1901, eleven expeditions of men, women and children were recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association (HSPA) to work alongside Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Portuguese and Italians in the pineapple and sugar fields.
Contractual accords stipulated incentives – credit for transportation expenses, the availability of public education, opportunities to worship in Catholic Churches, decent wages and standard living accommodations. (Korrol, Center for Puerto Rican Studies) Eventually 5,100 settled on plantations in the Islands. (Chapin; HHS)
What did the Puerto Ricans find when they came to Hawaii? The early immigrant’s answer was usually, “trabajo y tristeza”—work and sorrow. (Souza)
Pay was $15.00 monthly for the men, 40¢ a day for the women, 50¢ a day for the boys, and 35¢ a day for the girls (for ten hours’ daily labor in the fields and twelve hours in the mills.) Later, for the men, pay included a bonus, usually 50¢ per week if they worked a full 26-day month. (Souza)
Unrest among the worker contingents surfaced almost immediately as reports describing the migrants’ horrendous ordeals appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and newspapers in Puerto Rico.
Desertion was not uncommon, and tales of individuals who refused to board Hawaiʻi-bound vessels account for the emergence of the earliest Puerto Rican settlements in California. (Korrol, Center for Puerto Rican Studies)
Even in 1921, when several volatile years of labor organizing among Filipinos led the HSPA to negotiate with the Puerto Rican government to resume labor recruitment, the promises of increased wages, free medical care, and fair housing and work conditions again proved to be hollow for Puerto Rican laborers. (Gonzales)
Despite the fact that a small contingent of contracted workers was brought into Hawaii as late as 1926, labor recruitment virtually ended in the first decade of the century. (Korrol, Center for Puerto Rican Studies)