Captaincy General of Puerto Rico

Captaincy General of Puerto Rico

The Captaincy General of Puerto Rico ( _es. Capitanía General de Puerto Rico) was an administrative district of the Spanish Empire, created in 1580 to provide better military management of the island of Puerto Rico, previously under the direct rule of a simple governor and the jurisdiction of Audiencia of Santo Domingo. Its creation was part of the, ultimately futile, Habsburg attempt in the late sixteenth century to prevent incursion into the Caribbean by foreign powers, which also involved the establishment of Captaincies General in Cuba, Guatemala and Yucatan. Nevertheless, the Captaincy General played a crucial role in the history of the Spanish Caribbean. The institution lasted until the establishment of an autonomous local government, headed by a governor-general and an insular parliament, which was instituted just months before the loss of Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898.



In 1508 Juan Ponce de León was commissioned to carry out the initial colonization of Puerto Rico and was, therefore, upon successfully founding the city of Caparra (on the site of today's Guaynabo), appointed its first governor in 1509 by the regent of Castile, Ferdinand V. Since Christopher Columbus's death in 1506, the Spanish Crown had refused to recognize his heirs' right to appoint governors of the West Indies, but in 1511 the Council of Castile ruled in Diego Colón's favor. As a result, Ponce de León lost his position and left the island, not wishing to serve under Colón. The Columbus family appointed governors from then until 1536, when Diego's son, Luis Colón sold the rights to govern the Indies to the crown. In the same year that Diego Colón won his case, the first diocese was established on the island under the auspices of the Archdiocese of Seville. (It was later transferred to the newly elevated Archdiocese of Santo Domingo in 1546. The Puerto Rico Diocese would oversee the church in the Province of Guayana in Venezuela from the 16th to 18th centuries.)

From 1536 to 1545 the island was overseen by the president of the "Audiencia" of Santo Domingo, who was also Captain General of the Caribbean. It was administered locally, not as one unit, but by the "alcaldes ordinarios" of the two municipalities of the island, San Juan (a reconstituted Caparra) and San Germán, who were elected annually by the cabildos from among the local settler population. (The island was split along the Camuy and Jacaguas Rivers.) Since most of the settlers did not have the training to become governors, the system proved ineffective. The island's Spanish residents complained to the crown.

Starting in 1545 governors with legal training ("gobernadores letrados") were appointed by either the crown or the Santo Domingo "Audiencia". As the highest judicial office on the island, they heard cases in the first instance in their immediate districts, and in appeal from the regional "alcaldes". The next court of appeal was the "Audiencia" in Santo Domingo. In addition to being the highest administrative office on the island, governors also derived power from their right to annually appoint two of the four "regidores" of the "cabildos" on the island. As with all other Spanish political officials, governors were subject to the "juicio de residencia", an official review of their time in office. Since governors were the king's highest representative on the island, they had oversight over the Church because of the right of patronage ("real patronato") that the monarchs of Spain had in the Americas. They controlled the construction and maintenance of church buildings, paid the salaries of the clergy and saw to it that only Papal bulls and encyclicals approved by the Council of the Indies were published on the island.

The growing military conflicts with other European powers, both in Europe and in the New World, convinced the crown to add the office of captain general to the governor in 1580. Following this, mostly military men, not lawyers, were appointed governors-captains general, assisted by a legal advisor ("asesor") in their judicial and administrative duties.


Puerto Rico had a vital strategic importance, even as it was economically marginal, to Spain as the gateway to the Caribbean, or as it was called at the time, "the key to the Indies." Given the sea currents and wind patterns of the Atlantic, it was usually the first port of call for ships arriving from Europe. Despite this, or perhaps because of its negligible economic importance, the Spanish took a long time to build up the island's defenses. The first fortified building was the Ponce de León family home (today the Casa Blanca), which was given its first defensive features in the 1520s. In the next decade construction began on the first true fort, "La Fortaleza", at the entrance of the bay, and by 1539 construction began of a full defensive complex around San Juan, which included Forts San Felipe del Morro, San Cristóbal, and San Jerónimo. On the other side of the island, San Germán was left practically defenseless, and was easy prey to French attacks throughout the century.

With the creation of the Captaincy General in 1580, Governor-Captain General Diego Menéndez de Valdés (1582 - 1593), was able to continue encircling San Juan with defenses. To fund the construction and an enlarged garrison, an annual subsidy, the "situado", was ordered from the royal coffers in New Spain, although for the next two centuries, the "situado" often did not reach Puerto Rico. The number of permanent soldiers under Menéndez de Valdés went from fifty to just over two hundred, and was later raised to over four hundred in 1596, the number at which it would stay for the next century. The improvements to the city's defenses proved to be ready by the time they faced their first major challenge, an assault by a 27-ship fleet lead by Francis Drake. The island would also serve as an important bastion in Spain's struggles against the piracy practiced by its rivals in the Caribbean that would plague Spain during the next two centuries. Many Puerto Ricans also became Spanish privateers that operated against the British, French and Dutch possessions in the area, the most famous of whom was Miguel Henríquez. Despite this at times formal, at times informal, conflict, contraband proved to be a crucial element of the local economy, as was common in many peripheral areas of Spanish America, but which syphoned off to foreign powers most of the money that came to the island in the "situado".

To supplement the inadequate number of regular soldiers, local militias ("milicias urbanas") were organized in each of the islands five districts ("partidos") outside of the capital: San Germán, Arecibo, Aguada, Coamo, Loíza and Ponce. The militia men were not regularly paid nor even armed. Their weapons consisted of farm implements: machetes, improvised wooden lances and regular knives, but the governors-captains general usually attested to their courage. Each "partido" was overseen by a "teniente a guerra", a deputy of the captain general.

The Eighteenth Century and the Bourbon Reforms

Shaken by the losses experienced during the Seven Year's War, in particular the capture of Cuba by the British in 1762, Charles III sent several officials to the Caribbean to review the defenses of the area. Alejandro O'Reilly was sent to Puerto Rico in 1765. O'Reilly recommended many reforms, many of which were implemented, among them upgrading the fortifications in San Juan, introducing direct, regular pay for the soldiers on the island (up until then, soldiers had been paid by their commanding officers) and professionalizing the militias. He also undertook a complete census of the island (it recorded 44,883 residents, of which 5,037 were slaves; and 24 towns or villages in the island) and also came to realize the importance of contraband in the local economy. To reverse this O'Reilly recommended developing the legal economy, in particular agriculture, which he found vastly untapped, by returning uncultivated land to the crown and then giving it to persons willing to farm it. In 1784 an intendancy was created in Puerto Rico, but unlike the one created in Cuba, the office was not separated from the governorship. The reforms were successful mostly in the military sphere. Economic change, unlike in neighboring Cuba, was mostly negligible in this period. The island's economy remained tied to the "situado" subsidy and foreign trade, something which proved harmful during interruption in trade caused by the Napoleonic Wars.

The Early Nineteenth Century: Revolutions and setbacks

The early nineteenth century presented the dual challenge of invasion in Spain and revolt in the Americas. The Peninsular War and the Hispanic American wars of independence spurred great innovation in Puerto Rico's government. Puerto Rico's ties to Venezuela, due to sailing patterns which made the island the closest port of call from Venezuela, played significantly in this period. The juntas which were established in Venezuela in 1810 corresponded with the "cabildos" of Puerto Rico. The San Juan "cabildo" turned down the invitation from the Caracas junta to establish a junta on the island, but the San Germán cabildo always maintained the right to self-rule, should Spain be permanently lost to the French. Some individual Puerto Ricans, such as Antonio Valero de Bernabe, later chose to join the struggle for independence going on in the mainland. In response to the junta movement gathering strength on the mainland, the peninsular government gave Governor Salvador Meléndez extraordinary powers to deal with any revolt on the island, while at the same time many royalist refugees from Venezuela began arriving in Puerto Rico. The island also served as a point of departure for troops on their way to Venezuela, such as those under Domingo de Monteverde and Pablo Morillo.

As the government in opposition to the French began to take shape in the form of a Supreme Central Junta, it recognized the overseas possessions as integral parts of the Spanish nation, and therefore, in 1809 invited them to send a delegates to the Junta. This initiated a period of elections in the Captaincy General which were of ever-increasing representation, culminating in the constitutional periods of 1812-1814 and 1820-1823. The first elections were to be carried out by the "cabildos", of which there were five on the island by this time: San Juan, San Germán, Aguada, Arecibo and Coamo. They elected as Puerto Rico's representative, the native "Criollo" Ramón Power y Giralt, but before he could leave for Spain the Supreme Junta had dissolved itself. Before it had done so, the Junta had sent the call out to convene the traditional Spanish parliament, the Cortes, and the "cabildos" elected Power as the island's representative in the Cortes. Power had a very active term in the Cortes. He quickly had the Cortes suspend the governor's extraordinary powers, and he also secured that the office of the intendant was separated from that of the governor-captain general. The highlight of his legislative activity was the "Ley Power" (the Power Act), which introduced many administrative and economic reforms in Puerto Rico, many of which survived Ferdinand VII's abolition of the Spanish Constitution of 1812 and the Cortes. The Spanish Constitution also introduced local government to Puerto Rico. Many more "cabildos" were introduced to the island, which were popularly elected. A local administrative and legislative board was also elected, the "Diputación Provincial".

After the King restored traditional government, he sought to maintain and reward the loyalty of Puerto Ricans by granting the island a limited form of the long-sought free trade. The Royal Decree of Graces of 1815 granted many of the economic requests that Power and the island "cabildos" had requested since 1810. In the long term, the Decree had very beneficial economic effects. It facilitated foreign migration to the island, started the growth of the sugar industry (although this also meant that the importation of slaves increased), and a series of competent intendants set the island's government finances on good standing for decades to come.

During the second constitutional period after the Riego Revolt, new deputies to the Cortes were elected by the island's population, the "Diputación Provincial" met again, and unlike the first period, the captaincy general and the governorship were separated. Francisco González de Linares, a long-time Venezuelan resident, who had fled after collapse of royalist government there, was appointed governor. Pablo Morillo's successor as head of the royalist forces in Venezuela, Miguel de la Torre, was appointed captain general.

After Ferdinand VII's second abolition of the Constitution, La Torre was made joint governor and captain general, with extraordinary powers to suppress any potential revolt. He would hold the office of captain general for more than fifteen years. Despite La Torre's wariness of the island's liberal tendencies, his long administration was key to the development of large-scale sugar production on the island, something which had been created decades earlier in Cuba. Figures from the period show the growth in this period. In 1820, 17,000 tons of sugar were produced and a mere 5.8 percent of the land was under any type of cultivation. By 1897, Puerto Rico produced 62,000 tons of sugar and had 14.3 percent of its land devoted to agriculture. The small landholdings, which had been traditional since the sixteenth century gave way to large plantations. After sugar, coffee was the second most important crop. In 1818 70 million pounds of coffee were produced, a figure which grew to 130 million pounds by 1830. The increased agricultural activity was partly done by new slave labor, which was imported from other Caribbean islands. In 1817 Spain had signed a treaty with Britain ending the slave trade, but it was not seriously enforced until after 1845. [ [ Anglo-Spanish Anti-Slave Trade Treaty] ] Nevertheless, slaves made a small proportion of the island's work force compared to other Caribbean islands of the time, only 11.5 to 14 percent. [Morales Carrión, Arturo, ed. "Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History", 103-105.] In judicial matters, Puerto Rico was granted its own "audiencia" from 1832 to 1853. Previously appeals had been heard by the former "Audiencia" of Santo Domingo, now resident in Cuba.

Mid-Century: Slow progress towards autonomy

The death of Ferdinand VII brought about new changes. Regent María Cristina reconvened the Cortes, in its traditional form, and Puerto Rico sent several deputies, all liberals. In 1836, Constitutional government was reestablished in Spain, except this time the government in Spain, despite its liberal tendencies, saw the overseas territories as colonies, which should be governed by special laws. The democratic institutions, such as the "Diputación Provincial" and the "cabildos", established by the 1812 Constitution were removed, and the extraordinary powers granted to the governor maintained. The new Constitution of 1837 ratified Puerto Rico's demoted status. Worse still the "special laws" by which the overseas areas were to be governed, were not drafted until three decades later, when a special "Junta Informativa de Reformas de Ultramar" (Overseas Informative Reform Board), with representatives from Cuba and Puerto Rico, was convened in 1865. Even then its proposals were never made into laws.

The "Gloriosa" Revolt of 1868, which removed Queen Isabel II from power, initially reaffirmed Puerto Rico's right to participate in the Spanish government. The island elected seven deputies to the Cortes, the "Diputación Provincial" once again was formed and plans were made to draw up the laws which would grant the island autonomy. But three factors nullified all this progress. First the government in Spain was too unstable (reflected in the fact that between 1871 and 1874 Puerto Rico had five governors). Second the short-lived revolt of Lares proved to authorities that the situation in Puerto Rico was not as calm as it might seem. Finally and most seriously, the Lares revolt coincided with the Ten Years' War in Cuba, which made the government apprehensive of granting either of the Caribbean islands autonomy. In 1875 the Bourbons were restored when the Spanish government offered the throne to Alfonso XII. Limited elections, which granted the franchise only to people with large amounts of property, were allowed on the island. True parties also emerged in this period, the "Patido Liberal Refomista", which promoted autonomy for the island, and the "Partido Liberal Conservador", which pushed for the island's greater integration into the political system of Spain.

The issue of autonomy came to a head in 1895 with the start of the Cuban War of Independence. The Overseas Minister, with approval from the Prime Minister, took the extra-constitutional step in 1897 of writing the "Constitución Autonómica", the new measures which granted the Caribbean islands autonomy. Given the urgency of the movement, the government approved this unusual measure. The new government was to consist of "an Island Parliament, divided into two chambers and one Governor-General, representative of the Metropolis, who will carry out his duties in its name, the supreme Authority." [ [ In Spanish: Autonomic Constitution of 1897] ] Elections for the parliament and the municipal councils occurred in early 1898. The island legislature first met in July, only eight days before the US invasion of the island. [Morales Carrión, Arturo, ed. "Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History", 125.]

ee also

* History of Puerto Rico
* Military history of Puerto Rico
* Real Audiencia of Santo Domingo
* List of Governors of Puerto Rico



* Morales Carrión, Arturo, ed. "Puerto Rico: A Political and Cultural History". New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1983. ISBN 0-393-30193-1
* Navarro García, Jesús Raúl. "Puerto Rico a la sombra de la independencia continental, 1815-1840". Seville-San Juan: CEAPRC/CSIC, 1999. ISBN 1-879308-34-7
* Picó, Fernando. "Puerto Rico: A Panorama of Its People". Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2006. ISBN 1-558-76371-6

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