Brief History

c.2000BC – Humans are 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!  Unfortunately, within a few years, the Indians were driven off the island by the Spanish, or taken into slavery on the big island of Puerto Rico.

1500 – c.1800 – Vieques was the haunt of Pirates. British, French, and Danish explorers at different times tried to settle Vieques, then known 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 unsettled by Puerto Rico but still defended.

In the early 1800s – serious colonization of Vieques by the Spanish Puerto Ricans was started. In 1843 the municipality of Vieques was formed, and a Frenchman named Le Guillou became Governor of Vieques. Vieques was semi-independent of Puerto Rico. The Fort in Isabella II was built during this period. Le Guillou eventually created coffee plantations in Vieques which later became sugar cane plantations. By the late 1800s Vieques was 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) became a territory of the United States after the war.

1915 – Sugar Cane Workers Strike.  A general strike took place and conditions for the sugar cane workers improved quite a lot as a result.

1930’s – Sugar Cane Industry Decline.  The sugar cane industry became economically unviable and started to decline. Climate change, possibly due to overcutting of the original rainforest, may also have had an effect – Vieques became a much drier island.

Second World War – The US Military acquired 72% of the land in Vieques for military use. A third of the civilian population was moved to the island of St. Croix (about 20 miles away), and the rest of them were squeezed into the central third of the island. This was a final blow to the sugar cane industry which collapsed completely. Initially, Vieques was planned 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 was 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 caused ongoing discontent among the inhabitants and sporadic protests.

April 1999 – Civilian Security Guard Killed. David Sanes, a civilian security guard on the navy property was killed and four others injured when the Navy accidentally bombed the Observation Tower that watches over the bombing range. This became the trigger for increased protests on Vieques, in Puerto Rico, and in the US.

2001 – Navy Starts Withdrawl. The Navy gave up the western end of the island except for a radar station and a radio station.

2003 – Transfer to Fish and Wildlife.  The Navy completed their withdrawal, giving up the whole eastern end which became 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!