Indian groups had been living on Vieques for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in 1493. (Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico during his second voyage.) Around 1980 some of the oldest human remains ever found in the Caribbean were discovered near the cluster of huge volcanic boulders pictured below. The burial site was dated to 2000 BC!
The island’s rich history continued during the years when the Europeans were colonizing the Caribbean. In general the Spaniards had a firm hold on Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, while the Dutch, British and French controlled many of the islands to the east. Vieques was somewhat caught in the middle. While standing in one spot on Vieques, one can easily turn in one direction and see Puerto Rico, (Spanish), and then turn in the other to look at Saint Thomas, (which back then was Dutch).
When the indigenous Taino population of Vieques rebelled in 1515, Spanish Conquistadores were sent from San Juan to put down the uprising. However once the dust had settled, the soldiers returned to San Juan and the Spaniards more or less neglected the island for the next 250 years. Still, it suited the Spanish to have a buffer between Puerto Rico and Saint Thomas. Over the next two centuries the British and the Dutch made several half–hearted attempts to establish small settlements on Vieques, but each time they were pushed back by the Spanish. Vieques gradually accumulated a small population of free slaves from the other Virgin Islands, mixed in with remnants of the original Taino indian population and other transients. Pirates and smugglers are believed to have occasionally used Vieques as a way station.
This status quo began to change around 1800. In the aftermath of the French revolution, France abolished slavery in 1794. Soon thereafter the French islands of the Caribbean, which relied heavily on slavery, were in turmoil – culminating with the revolution in Haiti in 1804. The government in San Juan began encouraging wealthy French businessmen to relocate their sugar cane operations to Puerto Rico. As an inducement, they offered free land on Vieques. In particular there was an influx of French plantation owners who moved their businesses from Guadeloupe to Vieques.
By the mid 1800’s French families constituted the cream of Vieques society, in fact from 1832 to 1843 the governor of Vieques was a Frenchman. This governor, Teófilo José LeGuillou, was the largest land owner on Vieques. He founded at least three of the major sugar cane operations on the island including factories in Esperanza, Resolucion and Destino. He is also credited with founding the municipality of Vieques. He died from a fall in 1843, just before the town of Isabel II was formally incorporated in 1844. Below is one of the tombs in his family burial plot.
This European era came to an end in 1898 when the Spanish withdrew at the conclusion of the Spanish–American War. Fort Conde de Mirasol, which sits on a hill overlooking the island’s main town of Isabel II, was built by the Spaniards in the 1840’s. It turned out to be the last fort built by the Europeans anywhere in the “New World”.
Modern history is dominated by the story of the U.S. Navy’s involvement on Vieques over the past 70 years. In 1939 the Navy began by acquiring 27,000 acres on the island. At the time, land ownership was so concentrated that 71% of the island was controlled by just two sugar plantations. For the most part sugarcane workers and their families lived on land that they didn’t actually own. Families built simple houses on land assigned to them by the plantation owners. This concentration of ownership meant that the Navy, with their almost unlimited checkbook and influence, could practically buy the island outright. These transactions began quietly, with little or no oversight, and by 1940 the Navy had purchased a large portion of the island. In 1941 they received legislative approval to begin building a large naval base at Roosevelt Roads on the main island, and smaller installations on Vieques and Culebra.
The Navy planners envisioned taking over the entire island of Vieques. (I think they may have wanted Culebra as well.) Their justification was two-fold. First, they wanted a location to practice landing troops on a beach. This was plausible given the massive landings that would soon occur in France, Italy and on islands throughout the Pacific. Secondly, with the war in Europe apparently going Germany’s way, it looked like a real possibility that England might fall. The Navy had a plan to protect Britain’s naval fleet by bringing it to Puerto Rico.
Whatever the merits of their case, their proposal to relocate the island’s entire population of over 10,000 people to the island of Saint Croix was a stunning development locally. Eleanor Roosevelt had become interested in Puerto Rico, and I have read that she may have persuaded her husband to question the Navy’s request. The eventual compromise was that everyone on Vieques was forced to move to the center of the island. (By compromise I don’t mean to imply that the islanders had much say in the matter. The negotiating was primarily between the Roosevelt administration and the Navy.) The Navy then took possession of the western third of the island, and the Marines took the eastern third.
Over the next fifty years the military’s interest in the island, and their rationale for needing the island, tended to shift with the times. (Imagine the public relations disaster if the Navy simply admitted that they wanted a warm place for winter get-a-ways.) During the Cuban missile crisis the Navy dusted off their plan to take over the entire island and approached the Kennedy administration with an updated request. (The Life Magazine photo above was taken during a landing exercise in 1960.)