The Country in 1900
The First Annual Report of Charles H. Allen, Governor of Porto Rico to Honorable William McKinley in 1901 is a treasure of information on the period, a crucial clue to understanding the turning into a new culture and a chance to study a fascinating character. Charles Herbert Allen was the first civilian to be named to administer the territory; son of a well to do family from Lowell Massachusetts, educated in the best public and private schools. He was elected to the House and Senate of his state and served a term in Congress, he was part of the Penal Commission and named assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, before he was appointed governor of Porto Rico.
The Report gives us an excellent summary of the times regarding population, health, government and the economy; it also helps to understand why the civil servant turned into financier. The governor makes clear where he is heading and the task at hand:
“The peculiar situation of the Island, acquired by a treaty that left the entire country and its people, with its government, laws and customs in the hands of the United States Congress, to make of it what it deemed proper and correct, had no parallel in the previous history of our country, who was trusted with the organization of a new government.
It was reported in Washington that in Porto Rico it would be difficult to appoint adequate persons to fulfill important positions. The problem was to find competent civilians who would take upon these duties temporarily.”
The local vision of the country Allen was made clear in his inauguration by the Honorable José Severo Quiñonez, Chief Justice of the Islands Supreme Court.
“It is my duty honorable sir, one agreeable and congenial, for being a native of this land, genuinely concerned with its well being and progress, I cannot see with indifference the triumph of modern ideas.
With heart and soul I join my people in welcoming you in this memorable day, saluting you as the envoy of the great American people with the mission to establish a new system that inaugurates this country in an era of prosperity and wealth, serving as preparatory school, so that in a not distant future the door of the Capitol in Washington opens to us as full citizens of the American Nation.
You have been informed, no doubt, of the serious financial situation that prevails throughout the land, among other things due to the terrible hurricane August 8 the past year, that caused thousands of victims, devastated the fields, and destroyed plantations, leaving death, desolation and horror everywhere.
With agriculture ruined in a great portion of the Island, with commerce languid in detente, and poverty threatening with misery and hunger, you arrive in time to apply remedies to so many evils.
Much has been done during military government, but a lot remains to be done to attend the most pressing issues, relief to the poor, construction of highways and schools, and labor for the working class so they can sustain themselves.
On closing, honorable sir, I want to wish you, in the name of the people of Porto Rico, all kinds of happiness during your stay in the Island; and when your mission is done, you return to your country with the satisfaction of complying with your devoted duty in all activities, leading the best efforts of your talent to improve the moral and material conditions of this country, so this country can turn into a free proud state within the great federation of North America.”
The 1899 census reveals a population of 953 thousand inhabitants, of which 941 were natives of the Island, 11, 492 were foreigners. 61.8% of the population was reported as white, 38% mixed, and 59 thousand colored. The population grew from 583 thousand in 1860, to 722 thousand in 1877, and 806 thousand in 1887. The density of the population raised concern, for it was the highest in the Caribbean. There was hardly any migration at the time.
The prevailing diseases were anemia, tuberculosis, dysentery and malaria. The first undoubtedly caused by poor habits of the poor classes, impure water and the low quality of nourishment they subsist, specially since the hurricane in 1899. Tuberculosis is product of crowding in damp rooms poorly ventilated in which poor people live. Waste disposal does not seem to have had serious though by municipal authorities.
The 1899 school population was 322 thousand children, of which 46 thousand were in schools, only 8%, 284 thousand were not receiving any education. illiteracy was calculated in 79% of the population older than 10 years of age. Teachers earned 75, 60, 50 and 40 dollars monthly, depending on the grade they taught.
The main source of work was agriculture, this employed half the labor force, 198 thousand people were active in 2,336 sugar cane plantations of an average of 35 acres, 935 of them owned by the farmers. Manufacturing was scarce with low volume factories producing matches, soap and shoes.
The new government started with $296,000 in the bank. The urgency to establish a tax system with mechanisms to collect was a priority. The treasurer and the auditor were the first appointments that led to increase monthly income from 20 to 51 thousand dollars.
A crucial detail in the change of sovereignty was the coin, from parity the peso was devalued to be worth 60 cents on the dollar, it led to numerous bankruptcies and the possibility to acquire property at a fraction of its cost. Commerce was considered in a infant stage. in 1887 there were 18 million dollars in exports and 17 million imported, when the notion of balance of payments prevailed.
After 20 months of military government, imports exceeded exports BY 16 to 13 million dollars, considering the fact that the Spaniards left the Treasury empty and the need to import to provide for the losses caused by the hurricane. After a year of civil government the commercial exchange was reduced to 8 million dollars in imports and 6 million in exports, with a 2.2 million DOLLARS deficit. In that period the imports form US began to exceed other countries that traded with the Island.
The Island had a shortage of roads with only 255 paved kilometers; the train rails had 254 kilometers of tracks set. The development of roads ad tracks was one of the areas where Allen developed initiatives to favor banks and contractors that benefited, establishing corruption since the first governor.
Regarding the commercial balance, the governor made a memorable commentary: “It is noteworthy that since the occupation imports have exceed exports causing unnecessary alarm. The movement of the commercial aggregate is the true indicator of prosperity; The formation of credit and investments to pay the debt.
There are two causes that contribute to the Islands situation, both based on goodness and charity. The first is the scarce gathering of tribute due to the devastation left by the hurricane and the second, the suppression of laws that facilitate closing mortgages. It was understood that the duty of the civil government was to let as briefly as possible that mortgages would be collected promptly and that everybody with enough means to pay were expected to comply with del duty to contribute to the government.” It is to be noted that credit and capital was what Allen denied the local economy.
The governor also states: “There has always been poverty and despair in this as in other tropical islands and, thinking of it, it is not surprising. When nature has done so much for man and requires so little of him, the problem of subsistence requires a very moderate energy to attain practical solutions… A policy of no work no rations was established promptly, apparently with good results through out the Island. It was soon clear that denouncing poverty was made more for political effect that on the needs based on prevailing conditions.”
The quotes clearly suggest that charity and generosity were not very much in the mind of the first governor, adding to the condescending vision that we are lazy and unproductive because we live in the Garden of Eden. It was therefore part of the civilizing duty and white mans burden to squeeze every penny and install the work ethics. The classic vision that has defined colonialist and colonialism, the vision that serves to enhance the benevolence of the foreigner and devalue self worth. Pretending protective paternalism while being ruthless and abusive were the founding stones of the first civil government in their way to rule the land.
Not included in the report are some of our most valuable assets. Al the time of the Invasion, Puerto Rico had its own currency, electric service, schools of pharmacy and crafts, a faculty in chemistry and physics, professional associations (lawyers and newsmen), distinguished scientist (Agustin Stahl), poets (Jose Gautier Benitez) and patriots (Lola Rodriguez de Tio) among others. Rudimentary, not to be denied, but we had a road and communications system that included telephones and telegraphs, postal offices with its own stamps, And 72 towns. We had developed instruments (cuatro), had our music (danza) and foremost composer (Morral Campos) and a star in la Scala de Milan (Antonio Paoli). There were newspapers, journals and bookstores as well as world class products of coffee, sugar, tobacco and ginger.
So, not all was poverty and strife. They were far from easy times, but a closer look that goes beyond pragmatic utility and focuses more broadly, yields solid evidence that at the time, we had a national identity and a flourishing culture, oppressed by 400 years of military rule that had just acquired autonomy from Spain. And then we were turned into spoils.
The agricultural credit is the topic of the next part.
Copyright 2015 by José M. Umpierre. All photos in the public domain.