Scholars believe that Mona was first settled about 1000 years ago as pre-Columbian peoples migrated north through the Caribbean archipelago. Petroglyphs in some caves and the subtle ruins of bateyes (Taíno ball courts) are the chief remnants of the Indian presence. Another remnant is the island’s name, a corruption of the original indigenous name ‘Amona.’ Most likely the Indians used Mona as a way station in their travels between Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, and owing to the rich soil on the island, the Indians developed farms of cassava and sweet potatoes here to replenish the larders of voyagers.
Columbus stopped at Mona on September 24, 1494 (at the end of his second New World voyage) and remained several days to gather water and provisions for the long trip back to Spain. When the Spaniards returned in 1508, Mona had become a sanctuary for Taíno people escaping the slavery that the Spanish were impressing on the islanders of Hispaniola.
But, like Columbus, this small group of Spaniards had not come to conquer the island people, but simply to trade with them for water, cassava and sweet potatoes. This group of voyagers – led by Juan Ponce de León – was on its way to start a colony in Puerto Rico. In successive years Mona served as the breadbasket for the new Puerto Rican colony.
The Spanish government did eventually claim the island to guard the ship traffic through the Pasaje de la Mona, which was fast becoming the highway to and from the gold coast of the Americas. But after two decades of enslaving and decimating the population of Indians throughout the New World, the Crown found its resources of men and money stretched too thin and withdrew. Abandoned and defenseless, Mona fell into the hands of pirates by the late 1500s, when French corsairs used Mona as a staging ground and refuge in their attacks on the Spanish colony at San Germán.
During the next 300 years, Mona became the refuge of a host of privateers, including Sirs Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake, John Hawkins, William Kidd and the Puerto Rican buccaneer Roberto Cofresí. The 1832 execution of the freebooter Almeida, known as ‘El Portugués, ’ brought an end to Mona’s days as a pirates’ den.
Throughout the next century, Mona went through cycles of activity and decline as various entrepreneurs tried to get rich mining the bat guano from Mona’s caves. Rich in phosphate, the guano made exceptional agricultural fertilizer, but by 1924 the mines went dry and the citizens left (except for the family of Doña Geña Rodríguez, who lived in a cave – called Cueva de Doña Geña – on the south end of the island until 1943). It was about this time that a German submarine fired on the island (thinking it was a post for the Allies), probably scaring the living daylights out of the iguanas, goats and pigs.
Following Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) activities on the island, the comings and goings of treasure hunters, WWII and a scam to turn Mona into an airbase, the government of Puerto Rico slowly began to take seriously its duty to protect the island as a nature preserve, and eventually prohibited development. Finally, after almost 500 years of human interference, Mona returned to her wild state.