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During the crisis of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Pedro Albizu Campos, the president of Puerto Rico’s Nationalist Party, repeatedly stated that the island had to “reconstitute the legion of proprietors that existed before 1898.” Puerto Rico’s export sector was heavily dependent on sugar, and the sugar-producing zones of the island were characterized by great social inequalities. The concentration of landownership was acute and was paralleled by large-scale rural landlessness and the proletarianization of workers. What stands out in Albizu’s denunciations of US colonialism is not the very real social and economic inequalities of the 1930s, but the assertion that these began in 1898, the year the United States invaded Puerto Rico.
When the United States assumed control over Puerto Rico after the military invasion of July 1898, coffee was Puerto Rico’s principal export staple product, having accounted for about 70 percent of Puerto Rico’s export trade in value by the mid-1890s. The peak year in production was 1896, when nearly 59 million pounds were exported worth about $13.4 million. In the same year, sugar exports from the island were valued at about $3.6 million.
Coffee was introduced to the island during the early eighteenth century, probably during the 1720s or 1730s, as part of its spread throughout the Caribbean by the French, who first began cultivating the crop in Martinique.
The established historiography on early twentieth-century Puerto Rico is nearly unanimous on one aspect of the impact of US rule in the aftermath of the 1898 invasion: large-scale, absentee-owned sugar-manufacturing corporations acquired extensive landed estates at the expense of Puerto Rican farmers who lost their land and were gradually converted into a labor force to serve these US-based sugar companies. This narrative has been repeated over and again in nearly every major work on Puerto Rican history and serves as a point of departure for examining a wide range of other themes that have sought to assess the impact of US colonial control over the island. The development of rural landlessness, social stratification, extreme forms of inequality in the countryside, and economic dependence were all closely connected to the accumulation of large plantations by US-owned corporations, or so the story goes.
When we began this project, our objective was to empirically examine one major aspect of the inherited knowledge on how the United States impacted the structures of Puerto Rican rural society in the early twentieth century. This revolved around the fundamental issue of landownership and how basic tenure and ownership structures changed through time under US colonial rule. The prevailing interpretation, as we have stated, was that land alienation was a fundamental process experienced in rural Puerto Rico as the economy shifted from a predominantly coffee-export economy in the late nineteenth century to a sugar-plantation economy and society on the coast. Large-scale capital investments by the Sugar Trust created modern central factories in specific coastal zones, and massive corporate-owned landed estates extending for tens of thousands of acres dominated rural life in these regions, to be sure.
Despite Puerto Rico being the most densely populated island in the Caribbean and with such a large portion of its rural population owning farms, land in Puerto Rico was fairly underutilized when the United States took over the island in 1898. There was intense cultivation in the western highlands and coastal districts, but even in regions where sugarcane farming was dominant, the percentage of land under cultivation was well under 25 percent of total acreage and in some areas less than 10 percent, according to maps created for the 1899 census. (See Maps 9.1–9.3.)
The censuses for Puerto Rico from 1899 through the special census of 1935 conducted by the PRRA each contain data on land tenure, although there are problems tracing changes through time that revolve around the manner in which data were collected. The raw data files for these agricultural censuses have never been discovered, and the only data available in each census are summary statistics on tenure categories. These tenure categories changed to some extent. For 1899, there are only tenure data for cultivated cuerdas and not for the full extension of farms.
In contrast to sugarcane and coffee, tobacco is native to the Caribbean and its cultivation dates to pre-Columbian times. The plant was known among the Tainos who inhabited the major Caribbean islands as cogiba, whereas tabaco was the name of the pipe they used to smoke it. The church opposed the use of tobacco because it figured prominently in indigenous religious ceremonies, which were considered “idolatrous,” and accordingly prevented tobacco’s introduction in Spain until the middle of the sixteenth century. Exports of tobacco were first authorized in 1614 with the standard colonial monopolistic restriction that all transactions had to pass through Seville’s Casa de Contratación.
Puerto Rico’s population began its dynamic expansion in the second half of the eighteenth century, according to colonial data. A detailed census conducted in 1765 enumerated 44,883 inhabitants; the population grew to 155,426 by 1800 and then increased to 583,308 in 1860. By 1899, when an extensive census was conducted by the occupying US military, the population was 953,243 and had increased at 1.3 percent yearly from 1860. After 1899, demographic growth accelerated and grew at a 1.7 percent yearly rate between 1899 and 1940, when the population stood at more than 1.8 million people. (See Figure 5.1.)
Puerto Rico has experienced three distinct sugar booms in its history. In the aftermath of conquest and settlement, the first sugar mill on the island was established by Tomás de Castellón, a Genoese investor who came to Santo Domingo in 1509, moved to Puerto Rico in 1513, and established himself as a producer of cattle and cassava bread. De Castellón’s enterprises prospered, and in 1523, he established the first sugar mill in the southwestern district of San Germán. Other mills were established during the 1520s and 1530s, and by 1540, the island clearly had a sugar sector of importance to the insular economy.
The narrative of the disappearing smallholder was conspicuous in Puerto Rico among intellectuals, political parties, and the agricultural producers’ associations. It also became entrenched in scholarship through the vast influence exercised on the historiography by a number of publications, most notably the works of Baily and Justine Diffie and of Esteban Bird in the 1930s. The literature highlighting the power of the Sugar and Tobacco Trusts has likewise been influential, and has contributed to create a view of extraordinary concentration of landownership at one extreme and rural dispossession at the other following the 1898 takeover of the island by the United States.
The 1899 census for Puerto Rico carried out by the US War Department, the subsequent decennial censuses of the island carried out by the US Census Bureau in 1910, 1920, and 1930, and the 1935 special census for Puerto Rico carried out by the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Authority permit a series of statistical calculations that may be used to estimate the percentage of rural families on the island who did not own land in each census year. These data may be used to measure whether there were significant changes over time on the island as a whole and in regions characterized by the predominance of the major export crops, sugar, coffee, and tobacco.
Fundamental tenets of colonial historiography are challenged by showing that US capital investment into this colony did not lead to the disappearance of the small farmer. Contrary to well-established narratives, quantitative data show that the increasing integration of rural producers within the US market led to differential outcomes, depending on pre-existing land tenure structures, capital requirements to initiate production, and demographics. These new data suggest that the colonial economy was not polarized into landless Puerto Rican rural workers on one side and corporate US capitalists on the other. The persistence of Puerto Rican small farmers in some regions and the expansion of local property ownership and production disprove this socioeconomic model. Other aspects of extant Puerto Rican historiography are confronted in order to make room for thorough analyses and new conclusions on the economy of colonial Puerto Rico during the early twentieth century.