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

By Jorge L. Chinea



View of San Felipe del Morro from across San Juan bay
(M. Schnitzler 2000)


The historical treatment of Irish Catholics by the English and British governments has been the subject of much examination, but systematic research on the social, economic, and political impact of Irish refugees who sought asylum in Spain and Latin America at various times since the sixteenth century has only recently drawn the attention of scholars. The Irish experience in Spanish colonial Puerto Rico is no exception. Puerto Rican historiography acknowledges the presence of a handful of Irish planters in the late eighteenth century, but provides few clues about those who came before or after that time (Picó 1986: 142). Nor are the ‘push’ factors that might help explain why they came to the island discussed at any length. This essay seeks to bridge this gap by linking the Irish diaspora to a long history of Anglo-Spanish rivalry both in Europe and the West Indies. In doing so, it also aims to show how changes in Spain’s colonial priorities impacted on Irish immigration in Puerto Rico. Three numerically small but significant Irish ‘waves’ are identified and briefly examined in the context of Spain’s foreign immigration policy: indentured servants around the middle of the seventeenth century; illegal traders in the early 1700s; and Irish farmers, artisans and soldiers during the late Bourbon period, c. 1750-1815.

Anglo-Spanish Rivalry in the Caribbean

Inter-imperial competition between Spain and England over New World resources characterised the first four hundred years of the post-Columbian era. Initially, Spain (or more properly, Castille) claimed the entire American region as its exclusive Catholic domain, but by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas (a Hispano-Portuguese treaty that divided the ‘New World’ in half between the two powers), Portugal had managed to ‘legalise’ its colonial occupation of Brazil. From the perspective of both Portugal and Spain, non-Iberian Europeans who dared set foot in the region were considered intruders. However, the logistical difficulties of settling such a vast realm eventually compelled Spain to concentrate on the mineral enclaves of Mesoamerica and the Andean world. Less economically promising areas were abandoned, left to their native inhabitants, or used as refuelling stations for the carrera de Indias, that is, the transatlantic voyage to the Americas.

Spain’s European challengers targeted these weak links for exploration, plunder and ultimately colonisation, starting in the Lesser Antilles and expanding into the Bahamas, Jamaica, western Hispaniola, the Mosquito bay, and the Atlantic shores of North America in the course of the seventeenth century. As they established themselves there, they turned to smuggling European goods into Spanish dominions in exchange for their mineral wealth, pearls and exotic tropical products. As soon as commercial sugar production began in earnest in the non-Hispanic Caribbean, they also bartered for beasts of burden, provisions and timber. Spain’s inability to satisfy the growing demand in the Indies for alcoholic beverages, textiles, industrial equipment, weapons and even slaves stimulated this clandestine activity. The encroachment often escalated into state-commissioned piracy and various other armed conflicts, including the pillaging of settlements, naval warfare and the capture of American territories that each European polity claimed to ‘own’. By the eighteenth century, these struggles had reduced Iberian hegemony in the Caribbean to Cuba, Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico and Trinidad. England, France, Denmark and Holland continued to battle amongst each other for the spoils (Morales Carrión 1974).

Of the large areas of American soil that fell into English hands, none became more important than the sugar-growing regions. Commercial sugar production was introduced into the Spanish Antilles and spread out to the mainland, especially on the Atlantic seashores of Mexico and Brazil. It began replacing tobacco as the principal economic pursuit in the eastern Caribbean in the 1640s in places like Barbados, where the phrase ‘Barbadian planter’ became synonymous with wealth and power. In 1655 England seized Spanish Jamaica and opened it up to colonisation by its subjects from Europe and the Americas.

The centre of English piratical raids against the Spanish Main, Cuba and Hispaniola, Jamaica underwent a gradual transformation into a flourishing sugar island, starting around 1700. The sugar planters of the expanded British Caribbean commanded a great deal of power at home. Organised into a dominant political force known as the West Indian lobby, they did their best to keep England from acquiring new American territories where sugar could be grown profitably. They also supported policies designed to curtail smuggled sugar and its by-products — rum and molasses — from entering England from British North America (Alonso and Flores 1998: 38-43). New Englanders had been bartering for these and other tropical products in the West Indies since the middle of the seventeenth century (Williams 1970: 164-66).

England’s loss of its North American colonies following the American Revolutionary War altered this state of affairs by triggering renewed British territorial expansion in the Americas. One of its targets would be Puerto Rico. Relatively large when compared to its eastern neighbours and ideally suited for large-scale sugar cultivation, the Spanish colony was a thorn in the side of the British West Indian lobby. Puerto Rican buccaneers frequently attacked British vessels and raided the seaside settlements and plantations across the Lesser Antilles. Puerto Rico is a short distance away from the former British Caribbean colonies of Tortola, Antigua, Virgin Gorda, Saint Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat. Before 1800 much of its coastline had been largely unguarded and its interior thickly forested. These conditions attracted countless fugitive slaves fleeing their British captors, depriving them of valuable labour (Morales Carrión 1974; Chinea 1997). British Caribbean planters desperately sought to cut their losses by pressuring England to confront the Spaniards on this issue. Those from colonies experiencing the destructive effects of deforestation and soil erosion also envisioned making Puerto Rico their next sugar frontier. English merchants foresaw gaining a major foothold in the central Caribbean from which to expand their illegal trade with the Spanish Antilles and northern South America.

The Irish in the Caribbean

Following Oliver Cromwell's conquest of Ireland, Irish military prisoners, religious dissidents and abductees were shipped out to the British Caribbean plantations as indentured workers (Dunn 1972: 69). Historian Hilary Mc. D. Beckles described the attitude of the British planters toward their victims:

English masters considered their Irish servants as belonging to a backward culture, unfit to contribute anything beyond their labor to colonial development. Furthermore, their adherence to the Catholic religion reinforced the planters' perception of them as opposed to the English Protestant colonizing mission that in fact had begun in Ireland. Irish servants, then, were seen by the English planter class as an enemy within and were treated accordingly (Beckles 1990: 510-11).

They were often mistreated by a biased judicial system, ‘imprisoned, publicly flogged, [and banished] for arbitrary or minor offences (Beckles 1990: 513). Labour unrest and other forms of resistance by the Irish, ‘whom some [English planters] thought a greater threat than their African slaves’, were swiftly and brutally suppressed (Beckles 1990: 513). Many suffered slave-like working and living conditions, which often fuelled anti-British plots and rebellions.

Rumours of collaborative plots by Irish servants and enslaved Africans circulated in the Bahamas in the 1650s and 1660s (Bernhard 1999: 89-91). The Irish rose up violently in Saint Kitts in 1666 and in Montserrat in 1667, and later defected to the invading French forces. Over one-hundred rebelled again in Saint Kitts two years later. In Antigua and Montserrat, the British conducted mass arrests and deportations of pro-French Irish servants (Beckles 1990: 509; 519-20). In 1694, Jamaica's Governor William Beeston suspected that Irish Papists were actively encouraging the French to invade the island (Great Britain, Board of Trade: 98).

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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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