The US takeover of Puerto Rico, 1898

The US takeover of Puerto Rico, 1898

A short account of the taking of Puerto Rico from the Spanish by the United States, by Stephen Kinzer.

The Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodríguez Delaware Tió, who spent years in Cuba, once described these islands as “two wings of the same bird.” Expansionists in the United States agreed. As Theodore Roosevelt was preparing to sail for Cuba in the spring of 1898, he sent Senator Henry Cabot Lodge a letter warning, “Do not make peace until we get Porto Rico.” Lodge told him not to worry.

“Porto Rico is not forgotten and we mean to have it,” he assured his friend. “Unless I am utterly and profoundly mistaken, the Administration is now fully committed to the large policy we both desire.”

The island of Puerto Rico, which is less than one-tenth the size of Cuba, never erupted in armed rebellion against Spain. Like Cuba, though, it produced a remarkable group of revolutionary intellectuals who embodied the nationalism that seized many colonial hearts in the second half of the nineteenth century. For years Spain resisted their calls for self-rule, but that changed when the reform-minded Práxedes Sagasta became prime minister in 1897. Soon after taking office, Sagasta offered autonomy to both Cuba and Puerto Rico. Cuban rebels, with years of fighting behind them and thousands of men under arms, were bent on military victory and scorned his offer. Puerto Ricans, however, instantly accepted.

“Porto Ricans are generally jubilant over the news received from Spain concerning political autonomy,” the American consul Philip Hanna wrote in a dispatch. “The natives generally believe that Spain will grant them a form of home rule as will be in every way satisfactory to them.”

Spain’s autonomy decree gave Puerto Ricans the right to elect a House of Representatives with wide-ranging powers, including authority to name a cabinet that would govern the island. They went to the polls on March 27, 1898. Most voted for the Liberal Fusion Party of Luis Muñoz Rivera, editor of the crusading newspaper La Democracia and a passionate leader of the autonomy movement.

The home-rule government had not yet taken office when, in the predawn hours of May 12, a fleet of seven American warships took up positions facing San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital. At first light, the fleet’s commander, Admiral Sampson, ordered his flagship, the Iowa, to open fire on Spanish positions. A desultory artillery duel followed. The Americans fired 1,362 shells and killed about a dozen people. Spanish defenders replied with 441 shells and several volleys of infantry fire, managing to kill one American soldier. After three and a half hours, the guns fell silent. In military terms this was a minor engagement, but it sent an unmistakable message. Puerto Rico would not be able to avoid being caught up in the Spanish-American War.

For the next two months, American ships maintained a mostly effective blockade aimed at preventing the Spanish from sending supplies or reinforcements to their troops in Puerto Rico. The Spanish, though, were too focused on Cuba to pay much attention to events on the smaller island. So were the Americans. Hoping to take advantage of this situation, members of Puerto Rico’s new House of Representatives convened for their first session, on July 17. On that same day, the new cabinet, headed by Muñoz Rivera, began to function. It would hold power for just eight days.

At 8:45 on the morning of July 25, a detachment of marines and sailors from the American gunboat Gloucester waded ashore near Guánica, on Puerto Rico’s southwestern coast. After a bit of shooting in which they suffered no casualties, they secured the town and raised the American flag over its customs house. The moment that flag began to flutter in the tropical breeze, the United States effectively took control of Puerto Rico. Every institution of Spanish rule, including the autonomous government, quickly withered away.

Some Puerto Ricans looked forward to the prospect of American rule. They hoped for a period of nation building that might last twenty years or so, followed by—depending on their political persuasion—independence or annexation to the United States. Many were inspired by a generously worded proclamation that the American commander, General Nelson Miles, issued at the end of July:

We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection. . . . This is not a war of devastation, but one to give to all within the control of its military and naval forces the advantages and blessings of enlightened civilization.

The war in Puerto Rico was a sideshow, almost completely overshadowed by the conflict in Cuba. American casualties were astonishingly light, just 9 dead and 46 wounded. The Spanish and Puerto Ricans lost a total of about 450 soldiers and civilians dead, wounded, or captured. One of the most prominent American correspondents who covered the war, Richard Harding Davis, later described it as “a picnic” and “a fete desfleurs.”

At the Paris peace conference of December 1898, where the terms of final surrender were fixed, Spain tried to retain Puerto Rico, arguing that the United States had never before challenged its sovereignty there. The Spanish even offered to give the United States territory elsewhere if they could keep Puerto Rico. President McKinley rejected all such suggestions. In private instructions to American negotiators, he said he had decided that Puerto Rico was “to become the territory of the United States.” The Spanish, defeated and weak, had no choice but to accept.

On October 18, at a formal ceremony on the balcony of the governor’s palace in San Juan, Spanish commanders transferred sovereignty over Puerto Rico to the United States. “It was all a quiet affair,” the New York Evening Post reported. “There was no excitement, and but little enthusiasm. An hour after its close, the streets had assumed their wanted appearance. There was little to show that anything important had taken place, that by this brief ceremony Spain’s power on the island of Puerto Rico had ended forever.”

Excerpted from: Overthrow: America's century of regime change from Hawaii to Iraq - Stephen Kinzer. We recommend you buy this book: