The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact

By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney | Go to book overview

23
Waves Breaking on a Distant Shore: Puerto Rico in the Era of the French Revolution

Julia Ortiz Griffin

Puerto Rico and revolutionary France -- at first impression, few places could be more remote from one another in space and spirit. But first impressions are often superficial, and a better acquaintance with Puerto Rico's history reveals the profound impact that the shock waves sent out by the French Revolution had on the shores of this distant island. In their response to the challenges of the revolutionary era, the inhabitants, overlords and neighbors of Puerto Rico effected its transition from a primitive colonial outpost to a modern society imbued with a distinct identity. This chapter examines some of the stages in the process of transition.

After a promising start as one of the first settlements in the Spanish conquest of America, Puerto Rico had been drained of its inhabitants by the lure of gold in Mexico and Peru. During the seventeenth century, English and Dutch raids, constant harassment by pirates and a series of natural disasters had reduced its population and commerce still further. It was not until the defeats sustained in the Seven Years' War awakened the Spanish regime to the need for a reassessment of its whole American policy that Puerto Rico began to receive any serious attention from the mother country. In 1765 Carlos III received a shocking report from his special emissary, General Alejandro O'Reilly, on the inadequacy of the island's military resources and the stagnation of its economy. Puerto Rico, O'Reilly reported, produced virtually nothing of value to Spain, and its people repaid that country's long neglect of their well-being by ignoring its laws, evading its taxes, and subsisting on goods smuggled in from the colonies of her rivals. The king's inspectorgeneral recommended that Puerto Rico be taken seriously and that its problems be taken in hand lest it be lost to Spain. 1

During the next two decades, Puerto Rico benefited from a measure of those "Bourbon Reforms" associated with the enlightened despotism of Carlos III. Its seat of government, San Juan, was heavily fortified, its administration was made more efficient, and its population was increased by subsidies offered to immigrants. New capital and new energies resulted in an increase in cultivated land and the promotion of sugar and tobacco industries. Even Spain's policy of commercial exclusivism was modified by the opening of trade with a wider range of European ports. By 1790 Puerto Rico's population

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