Encomienda System and the New World Indians
by Michael Busbin
Along with the Spanish conquest and exploration, came Spanish customs and
traditions. They brought along with them a system of forced labor called the
encomienda. An encomienda was a means of giving to a Spaniard a restricted set of property rights over Indian labor (Yeager, 843). The Crown in Spain gave
this to the Spaniard. The Spaniard, or encomendero, in return extracted tributes from the Indians in form of goods,
metals, money, and labor (Yeager, 843). What the encomendero was supposed to do for the Indians in return for
this was to provide them with protection and instruction in the Christian faith (Yeager, 843). They also promised to
defend the area and to pay a tax to the Crown (Yeager, 843).
The encomienda system was deeply entrenched in the history and the culture of Spanish America. It is considered by many historians as one of the most damaging institutions that the Spanish colonists implemented in the
New World. The system would come to symbolize oppression and exploitation. Being that the first purposes of the system were meant for good, the end
results of the system were nothing but catastrophic for the Indians.
The purpose of this paper is to take a look at the system and to examine how it was implemented and just how it became burden on the Indians in the Americas.
In order to fully understand the system, it is important to take a brief look at the time period and to see how the system became established in the New World.
In his book The Encomienda in New Spain, historian Lesley Byrd Simpson gives and overall view of the
system and gives a brief introduction as to how the system came into existence in the New World. Simpson begins
the book by talking about the idea of transplanting institutions and habits of life to the New World from Europe.
This process is known as acculturation (Simpson, vii).
For the Spanish conquistadores, it was the bringing of the Christian faith to the heathen Indians that
was a driving force behind Spanish conquests in the New World (Simpson, vii). In New Spain, Cortés had
very little problems with assimilating the Indians into Spanish customs because of the way that Mexican society was already established.
Mexican society had for years developed a stable economy based on corn and the people of the region had learned to conform their lives around the
production and harvesting of the crop (Simpson, vii). So to these people, hard work was not a new thing. Being that these people also were so
occupied with the crops, they did not have much time to deal with other peoples coming into their territory and taking over.
Spain had also been accustomed to various peoples such as the Goths, Arabs, and Moors coming into their lands and trying to conquer them (Simpson, viii).
As a result of all of these various groups coming into the Spanish territory, the Spanish people learned to live in a
social system that was erected upon the privileges of conquest.
This system in which the Spanish learned to live in was called the feudal system (Simpson, viii). A feudal system can best be defined as a system in which both the
conqueror and the conquered develop a personal relationship. It would be the ideas of the feudal system
that the Spanish would carry with them to the New World. The conqueror would seize the land and would
defend it from other neighbors. Once the conqueror took control, he levied a tribute or a feudal due on his
vassals. This entail would make the conqueror the sole protector of the ones in which he conquered and would also
make those he conquered serve him. In general, the ideas behind the feudal system divided society into various factions such as master and serf or lord and vassal.
It would be these same patterns that the Spanish would carry to the Indians. Being that the Indians had
faced various peoples coming into the territories and taking control, it made them easy prey for the Spanish to assert their power over them.
It was also easy for the Indian to see this change in conquerors as just another set of masters coming in and taking
control of them.
resettlement was a major measure to advance social and economic reforms in the
New World. At first when the Spanish
tried to implement the encomienda program, it was established for good purposes
such as protection and for teaching the Indians about religion (Moses,
93). It would be within time, however, that the system would go awry. Being that assimilation of the Indians was one
of the top priorities, the Spanish believed that they needed to deal with these
Indians who were pagans and idolaters (Calero, 66).
There was some subtle resistance to these cultural assimilation
techniques but overall the Indians learned to live in a world that resembled much
of Spanish thought and philosophy. Many
Indians learned Spanish, contracted labor for payment, allowed foreign crops to
be planted, and attended Christian instruction on Sundays (Calero, 66).
In order to keep with their customs and
traditions, many of the Indians expressed kinship affiliation and kept many of
their customs of being attached to the land (Calero, 66).
Some of the native communities were divided into territorial doctrinas or parishes with
its own priest and church building where Indians would be instructed about the
Christian faith (Calero, 67). The
importance of teaching the Indians Christian faith is well documented and shown
in these practices. For this was one of the first major purposes of the encomienda.
There were some instances where legislation was passed to convert the
encomienda from revenue trusts to administrative units to assimilate the
Indians into the Christian faith (Calero, 67).
Many of these new terms would dictate that the priest was to receive the
first fruits of the tax before the encomendero did.
Clerics also were provided with an Indian tribute in kind such in
the form of food goods in order to stay and reside in the Indian villages
The need for the encomiendas came out of the conditions of the Indians when the Spanish
first made contact with them. Many of
the Spaniards believed that, if the Indians did not assimilate to Spanish
customs and religion and were left up to their own devices, then they would probably
run awry and not cooperate with the Spaniards in matters of commerce which
would affect their trading. The encomenderos were order at first to not mistreat the Indians in any way while
trying to persuade the Indians to convert their beliefs.
Most of the time, the encomenderos were
granted the responsibility of the Indian for only a short period time in which
their Christian instruction began.
Indians at first were also supposed to be paid and supplied with the
sustenance to live on. There was even a
time period when the Crown of Spain encouraged the Indians and the Spanish to
intermarry so they could help to promote this assimilation process (Simpson,
10). All of these main goals were good
in purpose, but more or less just helped to establish for the Spanish a large
time the system began to suffer abuse. The rights of the Indians were ignored
on the issues of commerce because they were providing a source of revenue that
was instant for the encomenderos. Many
Indians were scarcely surviving and now they had to work in order to support
the encomenderos (Calero, 75). This
eventually led to the death of many already down trodden Indians.
It was becoming commonplace for the Spanish
coming to the New World and not wanting to practice a trade, but to set up with
the encomiendas established to support them.
In other words, the encomenderos saw themselves as the ones in charge
almost to the point of nobility. The
encomenderos almost established their attitudes as saying that they did not
need to work, because the Indians could do all the work for them (Calero,
75). The position of the encomendero
became a prized position due to the tributes the Indians paid (Calero, 75).p
tributes was not something new to the Indians.
They had been doing that for their own cultural reasons.
So, this was some way that the Spanish
capitalized on already established Indian norms.
Some of the tributes that the encomendero were given included
such goods as corn, salt, honey, hunted game, and other goods (Calero,
75). One of the best tributes that an
Indian could give to the encomendero was human service such as labor in the
plantations and mines and military service.
The Spanish exploited these tributes and learned to make a profit off of
beginning, the encomendero could usually decide the tributes and how much they
should receive. This of course led to a
pretty good amount of abuses towards the Indians.
It would not be until later in time that the Crown would try and
regulate this practice. It was under
the Crown in Castille that the abuses were noticed and legislation was passed to
prevent such occurrences. The
encomenderos were not treating their Indians properly and as a result their
labor force was dying off, especially in the matters of mining (Calero,
39). The Crown under Isabella and
Ferdinand decided to establish fixed tributes and sought to end human labor
tributes. One way that the Crown also
aided in helping the Indians was by importing the high court, the Audiencia,
in order to help keep the encomienda from getting out of
control (Moses, 69). It would, over time, be through the Audiencia that the Indians could be placed into an
encomienda. The Audiencia was also established to help ensure justice and humane treatment for the Indians.
In the Audiencia, the matters of grace, appointments to office, and encomiendas belonged to the governors or viceroys
as presidents in the audiencias (Moses, 70).
The most important audiencias in America were those of San Domingo,
Mexico, Guadalajara, Guatemala, Panama, Santa Fe de Bogotá, Lima, Buenos Aires,
and Santiago de Chile (Moses, 70). /p
Not only did the Crown try to intervene in the mistreatment of the Indians, but also
others came into the forefront and protested against the abuse.
One of the main people who spoke out against
the injustices was Bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas (Moses, 97).
His ideas and proposals that he used were
pretty revolutionary. He advocated the suppression
of the encomiendas and sought relief and liberation for the Indians (Moses,
97). Las Casas was a priest living in
Cuba who had an encomienda of his own.
He saw the weaknesses of the program and made a conclusion that the
system was bad and exploited the poor Indian race.
One thing that really upset Las Casas was the large number of
Indians that were dying as a result of the greed of the Spanish.
His work was well documented and his zeal
for fighting the abuses made Las Casas a hero to many.
Las Casas' strength and his weaknesses were
both seen in his inability to change his opinions on issues such as the sins of
the encomienda (Simpson, 37). In
Simpson's book on the encomienda he gives a detailed character sketch of Las
Casas. He makes it a point to show just
how determined Las Casas was against the encomienda by saying that, Long after
most of the abuses which he attacked had been greatly modified by more human
laws and easier economic conditions, and after the encomienda had been reduced
from a thin disguise for slavery into something like a social system, Las Casas
was still attacking it as if nothing had changed (Simpson, 37).
Las Casas was such an advocate against the system of the encomiendas that he wrote books
entitled The Destruction of the Indies and Twenty Reasons why the
Indians should not be given to the Spanish (Moses, 98).
It was in 1539 while in Spain that Las Casas urged the adoption of a law that would release the Indians from bondage and
soften their conditions (Moses, 98).
For many the idea of trying to do away with the encomienda system was
devastating because many had learned to depend on the system for wealth and
power. These people feared a loss of
their revenues and a decline in the value of their lands, both of which would
be devastating to their substantial lifestyles.
thing to have an impact on the encomienda system would be the passing of the
New Laws of 1542 (Moses, 99). The New
Laws were an important body of legislation created in order to aid in the
welfare of the Indians. These laws were
important because they allowed Indians to own property and also made it that
the Catholic Church only had dominion over the Christians and held no power
over the Indians (Simpson, 135). The
Laws also allowed and tried to promote trade with the Indians as long as the
Indians were not harmed. On a whole,
these Laws made a big impact in the Spanish colonies.
The removal of the Indians from the service of the Encomenderos
helped to cause economic problems in the long run.
The system that was established to help the Indians had gone
through many changes and once again it was trying to transform into a system
helping both the Indians and the Spanish Colonies.
However, it did not work that way.
An economic depression would erupt throughout the Spanish
colonies (Simpson, 152). In order to deal
with the problem, the encomienda system had to be reshaped.
The New Laws had seemed to help the Indians
and was a step in the right direction.
However, the Spanish colonies needed the system to work for them
also. This time the system was reshaped
and the conditions were to be less harsh on the Indians.
Overall, the system was first established as a means of assimilating the New World
Indians and making it possible for better trading conditions with the mother
country of Spain. But over time, the system
began to develop into one of massive abuses.
The Indians who had once been accustomed to various groups of people
coming in and taking over let the Spanish come into their lives and place this harsh yolk around their necks. It is interesting to note that through the readings in books and in the journal
articles that the true history of the encomienda is now being published.
Calero, Luis F. Chiefdoms Under Siege: Spain's Rule and Native Adaptation in the Southern Columbian Andes, 1535-
1700. Albuquerque: 1997. University of New Mexico Press.
Moses, Bernard. The Establishment of Spanish Rule in America: An Introduction to the History
and Politics of Spanish America. New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1898.
Simpson, Lesley Byrd. The Encomienda in New Spain. Berkeley: 1950. University of California Press.
Yeager, Timothy J., "Encomienda or Slavery? The Spanish Crown's Choice of Labor
Organization in the Sixteenth-Century Spanish America," The Journal of Economic History,
Volume 55, Issue 4 (Dec., 1995), 842-859.