c.2000BC – Humans known to be living on Vieques. Some of the oldest human remains in the Caribbean have been found in La Hueca, Vieques.
1493 – Columbus Arrives. Reputedly Columbus landed here and met Taino Indians inhabiting the island. However, this is a claim made by several Caribbean islands, so who knows the exact truth! Unfortunatley, within a few years the Indians have been driven off the island by the Spanish, or taken into slavery on the big island of Puerto Rico.
1500 – c.1800 – Vieques is the haunt of Pirates. British, French and Danish explorers at different times tried to settle Vieques, then know as “Crab Island” but were always driven off by the Spanish. Vieques was never economically important to Puerto Rico, but it was always strategically important. Thus for a long time it was basically unsettled by Puerto Rico but still defended.
Early 1800’s – serious colonization of Vieques by the Spanish Puerto Ricans is started. In 1843 the municipality of Vieques is formed, and a Frenchman named Le Guillou becomes Governor of Vieques. Vieques is semi-independent of Puerto Rico. The Fort in Isabella II is built during this period. Le Guillou eventually created coffee plantations in Vieques which later became sugar cane plantations. By the late 1800’s Vieques is actually importing workers (usually black slaves) from all over the Caribbean to service the sugar cane industry.
1898 – Hispanic American War. Puerto Rico (and with it Vieques) becomes a territory of the United States after the war.
1915 – Sugar Cane Workers Strike. A general strike takes place and conditions for the sugar cane workers improve quite a lot as a result.
1930’s – Sugar Cane Industry Decline. The sugar cane industry becomes economical unviable and starts to decline. Climate change, possibly due to over cutting of the original rain forest, may also have had an effect – Vieques became a much drier island.
Second World War – US Military acquires 72% of the land in Vieques for military use. A third of the civilian population is moved to the island of St. Croix (about 20 miles away), the rest of them are squeezed into the central third of the island. This is a final blow for the sugar cane industry that collapses completely. Initially Vieques was planed as a large natural harbor for the English navy in case of defeat by the Germans, a plan rapidly dropped after Pearl Harbor demonstrated that parking all your navy in one place was not wise! After the war Vieques is turned into a bombing range (in a relatively small area on the far eastern tip of the island), and a munitions store (on the western end). The Navy’s appropriation of 2/3 of Vieques causes ongoing discontent among the inhabitants and sporadic protest.
April 1999 – Civilian Security Guard Killed. David Sanes, a civilian security guard on the navy property is killed and four others are injured when the Navy accidentally bombs the Observation Tower that watches over the bombing range. This becomes the trigger for increased protests on Vieques, in Puerto Rico, and in the US.
2001 – Navy Starts Withdrawl. The Navy gives up the western end of the island except for a radar station and a radio station.
2003 – Transfer to Fish and Wildlife. The Navy completes their withdrawl, giving up the whole eastern end which becomes a Fish and Wildlife Reserve.
Currently almost all of the old Navy land is open to the public and protected. However, there is ongoing political debate about some limited development in the future. Parts of the eastern end of the island that were bombed remain closed to the public during cleanup of unexploded ordnance, a process that may take decades.
The history of the Navy on Vieques over the last 60 years of so has caused suffering for Vieques. The economy had little chance to develop normally and many people were displaced from their property during the initial takeover. Even today there are ongoing title problems on many of the properties that people own.
On the plus side, there is now a unique situation in the Caribbean – an island that is very undeveloped and with 2/3 of it given over to nature reserves. Aside from a very small area at the far Eastern end of the island where the bombing range was, the Navy presence has actually protected most of Vieques from development.
Note that we have a couple of more extensive history books of Vieques at the house if you choose to come and stay, and of course it will all mean a lot more to you once you have seen some of it!