Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"There Is No City Here, but a Desert": The Contours of City Life in 1673 San Juan

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"There Is No City Here, but a Desert": The Contours of City Life in 1673 San Juan

Article excerpt

Introduction

"There is no city here, but a desert" [No tiene aquí ciudad, sí desierto) were the words used by Bartolomé de Escañuela, bishop of the diocese of Puerto Rico from 1673 to 1676, to describe San Juan in a letter addressed to the queen of Spain in 1673. ' Escañuela was not alone in his assessment. Other mid- to late-seventeenth-century accounts attest not only to the scarcity of inhabitants in San Juan, but also throughout the island.2 Some observers also described San Juan as an impoverished and decadent city [ciudad pobre y decadente).3 Yet, how accurate were these descriptions of San Juan? Moreover, in what ways was the city in 1673 similar to both its Hispanic and non-Hispanic Caribbean counterparts at that time?

Owing to the scarcity of demographic data and historical records the city's colonial history has long been neglected, as has the study of seventeenth-century Puerto Rico. However, thanks in part to the census that Juan Guilarte de Salazar, a priest assigned to serve the cathedral of San Juan, conducted in 1673, one can reconstruct the contours of city life. Additionally, by examining civil status, race, gender, residential unit and household composition, residential patterns, and ownership of enslaved persons, it is possible to situate San Juan within the broader context of urban life in the colonial Caribbean. As we shall see, San Juan differed demographically in terms of race and gender, although, insofar as population, spatial dimensions and architecture were concerned, the city was quite comparable to its Hispanic and non-Hispanic counterparts.

The 1673 census affords us a unique opportunity to analyse San Juan's demographic profile in comparison to that of other Caribbean cities. Urban demography in the colonial Caribbean has focused almost exclusively on Havana (the largest city in the Hispanic Caribbean), Bridgetown (the largest city in the non-Hispanic Caribbean), and Spanish Town (the former capital of Spanish Jamaica), which means that cities on the so-called margins such as San Juan have been largely ignored.4 Whereas sugar and slavery were the driving force behind the origins and development of cities throughout much of the non-Hispanic Caribbean in this period, cultivation of this commodity using enslaved labour was not as important in the growth and prosperity of their Hispanic counterparts in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Cities like Havana and, to a lesser extent, San Juan functioned as military presidios (garrisons), and instead relied upon a large service economy that catered to the needs of the Spanish fleet and the military garrison. Further research is needed with regard to race and gender relations within such cities, where free Whites outnumbered enslaved persons and the presence of women (free and unfree) figured prominently in the social landscape. Herein lies the value of the 1673 San Juan census, which allows us to broaden our understanding of the peculiar characteristics of colonial Caribbean cities with large service economies during a period of history for which such information is relatively scarce.

Information contained in the census allows one to ascertain the civil status of the city's population, identify its racial composition, and calculate the sex ratio within the various segments of the population. Census data also lend themselves to a detailed analysis of residential unit and household composition. In addition, it is possible to reconstruct the spatial distribution of Whites, the enslaved, and Pardos (that is, Free Blacks or persons of mixed race) throughout the city and to discern residential patterns.5 Moreover, the enumeration of enslaved persons permits an in-depth examination of urban slaveholding patterns. Finally, we should not overlook the importance of the 1673 census to the study of both San Juan and the island's population history. As the only census undertaken for San Juan in the seventeenth century (indeed, no other census was undertaken for San Juan or for the island until 1765), it is also essential for evaluating the city's population growth (or decline) over the course of the second half of that century. …

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