Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation takes viewers to the island of Puerto Rico in search of the history of the African presence during the 98th episode of “Gullah/Geechee TV Nayshun Nyews with Queen Quet.” Queen Quet takes viewers to San Juan and Old San Juan to seek the historical connections to Mother Africa and the Gullah/Geechee Nation.
Queen’s Chronicles: Journey to the Island of Puerto Rico
As I continue my “Gullah/Geechee Gold Souls World Tour,” not only do I seek to share my story and that of my people of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, I seek the linkages with other people of the world. More oft than not, the most immediate connections are with those of the islands of the world. So, I decided to take a journey to the island of Puerto Rico this year to see how this island connects with the Sea Islands.
Interestingly enough, the exhibition in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico contains a number of documents from Charleston, SC in the Gullah/Geechee Nation in regard to the TransAtlantic Slave Trade and island enslavement. Many are not aware of the history of chattel enslavement, uprisings, or abolition in Puerto Rico due to the fact that most people journey to this island for the beaches as tourists. There has also been a global “white out” in regard to the history of African people and their contributions, especially as it relates to resistance. So, visiting this island was not unlike going to many others and finding that although there are numerous national parks and beaches promoted, there is no immediate information provided for sites that relate to the African presence and the chattel enslavement period unless someone specifically asks about it and then proceeds to seek it out.
Interestingly enough, Puerto Rico has a great deal of obvious African connections in music, dance, and spirituality. The artistic and religious forms are the ones most often referred to when seeking African Diasporic links. However, the uprisings that often contained the drums and the spiritual practices are not spoke of. Puerto-Rico had a major uprising aka “slave rebellion” on July 29, 1821. It was led by Marcos Xiorro who is said to have been Haitian and the uprising involved several sugar plantations.
Sugar became a major industry in Puerto Rico after the gold mines that Africans were first imported to work in were depleted and the island industries shifted to ginger, sugar, coffee, tobacco, cocoa, and cotton. Africans built the fortifications that are now part of the US National Park Service on the island of Puerto Rico the same way that Africans built those throughout the Gullah/Geechee Nation that are part of the NPS system now as well. In both locations, when you tour these edifications today, it is rare that you will hear of whose bloods, sweat, and tears are between the stones.
The uprising led by Xirro was not the first and definitely not the last on in Puerto Rico! In fact, the first recorded uprising on the island took place in 1527 and those that were part of this uprising came to settle maroon colonies on the island along with the Tainos, who are the native people of the island. The uprisings and self-liberation of the enslaved did not cease until enslavement was outlawed on the island in 1873-ten years after the Emancipation Proclamation was read in the United States.
Due to the uprisings in Haiti, many of the French enslavers there migrated to Puerto Rico and were actively involved in the process of sugar becoming a major industry in Puerto Rico. The Royal Decree of Graces of 1815 a Spanish order to encourage Spaniards and later Europeans of non-Spanish origin to settle and populate the colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico and participate in agriculture. The decree encouraged enslavement as a means of having a labor force and the extremely cruel and harsh methods of chattel enslavement including branding were implored. The enslaved Africans fought against this via over 20 documented uprisings. One series of them that took place from the early 1820s until 1868 is known as the Grito de Lares.
Many of the people brought to Puerto Rico came from many of the same countries in West Africa as those that came to the Gullah/Geechee Nation. In touring the exhibit in Old San Juan, it was interesting to see that one man is noted as having come from Angola that ended up being a part of leadership on the island. However, while doing more research on his background, some seem to believe he was from Haiti and some think of him as a pirate instead of a leader in the uprisings. As we often find with ourstory, people do not put in the effort to fully trace the backgrounds of the people of African descent that served in leadership positions of any kind. So, it is not unlikely that he was of Angolan ancestry and had been brought to Haiti and later escaped that island by boat and his “setting sail” eventually brought him to Puerto Rico where he became a leader that at one point was held in high esteem and later was stripped of all that he had accumulated. As the story goes, “Dead men tell no tales.” so we cannot get the full story at this point on Miguel Henriquez. As time goes on, there is a possibility that more on his background and his life will be told. His story and that of the many other Africans that set sail to and set foot on the island of Puerto Rico were those that I was seeking to find and it is good to have the door opened to more exploration and more knowledge. Many have seemed to close the door on even admitting that this island was ever a place of enslavement and just as in the Gullah/Geechee Nation, they have built over the lands that were plantations and made them into places of tourism and recreation.
Just as enslavement did begin on this island, there was a day when the end of it was decreed on paper. On March 22, 1873, slavery was “abolished” in Puerto Rico. However, just as with the dynamics that folks have been examining especially during the 150th commemoration of the beginning of the US Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, this abolition did not lead to immediate freedom for those that had been in bondage. In fact, the decree had a major caveat that stated that the enslaved actually had to buy their own freedom at whatever price was set by their current owners. The majority of those that were in bondage then continued to work for those that were their enslavers for years until they could purchase their freedom. Under the law, former enslaved Africans were to remain indentured for a maximum of three years. During that three-year period, they could work for their former master, for other people, or for the “state.” Many found themselves in a situation very similar to sharecropping as a result of this alleged “emancipation” process.
The similarities of the story of people of African descent on the island of Puerto Rico to that of people of African descent in the United States are extensive and this comes as no surprise to me. However, it is one thing to believe something and another to know. So, I now KNOW that there is truly a dynamic story of the African presence lying beneath the beautiful sand and between the stones in Puerto Rico. It is no wonder that I walked down one street that appeared to have indigo in the bricks that were the pavement. It reminded me of the cobblestones in the streets of Charleston, SC in the Gullah/Geechee Nation and I took a photo of it. I then gave thanks to my ancestors for making sure that I saw this clear sign that once again, I was walking in the path that they laid literally and figuratively. Muchas gracias. Tenk Gawd fa de journee!