Long before the arrival of Spanish explorers, Boriken (the original name of Puerto Rico by its aboriginal inhabitants) was densely populated by Taínos, the original indigenous peoples of the island. Upon the arrival of Spaniards to Puerto Rico's shore during the early 15th century, it was believed that gold was abundant on the island; Taínos were enslaved to accommodate the mining need. The Taíno population slowly declined, attributed heavily on the spread of contagious disease coupled in part by displacement and massacres wreaked by European newcomers. Because of the reduced numbers in the Taíno population, an alternative workforce was needed.
During that time frame, the cruel institution of chattel slavery as experienced by blacks had reared its dehumanizing head. Used for economic gain on behalf of the colonizer, slave trade routes spanned the globe. Spain was among those European countries involved in this lucrative business. Gold mining in the Caribbean isles--among them Puerto Rico-- was top on the agenda.
African's were commercially transported from Central and West Africa to the Americas and the Caribbean. Indigenous inhabitants from regions today known as Republic of Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, and South Africa were brought to La Isla, where they were initially forced to mine gold. In time, scant findings resulted in the use of blacks to harvest sugar cane and tobacco on designated plantations.
From the beginning of the 16th century to the beginning of the 19th century, Boriken began to become densely populated by Africans. (According to the 1845 census, approximately 226,000 members of the population were of African ancestry.) A new community took shape--a miscegenated Taíno-Spanish-African population. The African population settled in such places today known as Santurce, Carolina, Loiza, Canovanas, Fajardo, Culebra, and Vieques to such an extent that from the end of the 16th century to the beginning of the 19th century, the island of Puerto Rico was labeled "negrito" and/or "mulatto."
Like its Puerto Rican counterpart, Taínos originally populated the island of Cuba. Again overcome by disease and overpowered and/or often displaced by well-armed Spaniards, the Taíno population once again declined. As too held true in Puerto Rico, the African slave trade also impacted this neighboring country. The transport of blacks from West African shores to Cuba increased significantly between 1762 through the 1800s. Rather than gold, slave labor was used to promote sugar, coffee, and tobacco plantations--with
(sugar) being the most lucrative of the three industries.
By the early 1800s, Cuba had become the world's leading producer of sugar. The demand for African slave labor continued to increase: nearly 370,000 slaves were involved in the country's sugar production. Here again, blacks were transported from Central and West African regions today known as Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone (with which the New Haven, CT community is deeply connected by way of the Amistad and its captors), Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Benin and surrounding areas. By the early 1800s, approximately 70% of Cuba was populated by people of African descent. They lived throughout the island, particularly along the coastal regions.
With the forced importation of African peoples to Puerto Rican and Cuban shores, however, came a fusion of culture, customs, and traditions--among them the music and storytelling tradition accompanied by the playing of the drum.