After the settlements were established in the 1600s, the settlers began to reshape the social structure to fit their needs. A new working force emerged along with the development of a particular mining industry. The natives’ social status changed from free men and women to slaves through a system called “distribution” or “patronage.”
The indigenous population lost all their liberties. They were forced to perform hard labor and excessive working hours while changing their food, and their habits. Their “racial transformation” continued as the number of the natives diminished rapidly due to physical hardship, and illnesses. Soon Africans, who were brought in with the slave trade, started to engage in interracial marriages or relationships with the native population. Europeans also began to intermix through marriages or rapes.
As a result, the colonial Puerto Rican -- like most of the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands and South America -- was a product of history; a mix of three races and three cultures also known as the process of “mestizaje.” Puerto Rico became one of the most important Spanish settlements in the New World. Most of the early settlers were low-ranking hidalgos. Given the opportunity to accumulate wealth, they accumulated own gold and properties of their own. The Island remained under Spanish rule until 1898, when the Spanish-American War ended.