‘Benevolent imperialism’

“Benevolent assimilation” was how Pres. W. McKinley called the conquest of the Philippines; in Puerto Rico, our half-sister, it was “benevolent imperialism.” Directly after the 1898 Treaty of Paris was signed, the USA began setting up schools in Puerto Rico and sending American teachers there to train their native counterparts in the educational ways of the imperial master. Scholarship programs were drawn up so Puerto Ricans could be sent to educational institutions in the USA. Doesn’t that sound all too familiar? Indeed, education was the most lethal weapon in the USA’s “pacification” arsenal.

In the 19th century, the political leaders of the USA considered Puerto Rico, fabled “Gateway to the Antilles,” as extremely valuable due to its military as well as economic advantages; but to derive the utmost benefit of said potentials, the inhabitants had to be “civilized and Christianized”; they had to be Americanized. It may interest you to know that Mr. Charles Eliot, then president of Harvard University, had this to say: “I am inclined to believe that we shall be able to do Cuba and Porto Rico some good; though to do so we shall have to better very much our previous and existing practices in dealing with inferior peoples.” He was alluding to the Native American Indians and freed slaves.

Like Filipinas its half-sister, Puerto Rico also naively idealized the USA as the land of liberty and democracy and believed that it could bestow social justice and other reforms that Mother Spain had consistently begrudged us. In 1902, a commissioner of education, Samuel McCune Lindsay, was sent to Puerto Rico. Upon accepting the post, Mr. Lindsay was reported to have said: “Colonialization carried forward by the armies of war is vastly more costly than that carried forward by the armies of peace, whose outpost and garrisons are the public schools of the advancing nation.”

A public school system, which included a Normal School and a State University, was established to initiate what Puerto Rican historians describe as the process “ re-acculturation” intended to destroy their identity and culture. Eminent poet and political activist, Juan Antonio Corretjer, would write about “ the most tortured generation”, those who were subjected to the educational policies of the early years of US conquest. The American-style curriculum included the imposition of English as the primary medium of instruction until 1948.

At about the same time that the Thomasites sailed to the Philippines in a refurbished cattle ship named “Thomas,” 120 English teachers were transported to Puerto Rico, and after a couple of years, 540 native public school teachers were sent to Harvard and Cornell for summer programs. Meanwhile in Cuba, 1,273 public school teachers were sent to train at Hampton Institute (Virginia) and Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School (Alabama).

There was another educational center, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (CIIS) of Pennsylvania, that figured quite prominently in the “benevolent imperialism” period of Puerto Rico. Historian Genevieve Bell describes the CIIS as “the flagship of American Assimilation era’s educational program” the objective of which was to “detribalize” Indians and incorporate them into the American nation as individual citizens. Just as the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes addressed the “Negro problem,” the CIIS, established in1879 was meant to take care of the “Indian problem.” The acquisition of Cuba and Puerto Rico added a heavy load to America’s “civilizing mission,” so the new possessions had to go through ‘Acculturation under duress.’

In 1898, General John Eaton was placed in charge of Puerto Rico’s education (predating Samuel M. Lindsay). He was an avowed supporter of the CIIS so it was not surprising that its periodical, “Indian Helper,” wrote about him in adulation: “It is eminently fitting that the school teacher should follow the soldier into Porto Rico. If there is anyone who can successfully light the lamp of learning in that island, it should be General Eaton, who started so successfully the same work among the freedmen of the south at the close of the civil war.” The Carlisle Indian Industrial School (CIIS) was reputed to be “one of the most ambitious experiments in the destruction of cultural identity in US history.” General Eaton was instrumental in sending 60 young Puerto Ricans there to undergo forced acculturation.

(Source: McCoy, Alfred & Scarano, Francisco, Colonial Crucible, ADEMU Press)