San Juan, Puerto Rico, is one of the most historic cities in the New World, first explored and settled within fifteen years after Columbus’ monumental first voyage. It has been the scene of many historic events, from naval battles to pirate attacks. Today, the city is embracing its long and fascinating history and is considered a top Caribbean tourism destination.
The first settlement on the island of Puerto Rico was Caparra, founded in 1508 by Juan Ponce de León, a Spanish explorer and conquistador best remembered for his quixotic quest to find the Fountain of Youth in sixteenth-century Florida. Caparra was unsuitable for a long-term settlement, however, and the settlers were soon moved to an island a short distance to the east, to the present site of Old San Juan.
Rise to Importance:
The new city of San Juan Batista de Puerto Rico quickly became famous for having a good location and port, and it quickly rose to importance in the colonial administration. Alonso Manso was named bishop of Puerto Rico in 1511, and was the first bishop to arrive in the Americas. It became the first ecclesiastical headquarters for the New World, and served as the first base for the Inquisition as well. By 1530, barely 20 years after it had been founded, San Juan was home to a university, a hospital and a library.
It did not take long for the city to come to the attention of Spain’s rivals in Europe. The first attack on the island took place in 1528, when the French razed several outlying settlements, leaving only San Juan. San Felipe del Morro, a formidable castle, was begun in 1539. In 1595, Sir Francis Drake and his men attacked the island but were driven off. In 1598, however, George Clifford and his force of English privateers managed to capture the island, remaining for several months before being driven off by illness and local resistance. It was the only time El Morro castle was ever captured by an invading force.
The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries:
San Juan declined somewhat after its initial importance, as wealthier cities such as Lima and Mexico City thrived under the colonial administration. It continued to be important, however, as a strategic military location and port, and the island produced significant sugarcane and ginger crops. It also became known for breeding fine horses, prized by Spanish conquistadors campaigning on the mainland. Dutch pirates attacked in 1625, capturing the city but not the fort. In 1797, A British fleet of approximately 60 ships attempted to take San Juan but failed in what is known on the island as “The Battle of San Juan.”
The Nineteenth Century :
Puerto Rico, as a small and relatively conservative Spanish colony, did not participate in the independence movements of the early nineteenth century. As the armies of Bolívar and San Martín swept across South America liberating new nations, royalist refugees loyal to the Spanish crown flocked to Puerto Rico. Liberalization of some Spanish policies – such as granting freedom of religion in the colony in 1870, encouraged immigration from other parts of the world, and Spain was able to keep Puerto Rico until 1898.
The Spanish-American War:
The city of San Juan played a minor role in the Spanish-American War, which broke out in early 1898. The Spanish had fortified San Juan, but did not anticipate the American tactic of landing troops at the western end of the island. Because many of the Puerto Ricans did not oppose a change of administration, the island basically surrendered after a few skirmishes. Puerto Rico was ceded to the Americans under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War. Although San Juan had been bombarded for a time by American warships, the city had suffered relatively little damage during the conflict.
The Twentieth Century:
The first few decades under American rule were mixed for the city. Although some industry was developed, a series of hurricanes and the Great Depression had a profound effect on the economy of the city and the island in general. This grim economic situation led to a small but determined independence movement and a great deal of emigration from the island. Most emigrants from Puerto Rico in the 1940’s and 1950’s went to New York City in search of better jobs, and the city still is home to a great many citizens of Puerto Rican descent. The US Army moved out of El Morro Castle in 1961.
San Juan Today:
Today, San Juan is a booming tourism destination. Old San Juan has been extensively renovated, and sights like the El Morro castle are very popular. American tourists flock to San Juan because it’s a little piece of the Caribbean but they don’t need a visa to go there: it is American soil. In 1983 the old city defenses, including the castle, were declared a World Heritage Site. The old section of the city is home to many museums, reconstructed colonial-era buildings, churches, convents and more. There are excellent beaches very close to the city, and El Condado neighborhood is home to top-notch resorts. There are several areas of interest within a couple of hours from the city, including rainforests, a cave complex, and many more beaches. It is the official home port of many major cruise ships as well.
San Juan is also a booming industrial center. It is one of the most important ports in the Caribbean, and has facilities for oil refining, sugar processing, brewing, pharmaceuticals and more. Naturally, Puerto Rico is well known for rum, much of which is produced in San Juan.