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    Puerto Rico History

    Source: R.A. Van Middeldyk

      Bishop Manso, on his arrival in 1513, found Puerto Rico in a state bordering on anarchy, and after vain attempts to check the prevalent immorality and establish the authority of the Church, he returned to Spain in 1519. The account he gave Cardinal Cisneros of the island's condition suggested to the Grand Inquisitor the obvious remedy of clothing the bishop with the powers of Provincial Inquisitor, which he did.

      Diego Torres Vargas, the canon of the San Juan Cathedral, says in his memoirs: "Manso was made inquisitor, and he, being the first, may be said to have been the Inquisitor-General of the Indies; ... the delinquents were brought from all parts to be burned and punished here ... The Inquisition building exists till this day (1647), and until the coming of the Hollanders in 1625 many sambenitos could be seen in the cathedral hung up behind the choir."

      These "sambenitos" were sacks of coarse yellow cloth with a large red cross on them, and figures of devils and instruments of torture among the flames of hell. The delinquents, dressed in one of these sacks, bareheaded and barefooted, were made to do penance, or, if condemned to be burned, marched to the place of execution. It is said that in San Juan they were not tied to a stake but enclosed in a hollow plaster cast, against which the faggots were piled,80 so that they were roasted rather than burned to death. The place for burning the sinners was outside the gate of the fort San Cristobal. Mr. M.F. Juncos believes that the prisons were in the lower part of the Dominican Convent, later the territorial audience and now the supreme court, but Mr. Salvador Brau thinks that they occupied a plot of ground in the angle formed by Cristo Street and the "Caleta" of San Juan.

      Of Nicolas Ramos, the last Bishop of Puerto Rico, who united the functions of inquisitor with the duties of the episcopate, Canon Vargas says: " ... He was very severe, burning and punishing, _as was his duty_, some of the people whose cases came before him ..."

      It seems that the records of the Inquisition in this island were destroyed and the traditions of its doings suppressed, because nothing is said regarding them by the native commentators on the island's history. Only the names of a few of the leading men who came in contact with the Tribunal have come down to us. Licentiate Sancho Velasquez, who was accused of speaking against the faith and eating meat in Lent, appears to have been Manso's first victim, since he died in a dungeon. A clergyman named Juan Carecras was sent to Spain at the disposition of the general, for the crime of practising surgery. In the same year (1536) we find the treasurer, Blas de Villasante, in an Inquisition dungeon, because, though married in Spain, he cohabited with a native woman--an offense too common at that time not to leave room for suspicion that the treasurer must have made himself obnoxious to the Holy Office in some other way. In 1537, a judge auditor was sent from the Española, but the parties whose accounts were to be audited contrived to have him arrested by the officers of the Inquisition on the day of his arrival. Doctor Juan Blazquez, having attempted to correct some abuses committed by the Admiral's employees in connivance with the Inquisition agents, suffered forty days' imprisonment, and was condemned to hear a mass standing erect all the time, besides paying a fine of 50 pesos.

      These are the only cases on record. Only the walls of the Inquisition building, could they speak, could reveal what passed within them from the time of Manso's arrival in 1520 to the end of the sixteenth century, when the West Indian Superior Tribunal was transferred to Cartagena, and a special subordinate judge only was left in San Juan. Bishop Rodrigo de Bastidas, who visited San Juan on a Government commission in 1533, perceiving the abuses that were committed in the inquisitor's name, proposed the abolition of the Holy Office; but the odious institution continued to exist till 1813, when the extraordinary Cortes of Cadiz removed, for a time, this blot on Spanish history. The decree is dated February 22d, and accompanied by a manifesto which is an instructive historical document in itself. It shows that the Cortes dared not attempt the suppression of the dreaded Tribunal without first convincing the people of the disconnection of the measure with the religious question, and justifying it as one necessary for the public weal.

      "You can not doubt," they say, "that we endeavor to maintain in this kingdom the Catholic, Apostolic, Roman religion, which you have the happiness to profess; ... the deputies elected by you know, as do the legislators of all times and all nations, that a social edifice not founded on religion, is constructed in vain; ... the true religion which we profess is the greatest blessing which God has bestowed on the Spanish people; we do not recognize as Spaniards those who do not profess it ... It is the surest support of all private and social virtues, of fidelity to the laws and to the monarch, of the love of country and of just liberty, which are graven in every Spanish heart, which have impelled you to battle with the hosts of the usurper, vanquishing and annihilating them, while braving hunger and nakedness, torture, and death."

      The Inquisition is next referred to. It is stated that in their constant endeavor to hasten the termination of the evils that afflict the Spanish nation, the people's representatives have first given their attention to the Inquisition; that, with the object of discovering the exact civil and ecclesiastical status of the Holy Office, they have examined all the papal bulls and other documents that could throw light on the subject, and have discovered that only the Inquisitor-General had ecclesiastical powers; that the Provincial Inquisitors were merely his delegates acting under his instructions; that no supreme inquisitorial council had ever been instituted by papal brief, and that the general, being with the enemy (the French troops), no Inquisition really existed. From these investigations the Cortes had acquired a knowledge of the mode of procedure of the tribunals, of their history, and of the opinion of them entertained by the Cortes of the kingdom in early days. " ... We will now speak frankly to you," continues the document, "for it is time that you should know the naked truth, and that the veil be lifted with which false politicians have covered their designs.

      "Examining the instructions by which the provincial tribunals were governed, it becomes clear at first sight that the soul of the institution was inviolable secrecy. This covered all the proceedings of the inquisitors, and made them the arbiters of the life and honor of all Spaniards, without responsibility to anybody on earth. They were men, and as such subject to the same errors and passions as the rest of mankind, and it is inconceivable that the nation did not exact responsibility since, in virtue of the temporal power that had been delegated to them, they condemned to seclusion, imprisonment, torture, and death. Thus the inquisitors exercised a power which the Constitution denies to every authority in the land save the sacred person of the king.

      "Another notable circumstance made the power of the Inquisitors-General still more unusual; this was that, without consulting the king or the Supreme Pontiff, they dictated laws, changed them, abolished them, or substituted them by others, so that there was within the nation a judge, the Inquisitor-General, whose powers transcended those of the sovereign.

      "Here now how the Tribunal proceeded with the offenders. When an accusation was made, the accused were taken to a secret prison without being permitted to communicate with parents, children, relations, or friends, till they were condemned or absolved. Their families were denied the consolation of weeping with them over their misfortunes or of assisting them in their defense. The accused was not only deprived of the assistance of his relations and friends, but in no case was he informed of the name of his accuser nor of the witnesses who declared against him; and in order that he might not discover who they were, they used to truncate the declarations and make them appear as coming from a third party.

      "Some one will be bold enough to say that the rectitude and the religious character of the inquisitors prevented the confusion of the innocent with the criminal; but the experiences of many years and the history of the Inquisition give the lie to such assurances. They show us sage and saintly men in the Tribunal's dungeons. Sixtus IV himself, who, at the request of the Catholic kings, had sanctioned the creation of the Tribunal, complained strongly of the innumerable protests that reached him from persecuted people who had been falsely accused of heresy. Neither the virtue nor the position of distinguished men could protect them. The venerable Archbishop of Grenada, formerly the confessor of Queen Isabel, suffered most rigorous persecutions from the inquisitors of Cordóva, and the same befell the Archbishop of Toledo, Friar Louis de Leon, the venerable Avila, Father Siguenza, and many other eminent men.

      "In view of these facts, it is no paradox to say that _the ignorance, the decadence of science, of the arts, commerce and agriculture, the depopulation and poverty of Spain, are mainly due to the Inquisition._

      "How the Inquisition could be established among such a noble and generous people as the Spanish, will be a difficult problem for posterity to solve. It will be more difficult still to explain how such a Tribunal could exist for more than three hundred years. Circumstances favored its establishment. It was introduced under the pretext of restraining the Moors and the Jews, who were obnoxious to the Spanish people, and who found protection in their financial relations with the most illustrious families of the kingdom. With such plausible motives the politicians of the time covered a measure which was contrary to the laws of the monarchy. Religion demanded it as a protection, and the people permitted it, though not without strong protest. As soon as the causes that called the Inquisition into existence had ceased, the people's attorneys in Cortes demanded the establishment of the legal mode of procedure. The Cortes of Valladolid of 1518 and 1523 asked from the king that in matters of religion the ordinary judges might be declared competent, and that in the proceedings the canons and common codes might be followed; the Cortes of Saragossa asked the same in 1519, and the kings would have acceded to the will of the people, expressed through their representatives, especially in view of the indirect encouragement to do so which they received from the Holy See, but for the influence of those with whom they were surrounded who had an interest in the maintenance of the odious institution."

      The manifesto terminates with an assurance to the Spanish people that, under the new law, heresy would not go unpunished; that, under the new system of judicial proceedings, the innocent would no longer be confounded with the criminal. " ... There will be no more voluntary errors, no more suborned witnesses, offenders will henceforth be judged by upright magistrates in accordance with the sacred canons and the civil code ... Then, genius and talent will display all their energies without fear of being checked in their career by intrigue and calumny; ... science, the arts, agriculture, and commerce will flourish under the guidance of the distinguished men who abound in Spain ... The king, the bishops, all the venerable ecclesiastics will instruct the faithful in the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion without fear of seeing its beauty tarnished by ignorance and superstition, and, who knows, this decree may contribute to the realization, some day, of religious fraternity among all nations!"

      From this beautiful dream the Cortes were rudely awakened the very next year when King Ferdinand VII, replaced on his throne by the powers who formed the holy alliance, entered Madrid surrounded by a host of retrograde, revengeful priests. Then the Regency, the Cortes, the Constitution were ignored. The deputies were the first to suffer exile, imprisonment, and death in return for their loyalty and liberalism; the public press was silenced; the convents reopened, municipalities and provincial deputations abolished, the Jesuits restored, the Inquisition reestablished, and priestcraft once more spread its influence over the mental and social life of a naturally generous, brave, and intelligent people.


      [Footnote 80: Neumann, p. 205.]

    NOTE: The information regarding Puerto Rico on this page is re-published from R.A. Van Middeldyk. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Puerto Rico History information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Puerto Rico History should be addressed to the webmaster.

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    Revised 4-Jul-09
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