Early Porto Rico

: 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 R
co--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.