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Slavery in Puerto Rico

   A Bit of History

The first Africans in Puerto Rico arrived with Columbus in 1493, although the slave trade was not authorized until 1513. Many free blacks, mainly from Seville, emigrated, searching for better opportunities.  They were mainly "ladinos", who came to serve as domestic servants.

Many of the slaves who came to Puerto Rico were from Congo (Mayombe religions such as "Palo Monte" were an intrinsic part of Puerto Rico's early spiritualist history before Allan Kardec ), the Ashanti, Yoruba and Bantu tribes [2]. In all, 31 known African tribes were brought to the island from Central and West Africa through the slave trade.

Numerous revolts, conspiracies, and individual escapes occurred in different municipalities.  For example, between 1795 and 1848, twenty two conspiracies were reported.  As an example, in 1821 the slave Marcos Xiorro revolted without success but achieved legendary status among the slaves.

Leaders of the Puerto Rican abolitionists movement, including Jose Julian Acosta, Francisco Mariano Quiñones, Julio L. de Vizcarrondo, Ramon Emeterio Betances and Segundo Ruiz Belvis, waged a long struggle to end slavery on the island.  The last enslaved Africans who came to the island were relatively young and came from Ghana, Nigeria and Zaire (now a days Republic of Congo).

Law abolishing slavery in the island of
 Puerto Rico - Gaceta de Madrid;
 26 Mar 1873, No. 85

  On March 22, 1873, the Spanish National Assembly finally abolished slavery in Puerto Rico.  The owners were compensated with 35 million pesetas per slave, and slaves were required to continue working for three more years. It is said that smuggling of slaves continued on Puerto Rico and Cuba into the early 1880's.

The year 1876 was important for the former slaves (libertos) of Puerto Rico because it was 3 years after the abolition and it was also the expiration of the 3 year labor contracts that they were obligated to sign when slavery was abolished.  The libertos were now issued identification papers (Cédulas de Vecindad) and were instructed in the use of a surname of their choice. Many selected the name of their former owner.

Researching ancestors who were slaves may be one of the toughest tasks a genealogist can face. But if you have hit a brick wall, don't give up just yet. While records may be sparse or difficult to find, you may still be able to trace your family line back beyond those years of slave ownership.

   Bits and Pieces

Puerto Rican Planter with house slave, ca. 1808

Source: John A. Waller, A Voyage in the West Indies (London, 1820), facing page 33. Caption, "A Spanish planter in Porto Rico, luxuriating in his hammock." Waller, a surgeon in the British Navy, briefly visited Puerto Rico in May 1808.

  • Barrio Juan Domingo in Guaynabo, PR is one of the poorest communities of this municipality.  This barrio was founded by free slaves in the middle of the XIX century.  Some of today's residents are direct descendants of those slaves.  El Nuevo Dia Newspaper, 16 May 2002
  • The Central Slave Registry (Registro Central de Esclavos) of 1872 can be reviewed in microfilm format at any of the LDS Family History Centers as well as at the Centro de Investigaciones Históricas at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras.  The Archivo General de Puerto Rico have 8 of the 9 volumes and according to Benjamin Nistal, the ninth volume is in the National Archives in Washington, DC. These nine volumes holds information of the around 30,000 slaves who resided in Puerto Rico at that time.
  • At the Archivo Histórico de Ponce, you can review the original Ponce Slave Registry of 1852. It is in excellent condition.
  • The author of the book "La Esclavitud Urbana en San Juan" mentions the existence of two censuses that even tough I have not seen, I suggest to anyone doing San Juan research to check further.  They are located at the Archivo General de Puerto Rico (AGPR) and are mentioned as the 1846 San Juan Census and the 1840 Padrón General de Almas (census) for San Juan.
  • The Archivo Histórico de Caguas holds a box of Slave census from 1867-1873.
  • The "Libro de Contratos de Libertos de San Juan", two volumes for the years 1873-1876. The AGPR have one of the volumes, the first which apparently is the one that have more information.  The location of the second volume is not known.
  Slavery Through Images!

Voyage of Cruelty -  Plan for "stowage" in a boat for the transport of the slaves in greater numbers.
 Many people died during the voyage, the victims of terrible mistreatment.  They were whipped,
forced fed, stowed in crowded space and suicide attempts occurred daily. XIX century lithography.

Diagram of an 1820's slave ship

Slave transport in Africa

Auction of three slaves, 1833
Slave Chains and Whip

Cuban Newspaper, La Havana, 1839

Gaceta de Puerto Rico, 18 May 1826

Diario de la Marina,
Cuban newspaper, 3 Feb 1846

The aborigines of Porto Rico
 and neighboring islands,
by Jesse Walter Fewkes, 1907

Free slaves in Puerto Rico, 1898

Indemnity bond paid as compensation
 to former owners of freed slaves.

Some slaves from Coamo

Slave taking care of a white child

Central Rufina
Mario Mercado e Hijos

La Lavandera by Francisco Oller
ca. 1887-1888
   Glossary of Terms
   [relating to the slave trade]

Hacienda de Miguel Marquez Enseñat
Bo. Latorre, Lares, 1882

Hacienda de Cafe
Barrios de Indiera Alta Bartolo
Maricao-Lares PR

These tokens were commonly known as riles, name derived from the word reales, a Spanish monetary unit. Other names were chapas (caps or tags), almudes and vales (vouchers).

With these riles, farmers paid their laborers who then redeemed them at the plantation store. These stores called  "Tiendas de Raya" usually owned by the hacendado.

  • Agregados: Campesinos que vivían en las tierras de un propietario sin ser parientes de este, ni haber efectuado con el ningún contrato de arrendamiento o trabajo.
  • Arrendatario: Trabajador sin tierra que arrendaba una porción de terreno para su cultivo.
  • Bozales: aquellos negros importados directamente de África, con completo desconocimiento de la cultural occidental
  • Carabali: Dícese de los esclavos negros de la región africana de Calabar que eran poco estimados por su carácter indómito.
  • Cimarron: esclavo que teniendo dueño, se huía al monte y se convertían en montaraces.
  • Ladino: En Puerto Rico se le llamaba así al negro esclavo, que por efecto de su contacto con los españoles, habían adquirido alguna de las cualidades y defectos del hombre blanco.
  • Liberto: Persona que habiendo nacido esclavo, lograba luego su libertad.
  • Mestizo: hijos de indias y españoles
  • Mulato: hijos de negras esclavas y de españoles
  • Mulato lobo: hijos producto del cruce de pardo con indio
  • Mulato Morisco: hijos que nacen del cruce de blancos con mulata blanca. Morisco también se llamaba en el siglo XVI a los esclavos mahometanos del norte de África.
  • Mulato prieto: resultado de la mezcla de negro y mulata parda
  • Pardo: hijos producto de la mezcla de negro e india, o viceversa.
  • Zambo: ver Pardo

Slave Registry Document
[Cédula o Registro de Esclavos]
Each slave had to carry with him this document
that described the holder and the owners name.

Here are some graphics for the following slave owners:

  1. Carranza, Jose B.
  2. Casellas, Bonocio
  3. Fernandez Vanga, A
  4. Goicuria, Antonio
  5. Sres. C. F. (Carlos Federico) Storer & Co.
  6. Torres, Francisco de
   Items available on this site:

Reading Room!
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   Suggested Reading and References

  • Antepasados Esclavos [Offsite link]
  • Cadenas de Esclavitud y de Solidaridad/Esclavos y Libertos en San Juan, siglo XIX, Mayo Santana/Negrón Portillo/Mayo López, 1997
  • Sugar and Slavery in Puerto Rico, 1815-1849: Plantation Economy of Ponce,1800-1850; Francisco Scarano
  • El Proceso Abolicionista en Puerto Rico: Documentos para su Estudio, Vol. II, CIH, ICP, 1978
  • Historia de la esclavitud negra en Puerto Rico, Luis M. Diaz Soler, 1953
  • Auge y decadencia de la trata negrera en Puerto Rico 820-1860, Arturo Morales Carrion, 1978
  • La Esclavitud Urbana en San Juan, Mariano Negron Portillo/Raul Mayo Santana; 1992
  • Esclavos Rebeldes: conspiraciones y sublevaciones de esclavos en Puerto Rico, 1815-1849, Guillermo A. Baralt
  • La Mujer Negra en la Literatura Puertorriqueña; Marie Ramos Rosado; UPR; 1999

Last Update May 6, 2012
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