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BRIEF HISTORY OF VIEQUES

by Wanda Bermúdez, 1998

The name, Vieques, comes from the Indian word Bieque, small island. The little we know about the pre-Columbian inhabitants is derived from archaeological findings.

 

The most important to date is the one at La Hueca where artifacts made in amethyst, agate, turquoise and jadeite were found. The most remarkable were shaped like South American condors.The Indians inhabiting the Island when Columbus arrived in 1493 were Tainos. Two brave brother Caciques in Vieques, Cacimar and Yaureibo, lead separate revolts against the Spaniards. They were soon defeated and killed. What was left of the Indian population was reduced to slavery and taken to Puerto Rico.



Once the Indians were expelled from the Island, a succession of attempted colonizations by the English, French and Danish failed. The Puerto Rico Spaniards drove them out every time. In some old English maps Vieques is named Crab Island. In between the attempted colonizations, the Island was used by pirates to re-supply their ships. There was abundant shellfish, fish, birds, and timber.

The Spaniards finally decided to colonize Vieques during the first half of the 19th century. In 1843 the municipality was established and construction of the Fort was begun. The first governor was Don Teofilo Jaime Maria LeGuillou, a Frenchman. At the time Vieques was independent from Puerto Rico. During the second half of the 19th century, Vieques saw a great economic boom driven by the sugar industry. Black slaves were brought in from the neighbor British islands. Several Centrales (mills) were in operation. Their names were eventually adopted for the barrios: Playa Grande, Santa Maria, Puerto Real, Esperanza. By the time the USA took over the island in 1898, after the Hispanic American War, there were 4 big Centrales. Sugar milling made a few families rich while most of the population worked on the fields. The workers were very impoverished and worked under very harsh conditions. After the general strike of 1915, working conditions improved greatly.


US Navy ship lands on Vieques beach during practice on Feb 18, 1948.
Foto from Navy archives.

When the Navy arrived in 1941, there were 10,362 inhabitants in Vieques and 8,000 tons of sugar were produced that year. The Navy expropriated two thirds of the total land, including most of the land used for farming. La Central Playa Grande did the last milling in 1942. During the first couple of years after the Navy arrived, there were plenty of jobs in Vieques in the construction of the bases. People came from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to work in Vieques. When construction was over the workers left. When the dust had settled, 3,000 of the 9,000 inhabitants of Vieques had been relocated to St. Croix. The rest were settled in the areas of Santa Maria and Monte Santo in Vieques. There was no sugar and no base construction left to do. The government of Puerto Rico tried, between 1945 and the 1960's, to re-establish an agricultural economy in what was left of the civilian section of Vieques but failed. Between 1960 and 1970 the economy shifted from agriculture to manufacture, being the General Electric plant the most consistent source of employment. The plant was established in 1969 and is still in operation.

The population in Vieques has not changed much through the decades and still remains close to 10,000. Unemployment runs high. College bound kids seldom come back to live in Vieques but you can usually find them visiting the Island around summer. At the present time there is some development of the tourism industry. There are more small hotels and restaurants in Vieques than ever before. There is even a mega resort under construction. Many residents make a living out of renting their properties to tourists. This new industry has brought along a new influx of residents from the continental USA.

Development of any kind will be limited as long as the Navy keeps control of two thirds of the total Island. Some people like it this way so that the natural beauty of some beaches in the military side is preserved. Other people protest the bombing of the beaches beyond tourist's reach, the consequences to the ecology and the health of the population, the destruction of archaeological sites, and the restricted access to the beautiful resources on the bases.

Bibliography:

Vieques en la Historia de Puerto Rico by Dr. Juan Amedee Bonnet Benitez
Vieques:History of a Small Island by Elizabeth Langhorne
Vieques Antiguo y Moderno by J. Pastor Ruiz

History of the Navy in Vieques

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