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Early Porto Rico


Source: Myths & Legends Of Our New Possessions & Protectorate

Though Columbus made his first landing in Porto Rico at Naguabo,
where the Caribs afterward destroyed a Spanish settlement, he gave its
present name to the island when he put in Aguada for water. Charmed
with the beauty of the bay, the opulence of vegetation, the hope
of wealth in the river sands, he christened it "the rich port,"
and extending this, applied to the whole island the name of San Juan
Bautista de Puerto Rico--St. John the Baptist of the Rich Port. The
natives knew their island as Boriquen. Later came Ponce de Leon,
who founded Caparra, now Pueblo Viejo, across the bay from San Juan,
to which spot he shifted a little later and built the white house
that may still be seen. San Juan is the oldest city of white origin
in the Western world, except Santo Domingo, albeit Santiago de Cuba
and Baracoa claim to be contemporary. The body of Ponce is buried in
San Juan, in the church of Santo Domingo.

When this fair island was claimed by Spain, it had a population of
over half a million, but Ponce at once set about the extinction of
the native element. The populace was simple, affectionate, confiding,
and in showing friendship for the invaders it invited and obtained
slavery. It has been ingeniously advanced that the Spaniards disliked
the natives because of the cleanliness of the latter. On account
of the heat they wore no clothing, to absorb dirt and perspiration,
and bathed at least once every day. In those times white people were
frugal in the use of water, Spain being more pronounced against it than
almost any other nation. Listen to one of the Spanish writers, though
he is talking, not of our Indians, but of the Moors: "Water seems more
needed by these infidels than bread, for they wash every day, as their
damnable religion directs them to, and they use it in baths, and in a
thousand other idle fashions, of which Spaniards and other Christians
can make little account." We know that a Spanish queen refrained,
not only from washing, but from changing her clothes for a whole
year. The Porto Ricans were naked, but unaware of their nakedness,
therefore they were moderately virtuous; at least, more virtuous than
their conquerors. Had they been treated with justice and mercy they
would have remained friendly to the white men, and would have been
of great service to them in the development of the island. As early
as 1512, Africans were shipped to the island to take the places, at
enforced labor, of the Indians who had been destroyed. A religion was
forced down the throats of the natives that they did not understand,
especially as the friars preached it; and being unable at once to grasp
the meaning or appreciate the value of discourses on the spiritual
nature, the trinity, vicarious atonement, transubstantiation, and the
intercession of saints, the soldiers, always within call, followed
their custom when the congregations proved intractable: killed them.

It is said that the Spaniards acquired such ease in the slaying of
Indians that they would crack a man's head merely to see if it would
split easily or if their swords were keeping their edge, and that they
varied their more direct and merciful slaughters by roasting one of
the despised infidels occasionally. Slavery in damp mines, fevers in
swamps, unaccustomed work, strain, anxiety, grief, insufficient food,
lack of liberty, separation from friends and families, killed more
than the sword. It was the same in all the conquered lands. In Hayti
a million people were oppressed out of existence or slain outright
in fifteen years, and but sixty-five thousand were left. In less
than a century that island had not a single native. So in Porto
Rico: not a man is to be found there to-day who is a pure-blooded
aborigine. Even their relics and monuments, their traditions and
history, were obliterated by their conquerors--the race that destroyed
the libraries of the Moors and the picture records of the Aztecs. Few
even of their burial places are known, although the Cave of the Dead,
near Caguana, was so named because of the Indian skeletons found in it.

Some of the tools and implements of stone found on the island are
so strange that one cannot even guess their purpose. Of the heavy
stone collars that have been preserved, a priest holds that they
were placed about the necks of the dead, that the devil might not
lift them out of their graves, but this sounds like an invention of
the church, for there is no proof that a belief in the devil existed
among these people. They had a god, as well as minor spirits, and sang
hymns to them; they had some crafts and arts, for they made canoes,
huts, chairs, nets, hammocks, pottery, weapons, and implements,
and, although the fierce Caribs vexed them now and again, they were
accounted as the gentlest and most advanced of the native people in the
Antilles. Speaking of the hammock, that is one of their devices that
the world has generally adopted, and the name is one of the few Indian
words that have survived the Spanish oppressions, though there are many
geographic titles. Other familiar survivals are the words hurricane,
canoe, tobacco, potato, banana, and a few other botanical names.

It is probable that these Boriquenos were allied in speech and custom,
as well as in blood, to their neighbors the Haytiens, of whom saith
Peter Martyr, "The land among these people is common as sun and
water. 'Mine' and 'thine,' the seeds of all mischief, have no place
among them. They are content with so little that in this large country
they have more than plenty. They live in a golden world without toil,
in open gardens, not intrenched, defended, or divided. They deal truly
with one another, without laws, judges, or books. He that will hurt
another is an evil man, and while they take no pleasure in superfluity,
they take means to increase the roots that are their food--diet so
simple that their health is assured." Still, it is known that in their
defence against the marauding Caribs the Porto Ricans were courageous,
and had become adept with arrow and club, and it was believed by some
of the first explorers that they ate their captives.

The aborigines of Porto Rico probably differed little, if at all, from
the Haytiens in their faith in an all-powerful, deathless god, who
had a mother but no father, who lived in the sky and was represented
on earth by zemes or messengers. Every chief had his zemi, carved
in stone or wood, as a tutelary genius, to whom he addressed his
prayers and who had a temple of his own. Zemes directed the wind,
waves, rains, rivers, floods, and crops, gave success or failure in
the hunt, and gave visions to or spoke with priests who had worked
themselves into a rhapsodic state by the use of a drug (it may have
been tobacco), in order to receive the message, which often concerned
the health of a person or of a whole village. The Spaniards regarded
these manitous as images of the devil, and in order to keep them the
natives hid the little effigies from the friars and the troops. In
the festivals of these gods there were dances, music, and an offering
of flower-decorated cakes.

Hayti was the first created, the sun and moon came from the cave near
Cape Haytien known as _la voute a Minguet_, through a round hole in
the roof. Men came from another cave, the big ones through a large
door, the little men from a smaller one. They were without women for
a long time, because the latter lived in trees and were slippery;
but some men with rough hands finally pulled four of them down from
the branches, and the world was peopled. At first, the men dared to
leave their cave only at night, for the sun was so strong it turned
them to stone, though one man who was caught at his fishing by the
sun became a bird that still sings at night, lamenting his fate. When
a chief was dying in pain he was mercifully strangled,--though the
common people were allowed to linger to their end,--and his deeds were
rehearsed in ballads sung to the drum. There was a belief in ghosts,
albeit they could not be seen in the light, unless in a lonely place,
nor by many persons. When they did mingle with the people it was
easy to distinguish them from the living, as they had no navel. What
became of the wicked after death we do not know, but the good went
to a happy place where they met those whom they loved, and lived
among women, flowers, and fruits. During the day the departed souls
hid among the mountains, but peopled the fairest valleys at night,
and in order that they should not suffer from hunger the living were
careful to leave fruit on the trees.

From these quaint and simple faiths the people were roused by the
professors of a more enlightened one, who made their teaching useless,
however, if not odious, to the brown people by their practises. It was
an old belief, at least among the Haytiens, that a race of strangers,
with bodies clad, would cross the sea and would reduce the people
to servitude. This prophecy may have made them the more unwilling
to yield to the Spaniards, in respect of religious faith, despite
the signs and wonders that were shown to them. When chief Guarionex
raided a Spanish chapel and destroyed the sacred images within,
the shattered statues were buried in a garden, and the turnips and
radishes planted there came up in the form of the cross. But even
this did not convince the savages, whom it became necessary to burn,
in order to smooth the way to reform.

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