The island of Puerto Rico, located in a strategic position in the Caribbean, was an important military outpost for the Spanish Empire. The island was inhabited by the Taino Indians when the Spanish first arrived in 1493. Subsequently, African slaves were introduced to supplement the limited workforce. By the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, other non-Spanish immigrants started to arrive on the island. This new immigration was caused by different events in Europe and in the Americas. Some of these causes were the independence wars in the Spanish colonies in the Americas, the Napoleonic wars in Europe, and the 1815 Spanish Royal Decree for Puerto Rico.

Map of the Caribbean with Puerto Rico marked in red. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Map of Puerto Rico. The star marks the location of Peñuelas where Serra settled after emigrating from Malta, aged 22, in 1800. He eventually became mayor of the town in 1838, aged 60.

During my genealogical research, I found out that a certain Ángel Sierra was one of my ancestors. At first glance, his name appeared to be Spanish, and, for many years, that was my presumption. So I was surprised when I discovered that he was not Spanish, but a native of the island of Malta.

As a researcher, I am intrigued why Sierra decided to emigrate. It is possible that Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Malta in 1798 caused poverty on the island that may have pushed Sierra to emigrate in search of better opportunities. Additionally, for many years, the Spanish Crown promoted European immigration to Puerto Rico to encourage the economic development of the island. These new white Europeans would bring capital, slaves and technical knowledge to transform the cattle-ranch economy into an agrarian plantation economy. The Spanish Crown issued a royal decree in 1778 to encourage new colonists to start sugarcane farms in Puerto Rico and develop a society of agricultural landowners.

A worker carrying sugarcane in Puerto Rico. Serra owned four farming estates on the island totalling over 600 acres of land. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsA worker carrying sugarcane in Puerto Rico. Serra owned four farming estates on the island totalling over 600 acres of land. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I also found that there was another person who emigrated from Malta to the town of Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, a few years before Sierra. His name was Salvador Caquias (Salvatore Cachia) and he had lived in Puerto Rico since 1794. It is possible that Caquias benefited from the royal decree. Perhaps he knew Ángel in Malta and the latter had told him about the opportunities in Puerto Rico, and in conjunction with the events in Malta in the late 18th century, influenced him to emigrate.

Although we do not know the specific circumstances of why Ángel chose Puerto Rico, I have been able to conclude that he quickly integrated into the Peñuelas society and became a successful businessman who got involved in the town’s public and political affairs to the point of becoming mayor.

He quickly integrated into the Peñuelas society and became a successful businessman who got involved in the town’s public and political affairs

Family origin

Ángel Sierra was baptised Angelus Fidelis (Angelo Fidele) Serra on August 28, 1778, at St Dominic church in Valletta. His godparents were Nicolai Catania and María Catania. He was the son of an Italian immigrant named Antonio Serra and María Fortunata Portelli, a native of Malta.

Antonio Serra married María Fortunata Portelli in February 1763 in Cospicua. María Fortunata was the daughter of Giuseppe Portelli and María Schembri. They had the following children: Josepha María Veneranda (1767), Josepha Vicentia Joachina (1769), Pascha Magdalena Theodora (1771), Ana Benvenuta Catharina Theresia Úrsula (1773), Joseph Cajetanus Marcus Antonius Henricus (1775), and Joannes Paulus Hieronimy Andrea (1783). Antonio Serra died on August 18, 1796, in Valletta, four years before Angelus immigrated to Puerto Rico.

Angelo Serra was 22 when he arrived in Puerto Rico in 1800. Once on the island, his name was Spanishised to Ángel Sierra. Upon arriving in Puerto Rico, he promptly married María Eugenia Planas, daughter of a Mallorcan, Santiago Planas and a Creole, María Candelaria Rodríguez. As part of his dowry, Ángel contributed 600 pesos in cash and some items with which he negotiated. The capital contributed by Ángel to his marriage shows us that he brought some capital with him, which facilitated his rapid integration into the area’s commerce. To compare the value of what he contributed to his marriage, a wooden house with a terracotta roof – one of the best of houses in the island at the time – was worth about 350 pesos. A curious fact is that the other Maltese, Salvador Caquias, also married in 1800 to Valentina Planas, a sister of Ángel’s wife.

The businessman

What kind of a businessman was Ángel? Before the town of Peñuelas was founded in 1793, sugarcane, rice, corn, bananas, tobacco, coffee, and citrus fruits were grown. Some of these were subsistence crops or transported to other destinations through the nearby port. By 1815, the Spanish King Felipe VII promulgated a royal decree for Puerto Rico, giving it the necessary push to transform the economy from cattle ranches to farming estates that dominated the south and west of the island.

This transformation changed the way of life, since the cattle ranches that existed in Puerto Rico hardly required labour, and the transformation to land cultivation increased the number of agrarian landowners and the importation of slaves to the island. This explains why Ángel, a white man with capital and a desire to prosper, joined the agrarian trade in Peñuelas and became a farmer with a large number of slaves.

Ángel was naturalised on April 16, 1816, under the royal decree of 1815. An important aspect of the decree was that it granted entry and naturalisation not only to foreigners who moved to Puerto Rico, but also foreigners who already resided on the island. These foreigners would also be granted free land in perpetuity. Ángel probably benefited from this distribution of land which helped him increase his holdings. Another important benefit for Ángel is that his naturalisation allowed him to fully participate, with all the rights of a citizen, in commerce and political affairs.

I found several documents in Puerto Rico’s General Archives that show that Ángel was an astute businessman, accumulated many goods, and amassed a large fortune.

For example, in December 1831, Pedro Golfarini de Gori and his wife, Ana María Cordero, had to pay Ángel Sierra a debt of 1,965 pesos. But as Pedro did not pay his debt on time, Ángel filed a lawsuit to force payment. This legal proceeding lasted three years, and on February 27, 1834, Ángel, Pedro and his wife negotiated a payment plan of 655 pesos to be paid in July of 1834, 1835 and 1836. It was agreed that the payments would be made with products from Pedro’s farm. In this way, Pedro and his wife cancelled their debt to Ángel.

Another example of Ángel’s businesses is the leasing of his lands to other people to cultivate and pay for their use. On February 5, 1855, Ángel and Antonio Diolio signed a contract to lease land in Ángel’s possession in the Saltillo neighbourhood in the town of Adjuntas. The land consisted of 400 acres of pasture land, forest, a banana plantation, and a coffee plantation. The contract was for six years beginning in 1855 and ending in 1861, involving a rent of 60 pesos a year. Also, the tenant had to pay any taxes levied on the land.

Around 1860, Ángel sued Andrés Medrano to collect a debt. Andrés did not pay what he owed and the court proceeded to auction the latter’s property valued at 9,000 pesos. The auction was to take place outside the courthouse doors on April 11, 20 and 30, 1860.

So as we can see, Ángel was an astute businessman who vigorously and legally protected his interests. In the absence of banking institutions in the towns and the lack of capital, a financial dependence developed between landowners and merchants, which apparently Ángel took advantage of to finance other landowners, grant loans, and increase his capital.

His wealth

A statue in Abolition Park in Ponce, Puerto Rico, commemorating the abolition of slavery in the island in 1873. At one time, Serra owned about 73 slaves. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsA statue in Abolition Park in Ponce, Puerto Rico, commemorating the abolition of slavery in the island in 1873. At one time, Serra owned about 73 slaves. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One way to estimate the assets and land Ángel owned was to investigate the town’s tax records. My research shows that most of the capital was concentrated in a small number of families that were linked socially, economically and politically, and that Ángel Sierra and Salvador Caquias were the largest land­owners in town between 1818 and 1852. In fact, while Ángel paid 50 pesos in tax assessments, most of the other landowners paid just one to three pesos. Ángel owned four estates totalling over 600 acres of land, several houses, a warehouse, and a general store in town. At one time, he owned about 73 slaves.

Public life

Ángel participated in the public life of the town. For example, he was selected to participate with the parish priest in supervising the reconstruction of the parish church in 1824. The original church of Peñuelas was built around 1793 and was in very poor condition by the beginning of the 1820s. Between September 8 and 9, 1824, hurricane Monserrate passed through the island, causing serious damage to the structure of the church and making the need to rebuild it even more urgent. On November 18, Ángel was appointed commissioner together with the priest so they could collect and distribute funds and manage the church’s reconstruction.

On June 25, 1820, Ángel was listed as a soldier in the 5th Company of the Urban Militia of Peñuelas, and in 1824, he and Caquias appear as “associates” in the tax assessment to cover the town’s expenses. This associate position must have been important as he worked alongside the mayor on the development of the tax assessment for the town.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the 16th-century citadel guarding the entrance to the San Juan Bay. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsCastillo San Felipe del Morro, the 16th-century citadel guarding the entrance to the San Juan Bay. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In 1830, Ángel appeared again as an associate to work with the town officials to develop the tax assessments. In the 1830 tax assessment, there is an expense listed of 38 pesos for a trip that Ángel made to Puerto Rico’s capi­tal, San Juan, as a proxy for the mayor and the town. These public positions demonstrate his importance and his ascension in the town’s political arena.

On January 23, 1836, the mayor of Peñuelas informed Ángel that the governor had appointed him lieutenant of war of Peñuelas for the years 1836 and 1837. A war lieutenant was a title used in the times of the Spanish colonial empire to describe a position similar to the duties exercised by a town mayor today but combined with the duties of military lieutenant and justice of the peace. In a letter from Ángel to the governor, he stated that his knowledge to perform the position conferred to him was limited, but that he was more than willing to perform the duties assigned.

To take up his post, Ángel had to go to the capital to take the oath of office but in the same letter, he informed the governor that his advanced age – he was 57 years old – did not allow him to go to the capital, so he asked if he could take the oath before another authority so as not to require him to travel to the capital. This trip would have taken a few days back then. His petition was approved, and on February 12, 1836, Ángel took the oath in front of the mayor of the district and the royal public notary. Ángel swore by “God our Lord and the sign of the cross according to the law, to exercise well and fully”, and that “he does not belong or that he will not belong to any lodge or secret association of any clan or denomination”.

We also find Ángel Sierra mentioned in various editions of the Puerto Rico Gazette. He signed a list, dated March 9, 1836, of people from Peñuelas who pledged to donate money to help support the war against the “fascists of Navarra and Basque provinces”.

There is also a copy of a letter from Ángel to the Queen of Spain, Isabel II, dated October 3, 1836, informing her about the communication and celebration in the town of Peñuelas for the reimplementation of the Spanish constitution of 1812.

And on December 19, 1837, Ángel appeared in the list of people in Peñuelas who pledged to donate money to help the people who were affected by the hurricane of August 2, 1837.

Over the years, we can see the increase in his influence in the political arena based on the different political positions he had held. This political ascent led Ángel to become mayor of Peñuelas for the years 1838-39, and culminated in him being elected to the post of councillor in 1849. It is interesting that Ángel became mayor and councillor at an advanced age. He was 60 years old when he became mayor, and 71 when he was elected councillor. This shows us that at his advanced age, he was a recognised person in his community and still had political influence in the town. It must have taken time for a foreigner, even if he had financial means, to gain community recognition and political influence.

Ángel had 11 children with his wife María Eugenia Planas and two other children. On February 3, 1837, he became a widower when his wife died. Angelo Fidele Serra had a long and successful life, and passed away on May 31, 1867, at the age of 88. He had received the sacraments of Penance, Extreme Unction and the Eucharist and had a first-class burial. His last testament and will were dated February 9, 1862.

 

Acknowledgement

The author thanks Charles Said-Vassallo for his assistance in researching Angelo Serra’s ancestry in Malta.

Author’s note

The full article about Angelo Serra was published in the Puerto Rican Genealogy Society journal Hereditas, Vol 22, No. 1 (2021), p145-176.

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