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A Page from History: The Porto Rico Census of 1899

In 1899, Puerto Rico, or Porto Rico as it was then commonly called, was newly under U.S. control. A census gave the numbers of inhabitants, dividing them into men and women, age groups, and ethnicity. Foreign born residents were identified, as well. Of these, nearly all were Spanish, though there were a few people born in Africa (the census assumes they were brought to Puerto Rico as slaves), some from the United States or South America, and a handful of Chinese residents.

All in all, Puerto Rico had 953,213 residents, about the same as West Virginia.

One of the goals of the census was to identify “the potential voters of Porto Rico, classified by race, by country of birth, and by literacy, with a view of determining the effect upon them of making the ability to read and write a condition of the elective franchise.”

Women did not vote in the U.S. at that time, so the count of potential voters totaled 201,071 adult men, of whom only 25% could read. However, it was clear that in many parts of Puerto Rico, requiring voters to be literate would have meant that foreign-born residents would have had a disproportionate amount of power, even though Puerto Rico had a higher proportion of native-born residents, the census says, than many Southern states in the U.S.

When women and children over the age of ten were included, the literacy rate in Puerto Rico was estimated at about 16% — less than in any of the states of the Union. Fewer than one quarter of the city children attended school and rural kids were very unlikely to attend school. The new government made schooling a high priority, and Puerto Rico now enjoys a high level of literacy.

The financial position of the island was described as “greatly embarrassed,” since there was debt equaling one third of the total wealth of Puerto Rico. Currently, the island’s debt equals roughly 70% of the GDP. At the time, 93% of the people worked in agriculture, but 91% of the land belonged to those who lived on it, a condition which the census report felt was part of the reason that the people of Puerto Rico had accepted Spanish rule. “At all events,” the report continues, “the troops of the American Army received from all classes of natives in all parts of the island occupied by them a spontaneous and enthusiastic welcome as deliverers and friends.”

Reflections on American Exceptionalism, edited by David Keith Adams et al, suggests that there was a brief jubilation and welcome based on a hope that the American influx would bring prosperity, but that this feeling was followed by disillusionment. Certainly, it is unlikely that the people of Puerto Rico foresaw that they would remain a territory of the United States without full citizenship as most of the other territories gained at the same time settled into a permanent status.

The employment levels among adults in Puerto Rico in 1899 were comparable to the U.S., though fewer women and more children worked for pay than on the mainland. Now, Puerto Rico’s unemployment level dwarfs that in any of the states.

At that time, 30% of women in their early 20s worked in the United States, which was about twice the proportion in Puerto Rico, but the numbers were reversed as the women grew older. “Wage earning on the part of women in the United States thus seems to be in many cases only a preliminary to marriage and the duties of family life,” the census report concluded, “while in Porto Rico and Cuba it would seem that female breadwinners more commonly work through the years of later life.”

Drilling down, the report shows that men were most often agricultural laborers, and working women were most often domestic workers.

In 1899, Puerto Rico had the highest concentration of children under 10 of any American or European country apart from Bulgaria, and the census report claims that the birth rate was probably greater than 27 per thousand. Now, the population is aging and the birth rate is less than half that.

How has Puerto Rico fared in the 115 years since the census of 1899? The territory is still financially embarrassed and its people are much less likely to be in the workforce, but they are better educated. They also still lack the ability to vote for President, do not have a voting Member of Congress, and lack Senators.  The population is shrinking rather than growing as Puerto Ricans choose to move to the mainland. The workforce is now most likely to be in government jobs rather than in agricultural work and in service jobs rather than in domestic service. The people are still largely living in poverty.

The status of the island is still unresolved.

1 thought on “A Page from History: The Porto Rico Census of 1899”

  1. United States make a big mistake invading Puerto Rico, now Spain have a better quality of life than Puerto Rico. Now Spain and USA are friends; Why don’t give back the island to their legitimate owner?

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