The history of Puerto Ricans of African descent begins with free African men, known as libertos, who accompanied the Spanish Conquistadors in the invasion of the island. The Spaniards enslaved the Taínos (the native inhabitants of the island), many of whom died as a result of new infectious diseases and the Spaniards’ oppressive colonization efforts.
Spain’s royal government needed laborers and began to rely on slavery to staff their mining and fort-building operations. The Crown authorized importing enslaved West Africans. As a result, the majority of the African peoples who entered Puerto Rico were part of the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade, and came from many different cultures and peoples of the African continent.
When the gold mines in Puerto Rico were declared depleted, the Spanish Crown no longer considered the island to be a high colonial priority. Its chief ports served primarily as a garrison to support naval vessels. The Spaniards encouraged free people of color from British and French possessions in the Caribbean to emigrate to Puerto Rico, to provide a population base to support the Puerto Rican garrison.
The Spanish decree of 1789 allowed 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 labor and the slave population increased dramatically as new slaves were imported. 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 in Puerto Rican culture.