The Islands of Mona and Monito are among the most interesting historically of the West Indies. Mona Island is located 46 miles southwest of MayagiJez and 37 miles southeast of Punta Espada, Dominican Republic. Its area is 13,638 acres; its shape roughly that of a lima bean with the concavity toward the north. Monito lies 3 miles northwest of Mona, is about 40 acres in extent, and is approximately rectangular in shape.
Recorded history concerning the islands covers nearly 480 years. After discovery, Tainos inhabited Mona for about 85 years, or until 1578. Then for nearly three centuries the islands were abandoned to pirates. From 1848 to 1927 the bat guano was mined. Since then, Mona has become an area for hunting, fishing, and exploring. The evidence of Mona's colorful history merits conservation as a heritage for all to share.
The landing of Columbus must have been on the protected shore near Punta Arenas where the Tainos during frequent trips across Mona Passage generally stopped to rest. At the Taino settlement now known to have existed at Sardinera, the Admiral presumably heard the island referred to as "Among." In the pockets of humid, fertile, red soil in low areas surrounded by rocks the Tainos raised yuca, the roots of which were the source of cassava, their staple food. Some of the roots were even too heavy for one man to lift. Excellent melons were also grown. Before departing Columbus provisioned his ships with cassava and fresh water.
The Tainos of Mona soon encountered the Europeans again, when they assisted their brethren in the revolt against the colonists on Hispaniola. Then, in August 1508, Juan Ponce de Leon, with 50 men bound from Savaleon del Higisey in Hispaniola to explore and exploit San Juan Bautista, landed on Mona. His landing, like that of Columbus, must have been near Punta Arenas. Remaining there several days, he was supplied by the eighty Tainos there with cassava and cloth made from wild cotton.
Mona was at once recognized as a source of supply of sufficient importance to Ponce to compensate for its distance from San Juan. With permission from Governor Nicolas de Ovando of Hispaniola he sent his lieutenant Juan XII Calderon for additional cassava and sweet potatoes during the first year. Mona's Tainos were spared the search for gold which occupied their brethren on San Juan, being left on Mona to produce food, hammocks, and shirts.
Control over Mona and Monito changed hands with the death of Columbus in 1506. His son Diego, ascended to the rank of Admiral, assumed responsibility for the two islands. Because of the continuing importance of Mona as a source of food, King Ferdinand, in 1511, requested the Admiral to cede the island to San Juan. Diego, however, had already granted the island to his uncle, Bartholomew, the brother of Christopher. Ferdinand acceded and offered more slaves as an incentive to production.
The productivity of Mona proved its value in the next few years despite the fact that in 1511 and 1514 hurricanes damaged the crops and killed several Tainos. Between 1510 and 1519, the island shipped at least 90 tons of cassava to San Juan. In 1524 alone, 85 tons were shipped. During this period corn, beans, peppers, cotton shirts, and hammocks were also sent. Francisco de Barrionuevo, among the first of the Spaniards to reach San Juan, and distinguished for his dealings with Tainos, took direct charge of Mona in 1513. He continued after it reverted to the Crown with the death of Bartholomew Colombus in 1514. He was assisted from 1515 to 1519 by majordomos Alonzo de Barrientos and Antonio del Espinar. From 1517 to 1519, the Taino leader was Camillas. Three captains were responsible to him. There were 30 families in 1517; 37 in 1518; and 35 in 1519, with total populations of 152, 124, and 109, respectively. The population of Mona, although considerably larger than that in 1509, evidently declined during this period. Nevertheless, at least 88 individuals were there throughout the three years. Housing was communal, "bohios" serving as many as 50 persons. The Tainos received clothing, implements, and other supplies in support of their contribution to San Juan.
The Crown formally conceded Mona and its Tainos to Barrionuevo in 1520 to continue to supply Puerto Rico. In 1527, with Barrionuevo still in charge and a single Spaniard living on Mona with the Tainos, excellent oranges were in production. In 1535, evidently Barrionuevo's twenty-third year as administrator of Mona, turtles and crabs were also reported as important food items.
Paradoxically, the success of the Tainos on Mona in producing food placed them in jeopardy. Mona, located on the trade route, provided with fair anchorages, a source of water and food, and without a garrison to protect it, was an attractive port for any ship. Since all ships in the region bore the flags of nations which were competing for the control of new territories and were generally at war with one another, or were captained by privateers or corsairs out for personal gain, every sail that came into view was a threat. As early as 1522, six French ships used Mona as a rendezvous. Warned, the Spanish thereafter convoyed their galleons back to Spain. In November 1527, 60 English corsairs came ashore, but whether or not they did damage is in doubt. The next year, however, Mona was raided by what was clearly a pirate crew under Diego Yugeos.
After raiding Cabo Rojo in 1528, another French party stole provisions from Mona, captured two Tainos and placed lookouts on the cliffs for several days to watch for ships bound for Spain. Portuguese prisoners in the hold of one ship overpowered their captors and reached Santo Domingo, bringing six Spanish ships with 400 men in retaliation. The Spaniards sank one French ship and drove the rest off.
In 1534, Spaniards leaving Puerto Rico without authorization for the riches of Peru used Mona as an escape route. Those captured were punished, some by amputation of their feet. It was said in 1543 that the Spaniard in charge of Mona had himself abandoned the island to go to Peru.
Depredations by the French, intensified after 1535, must have interfered with shipments from Mona to Puerto Rico. In 1538, 35 French pirates raided Mona, took four Tainos, and sank a ship anchored there. In 1541, a French privateer with 25 men plundered one caravel and sank another near Mona. In 1543, French corsairs who had used Mona as a base to raid western Puerto Rico were attacked by the Spanish, with three ships sunk and 40 pirates hanged. Nevertheless, there are reports of additional raids on Mona by the French in 1556 and 1561, 1566 and 1567.
The fortification of Mona Island was recommended repeatedly. In 1534 the Governor of Puerto Rico, Francisco Manuel de Lando, appealed to the Emperor for protection of the island, describing Mona Passage as the "key to all the Indies." Three years later, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes, in charge of defense of Hispaniola, made a similar request but was refused. In 1543, Las Casas and Andrada wrote the Emperor pointing out the danger of letting Mona fall into enemy hands because of its key location, and proposed its fortification. In 1549, Captain Diego Lopez de las Ruelas came to Mona with units of the Spanish Armada in search of corsairs. He found none but reported evidence of their depradations. Again in 1551, Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes and Diego Caballero, Secretary of the Government Council of Hispaniola, requested of the Emperor fortification of the island to protect it, the Tainos, and the crops. Caballero pointed out that the Tainos could sustain with cassava, sweet potatoes, meat, and fish a garrison of a dozen men. Artillery and ammunition were requested in 1554. In 1556, the presence of the food produced by the Tainos was described as the prime attraction of the island for the French. Except for the two reported counterattacks and the short visit of the Armada, these efforts to provide defenses for Mona Island evidently were fruitless.
The raids on Mona took their toll of the Tainos. From a population of 152 in 1517, there remained less than 50 by 1543. By 1548, there were only a "few." A count made in 1551 gave 25. Another, in 1556, estimated 30. A later report, apparently in 1561, referred to 50 neglected Tainos, whose sweet potatoes, cassava, and melons frequently had to be handed over to French pirates. A "few" were again reported in 1571. Finally, in 1578, some 10 to 30 Tainos, all those remaining, were transported to Puerto Rico to save them from the French raiders. A 1593 report of "Indians" on Mona by Lancaster, presumably referred to Spaniards.
In 1578, then, about 85 years after discovery, the Taino culture on Mona Island came to an end.
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During the Taino Period, Mona evidently was raided chiefly by the French. Subsequently, however, most of the reports refer to visits by the British. This apparent change may reflect merely the relative availability of records from the two sources.
At the outset, in 1579, the Governor of Puerto Rico, Francisco de Ovando, returning from a visit to Hispaniola, was sequestered on Saona Island by French corsairs, taken to Mona, and held for ransom. When it was apparent that he was dying, he was released at San German, on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico.
The Fifth Expediton of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1590, with Sir John White in charge of three ships and 105 men, watered at Mona after five months en route from England. They burned about a dozen dwellings presumed to belong to Spaniards, and destroyed a small boat which had been submerged, with its sails, masts, and rudder hidden to prevent discovery. The inhabitants were said to have been chased all over the island, but due to the caves and dense brush none was captured.
Mona was used by another British expediton for fifteen days in 1591 and by two British privateers in 1592. One of these, William King, with the Salomon and Jane Bonaventure, after recapturing a British ship in San Juan Harbor, watered and took on sweet potatoes and plantains. The other, Christopher Newport, with the Golden Dragon, Prudence, Margaret, and The Virgin, stopped in preparation for a raid on Hispaniola. He reported finding on Mona a single Portuguese family of 19 which provided swine and sweet potatoes.
Ships of the Earl of Cumberland and Sir Francis Drake were active near Mona in 1593. James Langton, with the Anthony, Pilgrim, and the Discovery, on Cumberland's Seventh Voyage raiding Spanish settlements in the West Indies, put in briefly at Mona. The Exchange, one of Drake's ships, was lost that year in Mona Passage. The mainmast, bowsprit, and foreyard were broken in a gale. After a towline parted, the crew was miraculously rescued from the sinking hull.
During his second 1593 stop at Mona with the Edward Bonaventure, James Lancaster and many of his crew were left deserted. Lancaster and 18 men went ashore in November. They reported finding an old "Indian" and three of his sons cultivating root crops, squash, plantains, and cotton. After three days ashore, the party was unable to reembark because a strong north wind prevented boats from coming in from the ship. The ship broke loose that night with only five men and a boy aboard.
The deserted men, dividing into three groups to search for food, found purslane, the stalks of which proved edible when boiled, and they took squash from the garden of the "Indians." After 29 days one group sighted a ship, and by building a fire attracted it to the anchorage at the west end of the island. It proved to be French. Its cannon were fired to attract the other parties. The third group failed to respond; so the first two were taken to Hispaniola, where they were imprisoned.
The Edward Bonaventure, inadequately manned, drifted westward until it ran aground off the Barajona coast of Hispaniola. From the survivors, the Spanish learned of the deserted men still on Mona. Considered enemies of Spain, three were captured by a searching party. Two others had fallen from the cliffs attempting to catch birds. The remaining two hid and survived until another French ship in March 1594 rescued them, more than three months after they had been deserted.
In 1594 another English party of two ships, led by Sir Robert Dudley, refitted at Mona after a raid in the Lesser Antilles in which nine Spanish ships were reported sunk. Late the next year, Drake's ships returned to Mona Passage from an unsuccessful attack on strongly fortified San Juan, en route to additional raids on Hispaniola.
The 1607 expedition of John Smith to Virginia brought Captain Christopher Newport back to Mona, this time with three ships. While the ships were watered, the explorers traversed the island on foot, killed iguanas and two wild boars and saw a "huge wild bull." Several men fainted during the march and one succumbed to the heat. They explored Monito also and reported the surface grassy but covered with the nests and young of sea birds, with huge flocks darkening the sky overhead. The men brought back a large supply of eggs.
In 1625, a frigate was captured in Mona Passage by the African pirate Mateo Congo. A year later a Dutch pirate, Adrian Cornelis, with ships which had earlier attacked San Juan, sank four ships from Santo Domingo and one from Puerto Rico, apparently in Mona Passage. In 1637, the same pirate, leading a group of 14 ships, boarded an African ship in Mona Passage carrying cedar lumber from Central America and stole part of her cargo.
War between France and Spain brought a sea battle to Mona Passage in 1666. In one encounter in that year, the French with eight vessels and 660 men reportedly captured two Spanish warships.
In 1699, the notorious English pirate William Kidd spent about ten days on Mona. With the Armenian prize Quedagh Merchant and a cargo of cloth, sugar, saltpeter, iron, gold and silver believed to be worth 100,000 pounds sterling captured in the Indian Ocean, Kidd sailed in September 1698 from Madagascar to the West Indies to escape capture. Threatened with imprisonment upon his arrival at Anguilla and St. Thomas in April 1699, he headed for Mona.
Off southwestern Puerto Rico, Kidd met a Dutch sloop San Antonio with which he bargained for food and shipment of fabrics to Curacao to buy canvas. After eight days the San Antonio returned to Kidd on the west coast of Mona. On the following day Kidd sent the Quedagh Merchant to Hispaniola under command of the Captain of the San Antonio. Kidd followed with the San Antonio, and a second Dutch ship a few days later. There he bought the San Antonio, left Captain Bolton of the San Antonio and most of his crew with the Quedagh Merchant, and departed soon thereafter for New England to meet with his underwriters.
Captain Bolton left the ship and men, taking the smaller boat to search for a market for the cargo. Five weeks later he returned to find that the crew had mutinied and abandoned the Quedagh Merchant after stealing everything portable from her. She was later burned by the Spanish.
When, after several stops along the east coast of the United States, Kidd reached Massachusetts in July 1699, he was imprisoned. His ship was found to contain some 1300 oz. of gold and 2,400 oz. of silver, worth possibly 10,000 pounds sterling, much less than was believed to be in his possession. For his freedom, he is said to have tried to bribe the Governor of New York with a treasure worth 60,000 pounds sterling, the location of which he alleged he, and only he, could find if allowed to return to the large ship, to St. Thomas, and also to Curacao. The offer was disregarded, and in 1701 he was hanged. There remains the doubt, however, that Kidd would have left much of value with a mutinous crew, and since Mona was his only landing, if he left anything, why not there?
The use of Mona by English privateers continued into the 18th century. Bartholomew Roberts, with three prizes captured off Dominica and Guadeloupe, went to Mona to refit in 1720; but since the sea ran too high, he continued to Hispaniola. The next year another English privateer, George Lowther, in the Delivery, captured and burned a Spanish ship and its English prize in Mona Passage, setting the Spaniards free in an open boat. In 1722, John Evans a Welsh privateer commanding the Scourer, plundered the English ship Dove in Mona Passage and then "ran into one of the islands" (presumably Mona) for fresh water and repairs where he remained for some time.
Reports on the inhabitation of Mona during the Period of Abandon are few. Between 1593 and 1762 no references were found. Nevertheless, in 1640 Mona was a source of fruits, including oranges (Laet), and it was again referred to as "fruitful" in 1655. In 1762, the island was reported "well peopled" and a source of the largest and finest oranges in America. Such quality fruit would appear to require that the island be inhabited at least periodically. Inscriptions dating from the 1700's and other evidence of early human use deep in Cueva Negra indicate entry by raiders during this period, possibly in search of residents of the island in hiding. Reports of the abundance of good water continued into the last decade of that century.
The last of French piracy at Mona was evidently in 1804, when buccaneers from Haiti with an armed frigate and four smaller ships used the island as a base to attack and board English and Spanish ships.
Early in the 19th Century, the Spanish Crown, recognizing as enemies those American countries revolting from the Empire, authorized privateering to blockade their ports. Mona Passage, as a gateway for such traffic with the United States, was a focal point for much of this privateering. In fact, an American insurance company refused to honor a claim because the ship in question did not observe the policy clause requiring avoidance of Mona Island and the Passage due to the Spanish privateers waiting there.
Privateering in Mona Passage led to claims by the United States against Spain. Typically, ships allegedly in trade with an enemy were captured, brought to port by a prize crew, and awarded to the privateer, or impounded. Even when later released on the basis of evidence presented in court, the ship's fittings, cargo, and the property of the passengers commonly had disappeared.
At least eight American ships were captured between April and December 1822, some of them certainly in the Mona Passage or by privateers based there. Sworn testimony produces the following information:
Roberto Coufersin ("Cofresi"), a Puerto Rican, began his operations as a pirate in 1823 at the age of 23. With a crew of eight to ten other young men he raided ships off southern and western Puerto Rico. Depradations at this time led the U. S. Consul in San Juan to request the Secretary of State to send a patrol boat to Mona Passage to protect American shipping from Spanish privateers. Later the U. S. Navy armed schooner Beagle was sent to Mona in search of Cofresi. There his ship and four men were captured and two others were killed. Cofresi, however, hid in a cave and later escaped to Santo Domingo in a small boat. There, sentenced to six years in prison, he again escaped but was soon recaptured off the southern coast of Puerto Rico.
In 1824, the Hispaniolan pirate Manuel Lamparo used Mona as a base to raid ships off eastern Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Jose Almeida, from the Azores, evidently also used Mona as a base at the same time. Although he was the "El Portugues" of persistent Mona legends, Almeida and his exploits are not well documented. For his crimes, he was wanted by the governments of England, France, and Portugal. Reportedly he was captured and imprisoned in Puerto Rico in 1827.
The executions of Cofresi in 1828 and of Almeida in 1832, seem to mark the end of an era of more than three centuries of use of Mona Island by pirates.
During the next 15 years, although piracy was over, the island officially remained abandoned, inhabited only intermittently by fishermen from Mayaguez and Cabo Rojo who between April and September kept vigil on the beaches of Sardinera and Uvero, waiting for turtles to come ashore to lay eggs. English and American ships are said to have visited both Mona and Monito at this time, but no piracy is reported. Vestiges of earlier habitation of the island remained only in the "abundant wild beasts" which presumably included the descendants of the pigs first reported in 1592. The wild goats, which forty years later were sufficiently numerous to withstand continuous hunting, must also have been introduced by this time.
Of the many ships which certainly foundered near Mona during this period, only one wreck, a galleon off the east coast, has been mapped. The buried remains of another vessel, possibly under construction by some marooned party, have also been located on a beach east of Punta Caigo o No Caigo. Reports also refer to treasures buried during this period, some of which are said to have been discovered.
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Reported to be suitable as fertilizer as early as the late 18th Century and possibly known to the Tainos long before that, the guano deposits became attractive commercially only after the menace of the pirates was gone. Extraction of guano, presumably clandestine, was reported as early as 1848.
By 1854, the Spanish Government had received numerous applications for exploitation rights. In response to the application of a Baltimore company submitted in 1856, the Captain General of Puerto Rico in that year sent an expedition to examine the deposits. Two large American vessels were found loading guano without authorization. The masters of these vessels refused to recognize Spanish authority. As a result, the Spanish warship Bazan was made avilable for visit by the U. S. Consul to the island in May of that year. He found an American ship being loaded by twelve laborers said to be from St. Thomas. The Captain alleged he did not know the ownership of the island. He was requested to stop loading forthwith and to withdraw.
Incredibly Monito was reported as a source of the guano extracted. The undercut cliffs make it next to impossible even to moor a boat to this rock, although there is an exposed anchorage nearby. The exploitation of these deposits, also reported subsequently, may explain the presence of rats there.
The Government of Puerto Rico denied the American applications in 1858, evidently including one from the U. S. Consul for himself and proposed to send thirty tons of the material to Cadiz and London for assay. The Bazan returned to Mona and Monito late that year, mapped 17 caves on Mona and one on Monito, and brought back samples of guano, sea birds, Taino relics from the caves, and large white sponges. The London assay, not actually made until 1861, showed the guano to have an average specific gravity of 1.82 and to contain about 24 per cent phosphoric acid. The Civil War blockade, which brought Confederate warships to Puerto Rican waters, undoubtedly obstructed exploitation during the next few years. Commercial statistics from 1861 to 1876 record the shipment of only about 10 tons.
The first official concession to extract guano from Mona was made in 1871 to an Englishman named Huighes. By 1874, this had lapsed and a second concession was given to a Puerto Rican, Manuel Homedes y Cabrera. This also lapsed unused. Under a third concession of 1877 to Miguel Porrata Doria, of Fajardo, and Juan Contreras Martinez, a Spanish Brigadier, the first mining enterprise was undertaken in 1878 by the Sociedad Porrata Doria, Contreras y Cia.
In 1881, after a year of inactivity, John G. Miller, a noted geologist from Ottawa, Canada, took charge of mining operations. With him was Carlos Miguel Iglesias y Mons. Miller set up headquarters near Cueva de Pajaros, and screening and sun-drying facilities capable of processing 100 tons per day. In addition to mineralogical studies, he accumulated an impressive collection of Taino relics from the eastern part of the island. After exploiting the caves there, he planned to proceed to those at Sardinera and Uvero.
The names of the caves proposed for mining during this venture were Mayaguez, Caigo o No Caigo, Los Ingleses, Escrita, Agua, Lirio, Puente, Alemana, Capitan, Canada, Pajaros, and Este. The guano, dug up with picks, bars, and shovels, was transported in wheelbarrows and, in the three largest cave systems also in tramcars on metal rails laid on graded courses. From cave mouths directly above the water, the guano, in baskets, was lowered with ropes to boats that transported it to Playa de Pajaros for processing. Markets included England, France, and the United States.
Retention of miners evidently was a problem. During 1882, the number employed varied from 31 to 63 per month. In 1883, when 40 tons were being mined daily, it was reported that 76 miners had been brought from Guadeloupe. Yet the following year, the miners, about a hundred in all, were mostly Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.
Loading was a precarious operation. Ships lay anchored or moored to buoys and exposed to the open sea just outside the reef off Playa de Pajaros. Using 5 to 8 men from ashore as well as the ship's crews, loading required up to a month, even in favorable weather.
There the Olive Cosby a 281-ton Maine schooner, met her fate on December 27, 1883. A direct onshore wind from East by South and a surging heavy sea came up while she was lying at buoy, almost fully loaded. The master started to make sail, but before he had headway, the mooring chain parted. He dropped a port anchor, but the chain parted immediately also, and the vessel was driven broadside onto the reef, a total wreck. The crew was rescued from ashore.
An almost identical disaster befell the 310-ton brig F. H. Todd on February 13, 1884, less than two months later. A southeast wind came up on the 12th and a heavy sea commenced to roll in. The brig, awaiting cargo, lost one anchor that day. On the 13th, a violent squall parted a chain to one anchor and a hawser to a second, dragging the third until she went onto the reef, becoming completely wrecked. The crew was rescued.
The unpredictable nature of Mona's waters was borne out by a third tragedy; that of the 218-ton schooner John H. Pearsons at the same location on November 22, 1884. Attempting to shift anchorage, the vessel lost headway when the wind died, and the current swept her onto the reef, where she was reduced to a total wreck in a very short time.
A significant part of the first venture was soon over, with the main source of guano, Cueva de Pajaros , nearly worked out by 1884. The next year, at a time when the miners were restive, Miller found it necessary to make a trip to Mayaguez for provisions. Wishing to return as soon as possible, he disregarded warnings of local seamen as to threatening weather and set out in his open sloop. Seventeen days after his departure identifiable remains of his boat washed up on the rocky shore of Mona. As a result, mining operations were paralyzed for three years.
The end of the first mining venture did not result from a lack of guano. It was estimated in 1887 that in 22 caves there was a total of 462,000 tons of guano. Nevertheless, mining ceased in 1889 after 31,000 tons (38 cargoes) of guano had been shipped. With the departure of the miners, the island again became a quiet port for a few fishermen.
Other interesting events took place during the first mining venture. Goats and cattle, in addition to the pigs, had gone wild by 1868. Coconut palms had been introduced by 1870. By 1883, exploration of El Corral had disclosed a large rectangular area surrounded by rocks and a possible former house site. The Mona parrakeet, a species of bird found only on Mona, evidently was first recorded in 1884, at which time both wild cattle and goats were again reported, as well as wild dogs on the coastal plain.
A royal order of 1876 authorized a second-order lighthouse at Punta Este. However, the Culebrita and Caja de Muertos lights, proposed later, were installed first. Funds for Mona lighthouse were not approved until 1889. The search for pirate treasure, undoubtedly begun many years previously, was undertaken officially in 1874 by a searching party of the Government of Puerto Rico. The project was abandoned after about ten days when a member of the party committed suicide. An American is said to have discovered treasure valued at $15,000 at about this time, but he evidently lost it for the wreckage of his boat later washed up on shore.
A second mining venture began in 1890. At that time, Anton Mobins, a German, subleased the Porrata Doria concession. It was transferred again in 1894 to Francisco Blanes y Mestre of Palma de Mallorca. All but the most remote caves on the north side of the island were worked. Evidently these were the first operations on the west side of the island. At the height of production 300 to 400 men were employed.
Again the difficulties of loading the ships were critical. The reefs at Playa de Pajaros were blasted out to facilitate lightering to ships anchored outside. During the period 1890-92 at least 30 ships were loaded in this way. In rough weather, not only was lightering impossible but at times the ships were forced to put to sea, and both ships and lighters were lost.
From 1891 through 1899, a total of 113,000 metric tons of guano was reportedly shipped from Mona, most going to England, Holland, Germany, Italy, and the United States.
The discovery of better phosphate sources in Florida and Tunis was blamed for the termination of operations in 1896. The equipment was withdrawn from the island at that time, and by 1898 the population had dwindled to six. The resumption of shipments in 1899, supported by statistical records presumed to refer to Mona Island, is not documented from other sources.
For more than three centuries after the Tainos left, agriculture on Mona was not authorized legally. A request for a land concession in 1874 was not granted. In August 1888, a franchise was given to Carlos Iglesias to farm the coastal plain west of Cape Julia (Caigo o no Caigo) between the escarpment and the sea. Iglesias, reportedly on Mona in 1884, possibly was already farming by this time. Under his franchise, he cleared about 200 acres, apparently near Uvero. Part of the land had up to that time been covered with virgin forest. He sold charcoal to the miners and developed cisterns for water. He planted a guinea grass pasture and enclosed it with thick stone walls, raised corn, vegetables, bananas, plantains, fruits, cattle, and swine. He may have planted the grove of sabal palms which persists near Uvero. Iglesias continued his farming operation at least until 1896 when he was poisoned, reportedly by liquor intended for the captain of a guano ship that foundered off Uvero. His franchise terminated in 1904.
Scientific interest in the birds and reptiles was first shown in 1892. The Mona parrakeet still survived at that time. Climatic records were begun in the same year.
The mining colony must have had a heavy impact on local sources of food. In 1898, three men were used to hunt goats and pigs continuously. The wild pigs at that time must have become scarce because one report considered them (apparently incorrectly) exterminated. Other local foods included fish, turtles, turtle eggs, sea bird eggs, pigeons, and thrushes. The mechanism for Mona light, shipped from France, was nearly lost en route to the island in January 1890, and had to be salvaged when the sloop San Antonio ran aground. A base was first constructed above Cueva de La Escalera with materials transported up through the cave. A lighthouse attendant was living on Mona by 1898.
The entire island had reportedly been searched for treasure by 1898, and yet the fever persisted. Even the Spanish Government took part. Among other things, cannon balls were found on the coastal plain.
With the change to American sovereignity in 1899, Mona was publicized for settlement. Newspapers in Boston and New York heralded Mona as the "pearl of the Antilles," an "uninhabited paradise" that would "grow every kind of tropical crop, a nesting place of thousands of green turtles, and surrounded by waters teeming with the finest varieties of fish." An explanation for the lack of a resident population was considered "just hard to surmise." The prompt application of the homestead laws of the U. S. was predicted. As a result, the Department of the Interior in Washington received at least 40 requests for rights to use the island. In actual fact, Monito and all of Mona except the 235-acre lighthouse reservation were transferred in 1903 to the Government of Porto Rico. At that time a third mining venture began, with the islands under the administration of the Porto Rico Department of the Interior. The Porrata-Doria concession was terminated and a 40-year franchise was granted to Percy Saint. In December 1905, before any guano extraction had begun, this was transferred to the Mona Island Phosphate Company, of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, of which Saint was Vice President and General Manager. The dates of operation are not certain, but as late as 1909 a report anticipated that extraction would take place "very soon." Among others, the caves at Sardinera and El Capitan were worked. At El Capitan, a chute was used for transporting guano from the cliffs to the beach.
Interest in phosphates increased with the approach of the World War. A German company is said to have purchased an option to the deposits and a British purchaser also appeared, but the war terminated these arrangements. Meanwhile, the abnormally high wartime prices evidently stimulated production by the Mona Island Phosphate Company. By 1920, the most accessible deposits had been worked out. In 1922, the franchise was sold to the Chatham Coal & Coke Company of Savannah, Georgia, under the impression that between one and two million tons of guano remained. This company apparently did no extraction. The franchise was terminated in 1924 although a few workers were reported there in 1927.
By 1903 the first site for Mona lighthouse had been abandoned, because at that location the light was obscured from the East to the South South East. A new location was selected farther north. A narrow-gage railroad was built on the plateau from Cueva de la Escalera to the new site. The landing below Cueva de la Escalera was destroyed by a storm in August 1903 and replaced at Playa de Pajaros.
The entire 800-acre coastal plain of the island was under agricultural permit during part of this third venture; evidently used mostly as pasture. From 1910, to the end of the Mining Period a Mrs. Eugenia (Dofia Gefa) Rodriguez, provided food for the miners by hunting, fishing, and farming. She and her two sons lived in a cave at Uvero. A third son, buried nearby, died reportedly of pneumonia. In 1922, six families were farming 32 acres. Crops raised included corn, squash, watermelons, pigeonpeas, beans, onions, sweet potatoes, peanuts, tobacco, cotton, sugar cane, and papayas.
The wild goats and pigs, although hunted continuously, evidently thrived during this period. They were referred to as abundant in 1917, 1919, 1925 and 1927.
Scientific interest in the island increased notably in the second decade of the century. Studies of the insects were published in 1913 of the spiders in 1915, and of the flora in the same year. A land survey was made in 1917 by the Porto Rico Department of the Interior. Old trails to Bajura de Uvero (de los Cerezos), El Corral, and Cuevas del Centro were mapped. The surveyors suggested that the island might be used for the production of sisal and, as in southwestern Puerto Rico, this plant was evidently introduced at that time near the lighthouse where it still survives.
Mona was formally proposed for a penitentiary or penal colony in the Porto Rico House of Delegates in 1915. The proposal, apparently never approved, provided that each prisoner cultivate two cuerdas for his own benefit and spend three days each week extracting guano, to be sold at cost to Puerto Rican farmers. Instead, Mona, except for the federal lighthouse reservation, together with Monito, was in 1919 proclaimed an Insular Forest, transferring its administration from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture and Labor. By that time, most of the accessible forests had been either cut over for fuelwood or removed entirely to provide for pasture or cultivation. Reportedly several hundred tons of lignum vitae wood had been exported, evidently sometime after 1840 and probably during the early Mining Period.
Mona was reported unaffected by the earthquake which severely damaged western Puerto Rico in 1918. On the other hand, the hurricane in September 1921 eventually led to some improvements. The storm carried off the roof of a lighthouse storeroom and damaged the kitchen and the tramway. The inspection report emphasized the difficulties of transportation to the lighthouse, involving an approach with an onshore wind over reefs to the coast, a mile of foot travel along the beach, a rail tramway up a 50° slope to a cave, a stairway through the cave, and then another 6,000 feet by tramcar subject to frequent derailment because the 22-year-old tramway was in a state of collapse. Even walking was difficult because of the cactus. By 1924, an improved foot road was constructed between Playa de Pajaros and Cueva de la Escalera. In 1925, the tramcar with a canopy on top, was drawn by "Macario" a "disdainful" burro. The construction of an automobile road was underway by 1927.
Three shipwrecks believed to date from the Mining Period, all schooners, have been mapped. One, La Engracia, struck the cliff near Cape Barrio-nuevo and lies in about one hundred feet of water. The story is told that a sole survivor swam from there to Sardinera. The others, probably guano carriers, lie off Playa de Pajaros and the south coast east of Punta Caigo o no Caigo. A launch was disabled off Mona in 1913, requiring Coast Guard assistance to rescue seven persons.
Treasure hunting evidently continued intermittently during the third venture. A systematic search was undertaken from 1922 to 1924 by a man named Erickson. He built a cabin near the south end of Playa de Pajaros, but became mentally deranged before he left the island; so his findings, if any, are not recorded.
The continuing significance of the isolation of Mona was evident in 1923 when a cache of 200 cases of smuggled liquor, French perfumes, and heroin valued at more than $75,000 was found in one of the caves.
In less than 80 years, from 1848 to 1927, the Mining Period was over. Shipment records for the 19th Century total 145,000 metric tons. Records of only 2,980 metric tons shipped during the 20th Century (1919 and 1920) have been found. It appears that shipments were negligible before 1910 and after 1920. Royalty payments by the Mona Island Phosphate Company did not in any year exceed the $1,800 minimum corresponding to 2,727 metric tons, so the shipments for the period from 1910 through 1918 could not have exceeded 25,000 metric tons. This would make the production for the entire period something between 148,000 and 173,000 metric tons.
The guano remaining consists of small residuals in the caves worked, larger deposits north of Punta Este, and possibly also hidden deposits as yet undiscovered. A recent estimate of residual guano, based on cave measurements, is 25,500 m3. This is equivalent to 29,000 to 46,000 metric tons, depending upon the specific gravity of the material, found to be 1.82 in 1868 and 1.15 recently. Added to the quantity shipped, this totals 177,000 to 219,000 tons, the original resource. To this might be added 34,000 m3 estimated as a possible (but unseen) deposit beneath Camino Los Cerezos, a quantity equivalent to 39,000 to 62,000 metric tons, again depending on the specific gravity assumed. These estimates, smaller than some others, are based on explorations which indicate the cave systems to be less extensive than formerly believed. Exploitation appears to have worked out completely seven of the eight larger cave systems. In summary, about 80 per cent of the estimated original deposits of guano have been removed.
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The need for a vehicle road from Playa de Pajaros to the lighthouse required extension of the lighthouse reservation by a transfer of lands from the Puerto Rican Government in 1929. During this year, four men from the Coast Guard construction crew selected a calm Sunday to blast out an entrance through Playa de Pajaros reef. A charge of three sticks of dynamite exploded before it was set, throwing the men into the sea and destroying the boat. Although severely injured, the men swam to safety. The road, with two parallel concrete tracks, was completed in 1931.
In 1930, an archeological expedition discovered important Taino remains near Sardinera, and unsuccessfully searched for a ball court reported to exist near the center of the plateau.
The search for pirate treasure continued despite the facts that the floors of all of the more accessible caves had been systematically excavated by the miners and that numerous previous attempts had been made. In about 1932, a man from the United States was brought with provisions for a month to Mona by a fisherman from Puerto Real. Returning from a brief walk shortly after his arrival, he told the fisherman that he had found what he came for and wished to return to Puerto Rico. He gave away his provisions, creating the suspicion that he had found something worth much more and planned to retrieve it later alone.
The Forest Service authorized the cutting of stakes and fuelwood and the manufacture of charcoal on Mona between 1930 and 1937. About a thousand cords of wood were removed, mostly from the plateau near Uvero.
These years of relative tranquillity ended in 1937 when the Forest Service constructed Camp Cofresi, a unit of the Civilian Conservation Corps, at Sardinera. It served as a base for up to 140 young men carrying out resource conservation work. The reef off Sardinera landing was blasted to a 6-foot depth, and a concrete pier was built. A water catchment of metal roofing was constructed with cisterns for storage. A six-mile truck trail was opened from Sardinera to the lighthouse road above Playa de Pajaros. The old foot trail system was reopened and maintained. Two perpendicular landing fields were cleared near Punta Arenas.
Forestry was the main work objective of the CCC program. A forest nursery was developed at Sardinera, and some 264,000 trees were planted on 415 acres, mostly on the coastal plain between Sardinera and Roca Carabinero, but also in small areas on the plateau north of Sardinera and along Hell Road east of Uvero. A 1938 inventory of 10,330 acres, the area considered timber covered, showed a wood volume equivalent to 87,000 posts and poles and 38,000 40-pound sacks of charcoal. Selective cutting of natural forests and thinning of plantations between 1938 and 1942 yielded more than 8,000 posts and poles and 4,000 sacks of charcoal.
The first efforts to bring tourists to Mona were a part of the CCC program. Seven cabins were built near the camp, and an airplane was placed in service between Puerto Rico and Mona.
Other events of interest took place during the CCC years. The wild goats and pigs, although hunted, prospered. A burro, escaped from either the camp or the lighthouse, for years was a mysterious, elusive sight on the plateau. House cats, reported by 1937, penetrated in small numbers even to the remote Cuevas del Centro. The camp maintained a herd of dairy cattle on the coastal plain. Mrs. Rodriguez and her two sons lived near Uvero throughout this period, cultivating a small area. When the Sardinera area was again explored archeologically in 1938, a Taino village site was located near the forest nursery. In 1941, a professor from an American university, reportedly using old Spanish maps, used the camp as a base to search for treasure for several months. In 1938, a radio beacon was installed at the Mona Light Station to facilitate marine and air navegation.
With the termination of the CCC program in 1942, activity on Mona subsided. For another year, Camp Cofresi was used by the National Youth Administration for the rehabilitation of young men. When the camp closed, it was rented briefly for use as a tourist resort. Dona Gena Rodriguez and her sons left the island in 1943.
The second world war was significant to Mona in other ways. In 1942, the island was reportedly fired upon by a German submarine. Tankers operating between Venezuela and the United States, by then a common sight in Mona Passage, appeared in large convoys, sometimes with as many as 25 ships, including Navy escort vessels. Flotsam from torpedoed ships, including crude rubber, washed up on Playa de Pajaros. Mona was used by the Puerto Rico Agricultural Company in 1943 to develop a commercial fishing project as a wartime source of food. Headquarters was at Sardinera, and 48 fishermen participated. However, the island was not formally transferred from the Forest Service to the Agricultural Company until 1946.
During the next few years, the chief activity on Mona was hunting. The number of goats was estimated at 9,000 in 1949. There were public complaints about poaching. Proposals were made to release game birds to improve the hunting, to resume mining, and again to use the island as a prison. None was carried out.
In 1953, Mona was leased to the United States Government to support aerial bombardment exercises of the Air Force on Monito. The target was monitored from stations on the northwestern cliffs of Mona, manned from the small contingent of men stationed at Sardinera. "Operation Salt Air," another training exercise, involved brush removal by bulldozers on many straight courses on the plateau. After two military aircraft crashed at the Punta Arenas landing field, a longer runway was prepared farther east.
Interest in the wildlife, and particularly in hunting, continued despite the use of the area by the Air Force. In 1954, an iguana was trapped and shipped to the National Zoological Garden at Washington, D.C. In 1959, it was estimated that there were 4,000 wild goats and 600 wild pigs. This estimate, wildly at variance with that of 1949, may reflect heavy losses, but more probably the fact that neither had any scientific basis. White-crowned pigeons were reported abundant from July to September. The introduction of Key deer was proposed, but never undertaken.
The most recent decade, since Mona and Monito were returned to the Government of Puerto Rico by the Federal Government in 1962, has brought changes of unprecedented significance to the future of these islands. Ten years ago the islands were replete with attractive natural features, many superior to those of Puerto Rico itself. The coastal waters, crystal clear, included relatively unfished shoal areas and reefs. The beaches, little used, yielded shells, sponges, and other interesting gifts from the sea. Shipwrecks, both old and recent, lay unexplored. Wildlife, including the iguanas, pigeons, goats, and pigs, was abundant. Natural tree growth has recovered, obscuring sea bird rookeries, old trails, and other evidence of the past. The attractive dripstone formations and the prospect of evidence of Taino, pirate, and mining days in the caves had their appeal.
The widespread use of power boats and private aircraft since 1962 has made Mona Island accessible to the public in general. Publicity has done the rest. The first newcomers were campers and scientists, both with a laudable mission, and generally psychologically compatible with the environment on Mona. Boy Scouts have camped on the island periodically since 1960. Scientific exploration has included the disciplines of entomology, forestry, ornithology, geology, marine biology, oceanography, hydrology, and herpetology.
Sportsmen also have come in ever larger numbers to hunt, fish, swim, and snorkel. To these are added the most recent group, the tourists. They come primarily for the ride or just to see something new. They may swim, but usually don't hike far or explore caves. Many are content just to relax. Some come in dress clothes, totally unprepared except as spectators, and leave the island about as uninformed as they arrive. In all, as many as 200 visitors may come to Mona on the more popular week ends.
The dominant public interest in the island's wildlife led the government in 1962 to return administrative control to the Department of Agriculture, this time to the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The decision had a rational basis, as did the resultant assignment of biologists to the island to study and protect its wildlife. Nevertheless, for various reasons effective administration has not resulted.
Wildlife management has not enjoyed strong public support in Puerto Rico during the past ten years. A society increasingly concerned with developments that were primarily economic, did not focus much effort on wildlife management. Even the indirect economic potentials of wildlife, although considerable, have been too little understood to present an appealing investment. Worse still, the first elementary step, gave law enforcement, brought influential opposition. To this must be added the fact that wildlife management was considered peripheral to the primary responsibilitles of the governmental department to which it was assigned. So it has been treated simply as of minor importance. With this situation in Puerto Rico proper, the status of wildlife management on an area as remote as Mona can easily be inferred.
The lack of a strong wildlife management program on Mona and Monito has been critical because the survival of their wildlife depends substantially on interrelationships which are now too complex and precarious to persist otherwise. The islands support several species of animals found nowhere else in the world, not even in Puerto Rico. Rookeries of sea birds no longer found in Puerto Rico still exist on both Mona and Monito. Sea turtles of species endangered throughout the Caribbean still nest on Mona, although they have practically disappeared from Puerto Rico itself. The islands have been visited seasonally by tens of thousands of white-crowned pigeons from Hispaniola, critically dependent on the fruits of one or two species of trees and the very few sources of fresh water. Into this delicately balanced desert island environment, goats and pigs, both heavy feeders, were introduced long ago and have been allowed to build up large numbers. House cats have also gone wild on Mona, and rats have reached both islands.
In the face of these complex relationships and serious impacts no studies have been made as to the number, requirements, habits, or behavior of these animals living together on Mona and Monito, either the native or the introduced species. The habitats required by specialized native species tend to be extremely small in area and therefore vulnerable to destruction. One Mona bird, a parrakeet, has already become extinct, and others no longer nest on these islands.
Intensifying human pressures constitute the chief threat to the wildlife today. The pigeons, goats, and pigs are considered game, and because of the disappearance of most of the game in Puerto Rico, Mona has become a more fruitful place to hunt. As many as 50 hunters may prowl the island at a time. The impact on the mammals, never having been censused, can only be imagined, but there Can be no doubt that the pigeons have been reduced to rarity in the past ten years. Spearfishing has also reportedly reduced the quantity and quality of the reef life aloDg all of the accessible coastline.
Elementary practices of unquestionable merit to conserve the native fauna are disregarded. The favoring of exotic over the native animals, a practice known worldwide to be at the expense of unique native forms, is an example. Hunting seasons on the feral goats and pigs were closed in 1971 and part of 1972 to allow their numbers to build up for future hunting, yet an open season persists for the now rare native white-crowned pigeons! Hunters still sit from dawn to dusk around the only continuous source of reasonably fresh water and decimate the pigeons as their growing thirst forces them within range. The feral house cats, which can only be harmful to other wildlife, are not being hunted down. Rather, new species of animals are being introduced! As recently as 1965 rabbits were allowed to escape from pens at Sardinera. Their numbers are said to be small, but there is no concerted effort to wipe them out. Honey creepers and troupials were introduced by the biologists at about the same time. The former has failed and the latter is uncommon, but why were they ever introduced?
Law enforcement appears anything but adequate. The eastern end of the island, with its port facility at Playa de Pajaro, is essentially unpatrolled. A police detachment, sent to Mona in 1964 and reestablished in 1971 after a period of interrupted service, is said to be concerned primarily with contraband. There is no indication that the presence of these Police officers has brought systematic patrol of beaches and other remote areas in the interest of wildlife protection. Persistent stories of the taking of female turtles at night on the beaches and the human tracks and the stakes commonly seen at turtle nests suggest that the critical need to enforce existing laws protecting these now rare species, all but gone from Puerto Rico, is not even recognized.
A basic deficiency in the present administration of Mona is the assignment of a highly technical and disciplinary task to inadequately trained personnel. Required are an awareness of what must be done, a sense of urgency, enthusiasm, and firmness in carrying it out. The mere chores of survival preempt much of their time, leaving almost none for patrolling or research on the populations, life histories, and behavior of the animal life. A recent opportunity to obtain financial support for such research was not accepted.
An inadequately supported wildlife management team on Mona understandably has fared no better at another equally pressing assignment, the administration of the growing recreational use of the island. Service to visitors can be only at the expense of the performance of an already deficient wildlife management program. The construction of four overnight cabins has increased the traffic without meeting any significant portion of the need. Except to extend minimal courtesies and to inform visitors regarding game laws, the administrative force is inadequate to serve these visitors, not to mention controlling their activities.
The results of undisciplined visitation by the public are in evidence throughout the most frequented parts of Mona. Trash, in the form of shotgun shells, cans, and bottles, is strewn near roads, trails, and beaches. A large uncovered trash and garbage dump exists near Roca Carabinero. Relics of early history are moved, removed, or destroyed without restraint. Vandalism on the walls of the more accessible caves has destroyed the credibility of what may be early inscriptions.
The fact that human pressures on Mona have far outrun administration impresses almost any visitor. A common conclusion is that Mona is "abandoned" and there is a need to "do something" with it. When the islands were returned by the Federal Government in 1962 it was proposed that Mona be converted into a marine biological laboratory or a center for tourism. More recent proposals, some still active, include the use of the islands as a youth camp, a hunting and fishing club, a prison, a renewed source of guano, a source of dolomite rock, a target for marine military maneuvers, and in the current year a petroleum storage and industrial area.
Decisions as to the future use of Mona and Monito are long overdue; yet many of the proposals cited show only superficial concern for long-term consequences. Some would provide for one use to the exclusion, either immediately or gradually, of others which merit continuation. Some are irreversible in that, once started, their discontinuation would be improbable, impossible, or both, or in any event the former values could never be restored. Most proposals do not recognize any value in the still relatively unmodified character of the islands and remaining evidence of their historic past.
Recognition of the danger of decisions concerning the future of the islands based only on short term considerations is beginning to appear. In 1972, both Mona and Monito and their surrounding waters were formally proposed as a marine environmental sanctuary. Nevertheless, impetuous and irresponsible development of the islands has been restrained less by discretion than by a lack of that for which Mona was once famous, available fresh water.
As pressures rise to "do something" with the islands, the gravest danger to their inherent natural and acquired historical values lies in the overwhelmingly short-term economic basis of contemporary Puerto Rican planning and development. Mona and Monito stand out from the rest of Puerto Rico because of values which are primarily social, rather than economic. Although intangible, these social values appear to be far greater than any economic potentialities of these islands. Given the degree to which the main island of Puerto Rico has lost its natural appearance, Mona and Monito have become rare relics of nature, with many features which are unique, irreplaceable, or both. The very absence or loss of these extraordinary features elsehwere makes their appeal for public enjoyment a dynamic value, rising more rapidly for this than for any other human use. Exploitation of the islands primarily for direct economic returns, even ostensibly to facilitate appreciation of these social values, inexorably would deteriorate and sooner or later destroy these values. Full recognition of this distinction between social and economic values, deserving of more attention in Puerto Rico itself, is the key to the true potential of these two remarkable islands.
These comments are now (2002) 30 years old. If available, the record of the last 30 years (from DNER) would make a valuable supplement to this story.
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