Segment from After Hurricane Maria

Jose Julio Henna & the Invasion of Puerto Rico

In 1898, America was on the verge of war with Spain, and Puerto Rican exiles in New York City offered their support to the federal government. One such man was Jose Julio Henna, who believed the United States was waging war to liberate the Puerto Rican people from the Spanish. He was mistaken.


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Brian Balogh: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Robert and Joseph Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Male: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory.

Brian Balogh: Welcome to BackStory, the American history podcast. I’m Brian Balogh.

Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers.

Nathan Connolly: I’m Nathan Connolly.

Ed Ayers: It’s been one year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, causing the worst electrical blackout in U.S. history and leaving more than 3,000 people dead.

Brian Balogh: Puerto Rico is part of the United States, and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but many Americans feel that the government’s response to the disaster was not only slow, it was negligent. It made many people ask, are Puerto Ricans really citizens in the eyes of the federal government.

Nathan Connolly: To answer that question, let’s return to the moment when Puerto Rico became part of the United States. Puerto Rico had been a Spanish colony since the 16th century. By 1898 the island had taken a big step towards self-government with the establishment of a democratically-elected legislature, but many Puerto Ricans, including political exiles in the United States, wanted to see the island free.

Male: The United States can save us, making us independent, and the majority of the people will determine in the future whether or not to ask annexation to the American Union.

Ed Ayers: Jose Julio Henna advocated for independence for Puerto Rico until he was banished from the island when he was 18 years old. In New York City, Henna studied medicine at Columbia University, and became an influential leader in a community of Puerto Rican exiles.

Ed Ayers: In 1898 the United States was gearing up for war with Spain and had its eye on Spanish territories in the Caribbean. Henna, now 45, wanted to make sure that American troops landed on Puerto Rican shores.

Male: At the naval station, the Port of San Juan to the north and Bahia Honda to the south of the island will surpass all others in the Antilles. The island is geographically positioned before the canals of Panama and Nicaragua, and in the path from Europe to South America.

Ed Ayers: Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, and even President McKinley all liked the sound of this very much, and they were happy to accept the assistance of Henna and other Puerto Rican exiles in New York, who provided the U.S. government with maps and military intelligence down to the number of Spanish soldiers in each village. Many volunteered to go along with the army to act as civil commissioners in captured towns.

Nathan Connolly: In preparation for the invasion, Henna and Eugenio Maria de Hostos wrote a manifesto which they believed would be distributed among the Puerto Rican people. It’s not clear that it ever was.

Male: Puerto Rico, from this day in which the American squadrons have landed on your beaches, you cease to be a Spanish colony, land of injustices, and you emerge as a state or nation under the shadow of the greatest and most powerful, the freest and happiest of federations that history has known. You will not be the booty of conquest, but there will be left to your own free initiative, the organization of yourselves under your own form of government.

Nathan Connolly: On the day the United States invaded Puerto Rico, Jose Julio Henna was not there as planned. Legend has it that he was in bed with pneumonia. On July 25th, 1898, the United States landed at the Port of Guanica. Many of the island believed the army was there to liberate them from the Spanish. Mayors thanked god for the invasion and offered their loyalty to the United States, proclaimed, “Via Puerto Rico Americana.”

Nathan Connolly: Townspeople showered them with cigars, fruit, and flowers, and the peasants helped the U.S. military by raiding, looting, and burning plantations where they had been oppressed for generations.

Male: In the prosecution of the war against the kingdom of Spain, by the people of the United States, in the cause of liberty, justice, and humanity, its military forces have come to occupy the island of Puerto Rico.

Ed Ayers: General Nelson Miles, who led the U.S. invasion, gave this declaration to the Puerto Rican people.

Male: They come bearing the banner of freedom.

Ed Ayers: The very next day, the United States invalidated the democratically elected local government and established martial law. General Miles declared the U.S. military supreme and that the private rights and properties of the inhabitants would be respected as soon as they had demonstrated their obedience. Puerto Rico became domain of the U.S. Department of War.

Male: The flag of the United States of America floats over the soil of Puerto Rico, but it does not make American even the children who are born under its shade.

Brian Balogh: Jose Julio Henna, that ardent believer that the U.S. would liberate Puerto Rico, came to realize that life under the United States was even more restrictive and brutal than life under the Spanish.

Male: If the war which the United States of America waged against Spain for purely humanitarian purposes freed Puerto Rico, as it is said, the Puerto Rican people do not know as yet of what that freedom consists. They are treated as inferior, dependent people, needing to be educated and Christianized and civilized. The voice of Puerto Rico was not heard. The island and its people were conveyed from one sovereign to another as a farm and its cattle are conveyed from one master to another.