The history of Puerto Ricans of African descent begins with the immigration of African free men called libertos, who accompanied the invading Spanish Conquistadors. The Spaniards enslaved the Taínos (the native inhabitants of the island), and many of them died as a result of Spaniards’ oppressive colonization efforts. This presented a problem for Spain’s royal government, which relied on slavery to staff their mining and fort-building operations. Spain’s ‘solution’ was to import enslaved West Africans. As a result, the majority of the African peoples who entered Puerto Rico did so as a result of the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade, coming from many different societies of the African continent.
When the gold mines in Puerto Rico were declared depleted, the Spanish Crown no longer held Puerto Rico as a high colonial priority. It was used as a garrison to support naval vessels. Africans from British and French possessions in the Caribbean were encouraged to emigrate to Puerto Rico, thereby providing a population base to support the Puerto Rican garrison. The Spanish decree of 1789 allowed the slaves to earn or buy their freedom, however this did little to help their situation. The expansion of sugar cane plantations drove up demand for slaves and their population increased dramatically. Throughout the years, there were many slave revolts in the island. Slaves who were promised their freedom joined the 1868 uprising against Spanish colonial rule in what is known as the “Grito de Lares“. On March 22, 1873, slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico. The contributions of ethnic Africans to the music, art, language, and heritage have been instrumental to Puerto Rican culture.