Marcos Xiorro was a slave who, in 1821, planned and conspired to lead a slave revolt against the sugar plantation owners and the Spanish Colonial government in Puerto Rico. Even though the conspiracy was unsuccessful, he achieved legendary status among the slaves and is part of Puerto Rico’s folklore.
It is not known when Xiorro was born, or from what region in Africa his ancestors came from. What is known is that he was a Bozal slave – a slave who had been recently brought to the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico from Africa. Xiorro was owned by Vicente Andino, a Militia Captain who owned a sugar plantation in the municipality of Bayamon.
False rumors of freedom
In 1812, Salvador Meléndez Bruna, the Spanish-appointed governor of Puerto Rico, ordered that any slave who disrespected his master would be punished with fifty lashes by the civil authorities – and then returned to his master for additional punishment. A 100-lashes punishment was given to those who committed a violent act or incited a rebellion.
Ramón Power y Giralt was a Puerto Rican naval hero, a captain in the Spanish navy who had risen to become vice-president of the Spanish Cortes. Power Y Giralt was amongst the delegates who proposed that slavery be abolished in Puerto Rico, and he sent a letter to his mother, Josefa Giralt, suggesting that if the proposals were approved, she should be the first one to grant her slaves their freedom.
Although these proposals were never discussed before the Spanish Courts, Josefa Giralt’s slaves learned about the letter and, believing that slavery had been abolished, they spread the “news” that they were now free. A slave named Benito contributed to the rumor by circulating the unfounded news that the Cortes Generales y Extraordinarias de la Nacion (General and Extraordinary Courts of the Nation) had granted slaves their freedom. These false rumors led to various confrontations between the slaves, military and slave Masters.
Former Puerto Rican slaves in 1898, the year the United States invaded Puerto Rico
In July 1821, Xiorro planned and organized a conspiracy against the slave masters and the colonial government of Puerto Rico. This was to be carried out on July 27, during the festival celebrations for Santiago (St. James).
According to his plan several slaves were to escape from various plantations in Bayamón, which included the haciendas of Angus McBean, C. Kortnight, Miguel Andino and Fernando Fernández. They were then to proceed to the sugarcane fields of Miguel Figueres, and retrieve cutlasses and swords which were hidden in those fields. Xiorro, together with a slave from the McBean plantation named Mario and another slave named Narciso, would lead the slaves of Bayamón andToa Baja and capture the city of Bayamón. They would then burn the city and kill those who were not black. After this, they would all unite with slaves from the adjoining towns of Rio Piedras, Guaynabo and Palo Seco. With this critical mass of slaves, all armed and emboldened from a series of quick victories, they would then invade the capital city of San Juan, where they would declare Xiorro as their king.
Failure of the conspiracy
Unfortunately for the slave conspirators, Miguel Figueres had a loyal slave named Ambrosio who divulged the plans of the conspiracy to him. The whistleblower also had both personal and financial interest, as slaves who reported any kind of slave conspiracy were granted their freedom and 500 pesos. Figueres then informed the mayor of Bayamón who mobilized 500 soldiers. The ringleaders and followers of the conspiracy were captured immediately. A total of 61 slaves were imprisoned in Bayamón and San Juan.
On August 15, 1821, the court proceedings ended and 17 slaves were punished. Mario and Narciso, considered to be ringleaders, were executed. Xiorro was captured on August 14 in the city of Mayaguez. He was tried separately and his fate is unknown.
In the years that followed many of the slaves who had been imprisoned and returned to their masters escaped from their plantations. The Spanish authorities believed that Jean Pierre Boyer, the president of Haiti, was behind the conspiracy.
Indemnity bond paid as compensation to former owners of freed slaves
There were other minor revolts and some slaves even participated in El Grito de Lares, Puerto Rico’s independence revolt against Spanish rule on September 23, 1868.
On March 22, 1873, slavery was “abolished” in Puerto Rico, but with one significant caveat: the slaves were not fully emancipated – they had tobuy their own freedom at whatever price was set by their current owners. In order to accomplish this, the majority of the freed slaves continued to work for their former masters for some time. They received a salary for their labor, and slowly purchased their freedom.
The government placed a limit on this “buy-back” period, and created an insular “Protector’s Office” to oversee the transition. Under the new law, former slaves were to remain indentured for a maximum period of three years. After that they would go free. During that three-year period, they could work for their former master, for other people, or for the “state.” Once the three-year period expired, if a slave had any remaining debt, the Protector’s Office would step in and pay it with an “indemnity bond” – but only at the discounted value of 23% of the claimed debt.
The former slaves earned money by working as shoemakers, by cleaning clothes, or by selling the produce they were allowed to grow in the small patches of land allotted to them by their former masters.