African Slaves in Puerto Rico

postcard circa 1900 ponce




For the past month, I’ve been busy with the final stage of edits of my historical novel, A Decent Woman, set in turn of the century Puerto Rico. So busy, in fact, my weekly blogging had to take a back seat to adding new chapters and book marketing business; all necessary to put out the best possible book we can!

The new publication date for my novel is set for Fall 2014 with Booktrope.

This blog post about African slaves in Puerto Rico is a very important piece of my story as the main protagonist of  A Decent Woman, the midwife and healer Ana Belen, was born a slave with family roots in the Yoruba tribe in Africa. Ana’s parents are captured in Africa and sent to Cuba to work as slaves on a sugarcane plantation where Ana is born and lives until her 20th birthday when she flees Cuba for Puerto Rico under tragic circumstances.

Before I wrote my novel, I knew of Puerto Rico’s  rich African and Spanish history that contributed greatly to our culture. I imagined the lives of slaves in Puerto Rico was as impossibly difficult and raw as the lives of slaves on other West Indian islands and the United States, but I wasn’t prepared for the numbers. After my research, it became clear how African slaves greatly influenced and contributed to our music, art, language, and heritage, forming the foundation of Puerto Rican culture. As the majority of conquistadors and immigrant farmers who settled the island arrived without women, most took Taino Indian or African women as wives, and the offspring, mestizos and mulatos, became the racial and ethnic basis of the Puerto Rican people.

According to historians, the first free black men to set foot on Puerto Rico in 1509 were conquistador Juan Garrido and Pedro Mejías, members of Juan Ponce de Leon’s entourage on their voyage to the New World. Unlike other immigrants to the island, the migration of Africans to Puerto Rico was entirely the result of the slave trade. Africans from the Bantu and Dahomey tribes in the Guineas, and from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, were brought to the island to build fortifications and work in the fields. By 1530, the number of slaves in Puerto Rico reached 1,500 – 12 slaves per land owner. By 1555, the numbers reached 15,000.

Much like slavery in the United States and the West Indies, slaves were branded, forced to work in extreme conditions and temperatures, and forced to convert to Catholicism. On June 25, 1835, Queen María Cristina abolished the slave trade to Spanish colonies. Spain ceded the island to the United States after the Spanish-American War and the Americans invaded Puerto Rico in 1899.

My historical novel, A Decent Woman, begins at the turn of the century, a most difficult and dangerous time for all Puerto Ricans, especially for the women living and working in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

I hope you will join me for my next blog post on midwifery and healing practices on the island of Puerto Rico. Thanks for your visit!


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