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26 June, 2013
The Great Republic by the Master Historians
Porto Rico: Its Capture and its Problems
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The story of the invasion of this island is taken from the "History of the Spanish-American War," by Henry Watterson. The victory so easily won by General Miles brought a series of troubles in its train, in the solution of which the keen qualities of congressional statecraft have been conspicuously displayed. In view of the vital importance of the questions involved, which tax the patriotic and judicial reasonings of the nation not less than the trained faculties of their statesmen, it is necessary to consider the physical, economic and political conditions of Porto Rico. An impartial summary of the discussion upon the status of the island under the American Constitution will follow the story of its capture.]

Swiftly following up the Spanish collapse at Santiago, General Nelson A. Miles, general-in-chief of the army, sailed with part of the Fifth Army Corps from Santiago to Porto Rico nine days after the surrender. He was accompanied by Major-General James H. Wilson, of volunteers, and was reinforced later with fresh troops from Newport News under Major-General John R. Brooke, U. S. A. No opportunity was to be permitted for Spain to recover from the shock of her losses.

The squadron under Commodore Watson, intended to pursue Camara's ships, was now enlarged to a fleet, which Admiral Sampson was to command, with orders to prepare for immediate attack upon the Canary Islands and a descent upon the Spanish fortified seaports; to find Camara's hiding ships and destroy them. The announcement caused great fear throughout Spain, and once again her cabinet sought to arouse Europe to combine against the entrance by American ships upon European waters for war purposes -- urging the step as a retaliatory act against the Monroe Doctrine. But the European Powers did not display any intention to act after an exchange of notes. The appearance of a British Squadron at Gibraltar was considered ominous to the proposed interference.

The island of Porto Rico, which was discovered in 1493, and has ever since been under Spanish rule, is one hundred and eight miles in length and about forty miles wide. It is a most healthful and delightful country, with mountain ranges and many streams. Forty of these are navigable for a short distance from the coast. The climate in the interior is particularly mild and salubrious. It contains an area of about 3,600 square miles and 800,000 inhabitants. It is fourth in rank, according to size, of the Greater Antilles group, but in prosperity and density of population it is first. It is one of the few tropical islands and countries where the white population out-numbers the black. The commercial capital and largest city is Ponce, situated three miles inland from the port of the same name on the southern coast. The city rests on a rich plain, surrounded by gardens and plantations. There are hot springs in the vicinity, which are much frequented by invalids. Along the beach in front of the port are extensive depots, in which the products of the interior, forwarded through Ponce, are stored for shipment. The last enumeration gave to Ponce a population of 37,545, while San Juan, the capital on the north coast, had only 23,414 inhabitants. Ponce has a number of fine buildings, among which are the town hall, the theatre, two churches, the Charity and the Women's asylums, the barracks, the Cuban House, and the market. The road between the city and the seaside is a beautiful promenade. Cuba is thirteen times larger than Porto Rico, but its population was not more than double the latter before Weyler exterminated a third of the native Cubans. Besides Ponce and San Juan, the largest towns on the Island are Arecibo (30,000 inhabitants), Utuado (31,000), Mayaguez (28,000), San German (20,000), Yauco (25,000), Juana Diaz (21,000), and there are some ten other towns with a population of 15,000 or over. In the past fifty years about half the population has gravitated into and about the towns, particularly those of the seaboard. The inhabitants live in comfortable houses, and many have sufficient means to purchase all the comforts of the world.

Porto Rico has always been lightly touched by the blighting hand of Spain. It has been regarded as a part of Spain rather than a colony, and for the past twenty years it has been politically a province of the Spanish Kingdom. The Spanish Government has had little to do directly with internal improvements in the island, and kept her heavy hand off the people, so that there was opportunity for the spirit of enterprise to develop. As a consequence Porto Rico has about one hundred and fifty miles of railroad, and as much more under construction; and a system of wagon roads leading to all the important trading centres that surpasses anything of the sort seen in most parts of Spain itself. The portions of railroad parallel to the coasts are long sections of a line that will ultimately make the entire circuit of the island, with short branches to all the seaports and the inland market towns.

This beautiful island abounds in sugar, coffee, tobacco, honey, and wax, which have enriched the people. A very large part of the trade has been with the United States, whose corn, flour, salt meat, fish, and lumber were imported in return for sugar, molasses, and coffee. The natives have little taste for the sea, and most of the foreign trade has been carried in foreign bottoms. Porto Rico is rich in natural blessings, and, for a tropical region, very healthful.

The capital, San Juan, was the best fortified city of Porto Rico, occupying there the relative position that Havana occupied in Cuba. When General Miles started his expedition the expectation was that it would effect a landing at Fajardo, on the northeastern coast. After this ostensible purpose had been well published, his convoys and transports suddenly arrived off the harbor of Guanica on the southwestern cost at daylight on the morning of July 25.

The small Spanish garrison in a blockhouse on the beach was utterly surprised when Commander Wainwright of the Gloucester ran into the harbor and with his small guns opened fire. the Spaniards attempted to reply but were soon driven off, and a party of marines landed and hoisted the American flag over the blockhouse. None of the Americans was injured, but the Spanish lost several killed and wounded.

The troops of the expedition, numbering some 3,500, were disembarked in the afternoon without difficulty or opposition. The harbor is the best in the island, although the country about is low and swampy. Guanica is the port outlet for several towns near the coast. That part of Porto Rico has never been entirely loyal to Spain, perhaps because it was in sympathy with the eastern province of Cuba. East of Guanica are the towns of Yauco and Ponce, the former not more than five miles distant, and thence a railroad leads to Ponce.

Marching towards Yauco on the 26th there was a skirmish with the enemy, in which the Americans had four men wounded and the Spaniards lost sixteen killed and wounded. When our troops entered Yauco they were received with enthusiasm and joy, not wholly unmixed, however, with some anxiety. Francisco Megia, alcalde, or mayor, of the town, had issued in advance a proclamation to the public, to prepare the population for the crisis. It was in these terms, which accepted annexation as an accomplished fact:

CITIZENS: To-day the citizens of Porto Rico assist in one of her most beautiful festivals. The sun of America shines upon our mountains and valleys this day of July, 1898. It is a day of glorious remembrance for each son of this beloved isle, because for the first time there waves over it the flag of 4he Stars, planted in the name of the government of the United States of America by the Major-General of the American army, General Miles.

Porto Ricans, we are, by the miraculous intervention of the God of the just, given back to the bosom of our mother America, in whose waters nature placed us as people of America. To her we are given back, in the name of her government, by General Miles, and we must send her our most expressive salutation of generous affection through our conduct towards the valiant troops represented by distinguished officers and commanded by the illustrious General Miles.

Citizens: Long live the government of the United States of America! Hail to their valiant troops! Hail Porto Rico, always American!

Yauco, Porto Rico, United States of America.

On the same day the Massachusetts, Dixie, Annapolis, Wasp, and Gloucester had appeared before Ponce to blockade the port and prepare to bombard it when the troops arrived from Guanica, ten miles west. Instead of meeting with resistance, the city authorities sent a delegation to call on Commander Higginson of the Massachusetts, and welcome the American forces to peaceful occupation. The population was enthusiastic over the Americans, and when General Miles and his soldiers arrived by rail from Guanica he entered an American city from which the Spanish garrison had fled without stopping to look back. In the streets the whole population had assembled as for a patriotic celebration. The buildings were decorated with the flags of all nations except Spain's. The ceremony of welcoming the conquerors was interesting and unusual.

General Miles, who had come with the army from Guanica, and General Wilson, who had come on the warships, were met at Ponce port by arrangement, and a delegated escort drove them in carriages into the city proper, to the Casa del Rey, where the civil governor, Toro, and the mayor, Ulpiano Colon, awaited them. A guard in front of the building forced a way for the American generals, and through the cheering crowd they walked into the building, where they were presented to the local officials.

Governor Toro said the citizens of Ponce were anxious to know if the municipal officers and system that had been in vogue would be continued temporarily. He was assured that municipal affairs would not be disturbed for the time being, and that the same local officers would serve. But it was explained that the local authorities would be responsible to General Wilson as military governor, who would keep the city under a form of martial law that would be oppressive to none.

After the conference, Mayor Colon said he was glad the Americans had come, because the island would now enjoy prosperity and peace, and the best citizens wanted the Americans to take possession.

The political prisoners were released at once. Rodolfo Figeroa was saved in the nick of time from being shot by the Spaniards. He was charged with having cut the telegraph wire between Ponce and San Juan the previous night. His purpose was to prevent the authorities in Ponce from sending to San Juan for reinforcements. He had been led from his cell to be executed, but when our ships entered the harbor the Spaniards, in their excitement, let him go, and Figeroa escaped. Some men who had been political prisoners for years were released.

The popular demonstrations continued all day. The natives were all in gala dress, and "open house" was kept for all Americans. Kindness and hospitality were unbounded. This outburst was not entirely the artifice of fear.

Three days before, Captain-General Macias, the Spanish commander-in-chief, had cabled to the Madrid cabinet that Porto Rico could not be defended. He said the populace was inclined to the Americans and could not be depended upon, and that his handful of 12,000 or 15,000 troops could not make an effective resistance.

This information caused the Sagasta government's pretences of war to collapse. Its most favored possession, Porto Rico, favorable to the enemy, Cuba inevitably lost, its fleet destroyed, its treasury bankrupt, and its expected friends in Europe unable to take a step, there was but one thing to do, if the Philippines were to be saved by hook or by crook. That one thing necessary was to sue for peace.

On the 26th of July, therefore, the Spanish government made overtures for peace. While General Miles was waiting in Ponce peace negotiations were pending, but there was to be no halt in the prosecution of his campaign.

The great central trans-Porto Rico highway runs from Ponce northeasterly to San Juan, through the towns of Juan Diaz, Coamo, and Aybonito, where it goes almost eastward to Cayey, there to take a winding course to the north as far as Caguas, where it turns west to Aguas Buenas, and then goes decidedly north to San Juan through Guayanabo and Rio Piedras, making in all a distance of about eighty-five miles. The distance from Ponce to San Juan in a straight line is only forty-five miles. The highway is a fine military road. Major-General Wilson was appointed Governor of Ponce, and the troops started next day for Juana Diaz. In two days, under American tariffs, the custom-house at Ponce yielded a revenue of $14,000. The natives were asking for American flags to hoist over the large buildings, a clear indication of the state of settled feeling about the new relations.

The campaign in Porto Rico lasted nineteen days, and was conducted upon military lines which were impossible at Santiago. When the Spaniards withdrew along the line of the great military road between Ponce and San Juan, they destroyed the bridges, obstructed the roads, and fortified strong positions in the mountain passes, and then were surprised to find that one column of our army was sweeping around the west end of the island, capturing the municipalities and towns, while another had passed over the mountains by a trail which the Spaniards had supposed impassable, and, therefore, had not fortified or guarded. The first the Spanish knew of the march of the American army was the appearance of a strong brigade within twenty miles of the northern coast, at the terminus of the railroad connecting San Juan with Arecibo. The actual objective of both movements was to capture San Juan, where the greatest force of the enemy gathered by retreat. There were not more than half a dozen encounters with the enemy, all mere skirmishes. The troops on the west coast, under General Brooke, were all regulars, while the main column that moved along the military road was composed of volunteers. These acted with courage and spirit throughout the whole march, and displayed the temper that would quickly convert them into veteran soldiers.

The campaign was ended without either movement being completed. But both were well in hand, and there is no doubt that they would have been thoroughly carried out to success. A few days more and General Schwan and General Henry, with their divisions, would have effected a junction at Arecibo, ready for a flank movement on the capital in the rear of the Spanish forces operating around Aybonito. These would have been driven from the latter position by General Wilson; and while there might have been found many points for a stand by the enemy, the only possible outcome would have been precipitate retreat by the Spanish to San Juan, or their capture.

"The island of Porto Rico," said General Miles, on his return, "was fairly won by the right of conquest, and became a part of the United States. The sentiment of the people was in no sense outraged by the invaders, but, on the contrary, was successfully propitiated. A people who have endured the severity of Spanish rule for four centuries hail with joy the protection of the Great Republic. One of the richest sections of country over which our flag now floats has been added and will be of lasting value to our nation, politically, commercially, and from a military or strategic point of view. The possession of that island also rendered any further resistance of the Spanish forces in Cuba hopeless."

General Miles remained in Porto Rico as long as he deemed his presence necessary for carrying out his instructions, and returning brought with him nearly 5,000 troops no longer required. There were about 12,000 troops left on the island for garrison purpose, a number considered ample for the duty.

The remarkable welcome given to Americans in this island might well be considered the death-blow to Spanish colonial rule. The least harassed of all Spain's possessions, the people were glad to escape her clutches. It was not surprising that Spanish soldiers in Cuba were eager to surrender and autonomist officials in some towns begged to have their municipalities included in Toral's surrender. At Manila it was not so much surrender to Americans that was dreaded, as the expectation of terrible retaliations from the insurgent natives who had been so cruelly oppressed. There had been no Porto Rican revolutions in recent times. But Cuba and the Philippines had written their histories in their own blood.

[When Spain perceived the hopelessness of further struggle overtures were made for peace. A protocol was drawn up, which through the medium of France, resulted in the formal submission of Spain to the terms ultimately stated in the treaty. The United States were in possession of Manila, which Spain contended should be restored to its former status. The destiny of the islands as fixed by the Peace Commissioners is sufficiently detailed in the final draft of the treaty of Paris, signed in December, 1898, which is given below in full, as frequent references to its terms occur in the pages which follow. General Merritt was ordered from Manila to Paris, as representing the United States army. Our Peace Commissioners were William R. Day, Cushman K. Davis, William P. Frye, George Gray and Whitelaw Reid. The Spanish Commissioners made a long struggle, and protracted their unhappy task for more than two months, using all arts of procrastination and persuasion, claiming that the United States should pay the Cuban debt, and striving for allowances of indemnity, but they yielded at last to the inevitable.]

Henry Watterson

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