Reniel Rodríguez Ramos
During the past two decades, many of the traditional conceptions about the configuration of the cultural landscape of precolonial Puerto Rico have been critically addressed from both political and disciplinary perspectives. Colonialist undercurrents embedded in the traditional models used to structure the indigenous history of the island have come into question and some of the fundamental ideas about the social and cultural makeup of the human collectivities that inhabited Puerto Rico have been drastically altered. The timing of the initial occupation of the island has been pushed back to more than five thousand years ago and the potential origin of some of these societies has also been reconsidered, including the possibility that some of groups moved across the Caribbean Sea from the Isthmo-Colombian region from where they brought phytocultural traditions that included the cultivation of a wide array of important economic plants. The cultural landscape of the island later expanded with the arrival of migrants from the surrounding continents who participated in long-distance interaction networks, as demonstrated by the trade of exotic goods mainly used for making personal adornments. The cultural plurality that existed on the island led to the development of distinct traditions that were not only forged by the diverse interactions that took place within Puerto Rico, but also by engagements that continued to take place with the inhabitants of other islands of the Antilles and surrounding continental regions. This all led to the articulation of a mosaic of cultural traditions that were diffusely united through the intersocietal negotiation of a set of codes that allowed the different collectivities to engage with one another while retaining their differences.
The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the northern Caribbean with three Spanish ships in October 1492 marked the beginning of continuing European contact with the Americas. With his second voyage of 1493 permanent European occupation of the Caribbean began, with enormous consequences for the peoples and ecology of the region. Failing to encounter the wealthy trading societies that Columbus had hoped to find by reaching Asia, Europeans in the Caribbean soon realized that they would have to involve themselves directly in organizing profitable enterprises. Gold mining in the northern islands and pearl fishing in the islands off the coast of Tierra Firme (present-day Venezuela) for some years proved enormously profitable but depended on Spaniards’ ability to exploit indigenous labor on a large scale. The imposition of the Spanish encomienda system, which required indigenous communities to provide labor for mining and commercial agriculture, and the large-scale capture and transportation of Native Americans from one locale to another wrought havoc among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean, resulting in high mortality and flight. Spaniards in the islands soon sought to supplement indigenous labor by importing African slaves who, in the early 16th century, became a significant if not always easily controlled presence in the region.
From the earliest years the Spanish Caribbean was a complex, dynamic, and volatile region characterized by extensive interaction and conflict among diverse groups of people and by rapid economic and institutional development. Although the islands became the launching grounds for subsequent Spanish moves to the nearby mainland, throughout the 16th century and beyond they played a crucial role in sustaining Spain’s overseas empire and integrating it into the larger Atlantic system.