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Irish Indentured Servants, Papists and Colonists in
Spanish Colonial Puerto Rico, ca. 1650-1800


By Jorge L. Chinea



Real Decreto de Gracias, 1815
(Puerto Rican Institute of Culture)

In 1729, the Jamaica Assembly passed an Act ‘to prevent dangers that may arise from disguised, as well as declared Papists’ (Great Britain, Board of Trade: 159). The measure responded to public statements by Irish servants to the effect that they would not fight the Spaniards in the event that they attacked Jamaica, and to their alleged secret correspondence with the Spaniards in Cuba (Headlam 1964, Governor Hunter to the Council of Trade and Plantations, 6 September 1729).

Following a pattern established by Amerindians, sea flight as a means to escape servitude became commonplace for both indentured servants and African captives (Fergus 1994: 25; Beckles 1985: 79-95; Handler 1997: 183-225). Ordinances in Saint Christopher (or Saint Kitts) penalised anyone who sailed off with servants without authorisation (An Abridgment of the Acts of Assembly… of St. Christopher 1740: 189-194). Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Cuba became popular destinations for the fugitives. The Spaniards often labelled the servants ingleses (English), but there can be little doubt that most such cases referred to the Irish. In 1657, two Dutch and two British Catholics, who claimed to have been held as slaves by the British in Saint Thomas, fled to Puerto Rico. So did the 21-year old Irish servant Joseph Marques in 1688, who absconded from the British Virgin Islands. Three more sought shelter in the western seaside town of Aguada in 1700. The anonymous inglés married to a Black female slave who led thirty-six African maroons and four Amerindian captives to Puerto Rico to request asylum in 1715 was probably Irish. In 1763 the Irish servant Diego Sky fled to Puerto Rico along with a British companion from Spanishtown, Jamaica (Chinea 1997).

At the beginning of the century, in 1701, alarmed by the frequency and magnitude of the maritime exodus, the Jamaica Assembly passed an Act ‘to prevent freemen, white servants, negroes and other slaves running away from this Island in shallops, boats, and other vessels. . . ‘(Headlam 1964: vol. 19, #1172). A decade later, Governor Hamilton reported that his counterpart in Santo Domingo sought to ‘inveigle several Irish Papists settled in H.M. colonies…alleadging it was for their interest to desert the tyranny these heretick Dogs exercis'd over them’ (Headlam 1964: vol. 26, #268). As late as 1768 the authorities in Cuba reported the arrival of Irish escapees from Jamaica (AGI-SD, Papeles de Cuba, leg. 1049).

Despite the antagonistic climate between England and Spain and the latter’s policy of harbouring and ‘freeing’ the Irish servants, Spain exercised strict control over foreign immigrants in a persistent, but unrealistic attempt to keep the riches of the Indies from falling in the hands of non-Hispanics. Although the Spanish Crown incorporated or collaborated with subjects from various parts of Europe — for example, Austrians, Italians, and French — the laws of the Indies strictly forbade foreigners from settling or trading in Spanish America (Chinea 2002). However, many non-Iberians slipped past these prohibitions. Some had become hispanicised prior to or after their arrival in the Americas. Keeping track of their whereabouts in such a vast empire, particularly as they moved about within and outside their first points of destination, was next to impossible. Some blended easily into their host societies, stayed out of the way, or built familial and economic ties with subjects of Spain in the Indies, further obstructing their detection, apprehension, and deportation (Chinea 2002).

Since ‘foreigners’ hailed from diverse social classes and occupational backgrounds, these factors often helped determine how they fared in the Spanish American colonies. Researchers who write about them in monolithic terms fail to account for these important differences. To be sure, there were several distinct ‘waves’ of Irish migrants in the Caribbean. Irish servants who sought asylum in Puerto Rico often came with little more than their shirts on their backs and gratefully repaid their Spanish hosts in a variety of ways. Like African maroons, some willingly provided valuable information about the military conditions of Spain’s European rivals. Others joined the local Spanish militia or navy. They also arrived at a time, roughly from the 1650s to the 1760s, when Puerto Rico was sparsely populated and in dire need of extra hands for its defence. During the course of previous research on maritime maroons during this period, I found no evidence that any servant was ever returned to their Danish, Dutch, French or British ‘masters’ (Chinea 1997).

By contrast, Irish immigrants whose presence in Puerto Rico, or in other Spanish American territories for that matter, the colonial authorities viewed as a real or likely mercantilist breach, were generally unwelcome. Several times between 1686 and 1701, the Spanish Crown denied Flemish and Irish families authorisation to settle in Hispaniola. In this instance, their potential infringement on the Spanish American trade in a colony already heavily involved in contraband was a major reason for turning them down (Gutiérrez Escudero 1983: 58-61). The same principle applied to Puerto Rico, as typified by Governor Miguel de Muesas’s 1770 deportation of the Irish illegal immigrant, Thomas Fitzgerald. An investigation tied him to illegal trade in the southern district of Humacao. Daniel O’Flaherti was also arrested and charged with smuggling goods, but managed to escape before he could be legally tried (Feliciano Ramos 1984: 90-94).

Late eighteenth-century developments in Trinidad, located just off South America, reveal another variation of the Spanish Crown’s ambiguous position with respect to foreign immigration in its American colonies. As in much of the Hispanic Caribbean, Trinidad was thinly settled and deeply implicated in illegal trading. Spanish imperial planners had few options to choose from in addressing conditions in the marginal colony. Since Trinidad lacked mineral wealth and its economy was stagnant, Spanish immigrants preferred to settle elsewhere. Relinquishing it to European foes was not practical, since Trinidad was part of a chain of Caribbean defensive posts extending from Florida to northern South America (Morales Carrión 1976: 26-7).

Under these circumstances, settlement by selected foreigners from friendly, Catholic countries became a viable alternative for revitalising Trinidad’s languishing economy. Colonists from the French Caribbean and later Irish residing in Danish-held Saint Croix, especially those with slaves and desirable plantation-applicable trades, were enticed to relocate to Trinidad. Land and other incentives were granted to them to make the offer attractive (Joseph 1970: 158-167; Borde 1982: 153-207).

This marked shift from excluding to luring foreign immigrants responded to Charles III’s military, fiscal and administrative overhaul of the Spanish American empire. In essence the Bourbon reforms, as some of these changes became known collectively, aimed to boost royal revenues and bring peripheral regions of the Indies into closer alignment with Spanish imperial goals. In the late 1760s, the monarch had recruited immigrants from Germany, France, Switzerland and Greece to colonise deserted regions in Spain, including the southern region of Sierra Morena (Hull 1980: 167-8; Lynch 1989: 213-4).

Although results were mixed, these migrants persuaded the Crown to lessen restrictions on foreign colonisation in Spanish America. The selection of Trinidad in 1776 sought to test out the idea in a colony considered among the least profitable and most militarily vulnerable of the Spanish Antilles. The ‘experiment’ succeeded economically as Trinidad experienced a remarkable agrarian boom over the following two decades. But it was not accompanied by any significant improvements in the island’s defensive capability, an oversight that cost Spain the colony when the British easily took over it in 1797 (Newson 1979: 139; 147).

Irish Settlers during the Transition to Commercial Agriculture in Puerto Rico

With a population in 1776 estimated at around 70,000 inhabitants and growing, Puerto Rico did not desperately need as large an infusion of foreign immigrants as Trinidad. When contemporary observers recommended that immigrants settle it, they invariably hoped to attract colonists with capital, skills or slaves capable of converting Puerto Rico’s agricultural wealth into cash crops. The Bourbons agreed in principle, but made no effort to go beyond what they had done for Trinidad. Instead, they focused mainly on increasing mercantile ties between the peninsula and the Hispanic Caribbean through the 1778 comercio libre (free trade) policy. They also promoted the importation of African captives via slave trade contracts and special permits.

Neither initiative had the desired impact on Puerto Rico, which continued to linger on the fringes of the Hispanic American economy for much of the eighteenth century. Also launched in 1778, one reformist measure that seemed promising was the re-appropriation and reallocation of all state-owned land among farmers. A special dispensation was simultaneously granted to landowners: they were allowed to contract a fixed number of agricultural specialists from the nearby non-Hispanic Caribbean to assist them in establishing and running their plantations.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Chinea, Jorge L., 'Irish Indentured Servants, Papists and Colonists in Spanish Colonial Puerto Rico, ca. 1650-1800' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 171-182. Available online (, accessed .


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