Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Harnessing a Critical Resource: Black West Indian Migration to Puerto Rico during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Harnessing a Critical Resource: Black West Indian Migration to Puerto Rico during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Article excerpt


That the Caribbean is a migrant society is an idea that is broadly accepted today. In fact, there is a long history of migration into and out of the Caribbean as well as within the Caribbean, all of which have been significant in the socio-economic and cultural development of the region. The nineteenth century was very important in a number of respects that bore on the phenomenon of migration in the Caribbean region. The twin occurrences of the abolition of slavery and the expansion of sugar production provoked a transfer of labour which profoundly affected most Caribbean islands, regardless of language grouping. As is already well known, long before the eighteenth century, in the non-Hispanic areas, the growth of the sugar industry was a significant factor in terms of migration intra-regionally and to the region.

In the period before 1800, there was a relatively free flow of migrants from the West Indies into the Spanish Caribbean - legal and illegal, enslaved and free, White colonists and entrepreneurs. Specifically in respect of Puerto Rico, the first three centuries of colonial history are sometimes represented (for example, by Antonio S. Pedreira in his seminal work Insularismo1) as a period in which the island was isolated from the outside world. Interestingly, however, a major argument of Arturo Morales Carrion, in his book Puerto Rico and the Non Hispanic Caribbean,2 is that during this period there was much contact between Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean, and much of the island's history during that era must be understood against this background. Indeed, Francisco Scarano argues that in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the question of immigration to Puerto Rico during the nineteenth century (and before), one must grasp the wider context which includes the development of capitalism, the related phenomena of exploitation of world markets, the struggle among European powers for hegemony in the Caribbean and the fact also that immigration into as well as within the region was flourishing during that period.3 It should be mentioned also, in respect of Puerto Rico, that, particularly after 1800, the island became a haven for political and economic migrants, originating largely in Spanish America and various areas of Spain, including the Canary Islands.

According to Manuel Alvarez Nazario,4 Africans migrating from the West Indies to Puerto Rico from the beginning of colonization to the abolition of slavery may be divided into two major groups. First are the runaways, who fled harsh treatment as enslaved people in this area and saw Puerto Rico as a place where they could regain their freedom. Second are those who were sold to owners in Puerto Rico through legal or illegal trade, along with those who, as enslaved persons, accompanied their migrating masters. Another important category that may be added would be that of those who came as part of a contract labour scheme. Some of them were repatriated at the end of their contract period (some to return on later contracts), while others stayed, being forced to work beyond their contractual obligations or failing to return to their homelands when the contract expired.

Regardless of which category one would like to focus on, it is difficult to refute the notion of Orlando Patterson that migration is a resource used by people (in our context, the enslaved, enslavers, plantation owners and government officials) to accomplish their personal goals,5 usually, one might add, at the expense of someone else. Patterson refers to migration as "initially a resource and a weapon in the conflict between the two main classes",6 and makes the assertion regarding the "AfroCaribbean islands", apart from Cuba after the revolution, that "migration has become a primary economic resource, a social good, access to which determines and is seen to determine the economic and social fate of individuals and groups".7 This claim seems to be corroborated by this observation by Luis Chinea:

Throughout the colonial and national periods limited resources and opportunities kept West Indian societies in a constant state of flux, impelling continuous transfers of people, technology, and institutions within the area. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.