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Francisco Hernandez Giron was a Spanish encomendero in the Viceroyalty of Peru who protested the New Laws in 1553. These laws, passed in 1542, gave certain rights to indigenous peoples and protected them against abuses. Drawing by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala. Francisco Hernandez Giron 2.jpg
Francisco Hernández Girón was a Spanish encomendero in the Viceroyalty of Peru who protested the New Laws in 1553. These laws, passed in 1542, gave certain rights to indigenous peoples and protected them against abuses. Drawing by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala.

Encomienda (Spanish pronunciation:  [eŋkoˈmjenda] ( Loudspeaker.svg listen )) was a Spanish labor system that rewarded conquerors with the labor of particular groups of subject people. It was first established in Spain following the Christian recovery of their territories under Muslim rule (known as the Reconquista ), and it was applied on a much larger scale during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the Spanish Philippines. Conquered peoples were considered vassals of the Spanish monarch. The Crown awarded an encomienda as a grant to a particular individual. In the conquest era of the sixteenth century, the grants were considered to be a monopoly on the labor of particular groups of indigenous peoples, held in perpetuity by the grant holder, called the encomendero, and his descendants. [1]


Encomiendas devolved from their original Iberian form into a form of "communal" slavery. In the encomienda, the Spanish Crown granted a person a specified number of natives from a specific community but did not dictate which individuals in the community would have to provide their labor. Indigenous leaders were charged with mobilizing the assessed tribute and labor. In turn, encomenderos were to ensure that the encomienda natives were given instruction in the Christian faith and Spanish language, and protect them from warring tribes or pirates; they had to suppress rebellion against Spaniards, and maintain infrastructure. In return, the natives would provide tributes in the form of metals, maize, wheat, pork, or other agricultural products.

With the ousting of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish crown sent a royal governor, Fray Nicolás de Ovando, who established the formal encomienda system. [2] In many cases natives were forced to do hard labor and subjected to extreme punishment and death if they resisted. [3] However, Queen Isabella I of Castile forbade slavery of the native population and deemed the indigenous to be "free vassals of the crown". [4] Various versions of the Leyes de Indias or Laws of the Indies from 1512 onwards attempted to regulate the interactions between the settlers and natives. Both natives and Spaniards appealed to the Real Audiencias for relief under the encomienda system.

Encomiendas had often been characterized by the geographical displacement of the enslaved and breakup of communities and family units, but in Mexico, the encomienda ruled the free vassals of the crown through existing community hierarchies, and the natives were allowed to keep in touch with their families and homes. [5] This was not true in all areas as in some parts of Hispaniola, [6] Nicaragua, [7] [8] and Guatemala [9] entire regions were depopulated by enslavement. [6] Unlike in the case of the enslavement of Africans, in which mostly adult males were enslaved, the majority of indigenous slaves under encomienda were women and children. [10]

The abolition of the Encomienda in 1542 marks the first major movement towards the abolition of slavery in the Western world. Nevertheless, coerced labor continued in other forms throughout the Spanish colonies. [6]


The heart of encomienda and encomendero lies in the Spanish verb encomendar, "to entrust". The encomienda was based on the reconquista institution in which adelantados were given the right to extract tribute from Muslims or other peasants in areas that they had conquered and resettled. [11]

The encomienda system traveled to America as the result of the implantation of Castilian law over the territory. The system was created in the Middle Ages and was pivotal to allow for the repopulation and protection of frontier land during the reconquista. This system originated in the Catholic South of Spain to extract labor and tribute from Muslims (Moors) before they were exiled in 1492 after the Moors were defeated in the battle in Granada. [12] This system was a method of rewarding soldiers and moneymen who defeated the Moors. [12] The encomienda established a relationship similar to a feudal relationship, in which military protection was traded for certain tributes or by specific work. It was especially prevalent among military orders that were entrusted with the protection of frontier areas. The king usually intervened directly or indirectly in the bond, by guaranteeing the fairness of the agreement and intervening militarily in case of abuse.

The encomienda system in Spanish America differed from the Peninsular institution. The encomenderos did not own the land on which the natives lived. The system did not entail any direct land tenure by the encomendero; native lands were to remain in the possession of their communities. This right was formally protected by the crown of Castile because the rights of administration in the New World belonged to this crown and not to the Catholic monarchs as a whole. [13]


Hernan Cortes, conqueror of the Aztecs and premier encomendero of New Spain Hernan Cortes (Meister von Saldana).gif
Hernán Cortés, conqueror of the Aztecs and premier encomendero of New Spain

The first grantees of the encomienda or encomenderos were usually conquerors who received these grants of labor by virtue of participation in a successful conquest. Later, some receiving encomiendas in New Spain (Mexico) were not conquerors themselves but were sufficiently well connected that they received grants.

In his study of the encomenderos of early colonial Mexico, Robert Himmerich y Valencia divides conquerors into those who were part of Hernán Cortés' original expedition, calling them "first conquerors", and those who were members of the later Narváez expedition, calling them "conquerors". The latter were incorporated into Cortes' contingent. Himmerick designated as pobladores antiguos (old settlers) a group of undetermined number of encomenderos in New Spain, men who had resided in the Caribbean region prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

In the New World, the Crown granted conquistadores as encomendero, which is the right to extract labor and tribute from natives who were under Spanish rule. Christopher Columbus established the encomienda system after his arrival and settlement on the island of Hispaniola requiring them to pay tributes or face brutal punishments. Tributes were required to be paid in gold however during this time gold was scarce. [12]

Holders of encomiendas also included women and indigenous elite. Doña Maria Jaramillo, the daughter of Doña Marina and conqueror Juan Jaramillo, received income from her deceased father's encomiendas. [14] Two of Moctezuma's daughters, Doña Isabel Moctezuma and her younger sister, Doña Leonor Moctezuma, were granted extensive encomiendas in perpetuity by Hernan Cortes. Doña Leonor Moctezuma married in succession two Spaniards, and left the encomiendas to her daughter by her second husband. [15] [16] [17] Vassal Inca rulers appointed after the conquest also sought and were granted encomiendas.

The status of humans as wards of the trustees under the encomienda system served to "define the status of the Indian population": the natives were free men, not slaves or serfs.[ citation needed ] But some Spaniards treated them as poorly as slaves.

The encomienda was essential to the Spanish crown's sustaining its control over North, Central and South America in the first decades after the colonization. It was the first major organizational law instituted on the continent, which was affected by war, widespread disease epidemics caused by Eurasian diseases, and resulting turmoil. [18] Initially, the encomienda system was devised to meet the needs of the early agricultural economies in the Caribbean. Later it was adopted to the mining economy of Peru and Upper Peru. The encomienda lasted from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the seventeenth century. [11]

Philip II, enacted a law on 11 June 1594 to establish the encomienda in the Philippines, where he made grants to the local nobles ( principalía ). They used the encomienda to gain ownership of large expanses of land, many of which (such as Makati) continue to be owned by affluent families. [19]


In 1501 Queen Isabella declared Native Americans as subjects to the crown, and so, as Castilians and legal equals to Spanish Castilians. This implied that enslaving them was illegal except on very specific conditions. It also allowed the establishment of encomiendas, since the encomienda bond was a right reserved to full subjects to the crown. In 1503, the crown began to formally grant encomiendas to conquistadors and officials as rewards for service to the crown. The system of encomiendas was aided by the crown's organizing the indigenous into small harbors known as reducciones , with the intent of establishing new towns and populations.

Each reducción had a native chief responsible for keeping track of the laborers in his community. The encomienda system did not grant people land, but it indirectly aided in the settlers' acquisition of land. As initially defined, the encomendero and his heirs expected to hold these grants in perpetuity. After a major crown reform in 1542, known as the New Laws, encomendero families were restricted to holding the grant for two generations. When the crown attempted to implement the policy in Peru, shortly after the 1535 Spanish conquest, Spanish recipients rebelled against the crown, killing the viceroy, Don Blasco Núñez Vela.

In Mexico, viceroy Don Antonio de Mendoza decided against implementing the reform, citing local circumstances and the potential for a similar conqueror rebellion. To the crown he said, "I obey crown authority but do not comply with this order." [20] The encomienda system was ended legally in 1720, when the crown attempted to abolish the institution. The encomenderos were then required to pay remaining encomienda laborers for their work.

The encomiendas became very corrupt and harsh. In the neighborhood of La Concepción, north of Santo Domingo, the adelantado of Santiago heard rumors of a 15,000-man army planning to stage a rebellion. [21] Upon hearing this, the Adelantado captured the caciques involved and had most of them hanged.

Later, a chieftain named Guarionex laid havoc to the countryside before an army of about 3,090 routed the Ciguana people under his leadership. [22] Although expecting Spanish protection from warring tribes, the islanders sought to join the Spanish forces. They helped the Spaniards deal with their ignorance of the surrounding environment. [23]

As noted, the change of requiring the encomendado to be returned to the crown after two generations was frequently overlooked, as the colonists did not want to give up the labor or power. The Codice Osuna, one of many colonial-era Aztec codices (indigenous manuscripts) with native pictorials and alphabetic text in Nahuatl, there is evidence that the indigenous were well aware of the distinction between indigenous communities held by individual encomenderos and those held by the crown. [24]

Once natives committed themselves to Spanish authority, Columbus, and Spanish overlords, they also were forced to get baptized and attend Catholic Church services. Religion allowed conquistadores to label the native population as barbaric and in need of saving. The encomienda system perpetuated because many conquistadores believed they were being altruistic and were doing God’s work. Religion encouraged the expansion of conquest through the encomienda system throughout the New World. [12]

The phrase "sin indios no hay Indias" (without Indians, there are no Indies – i.e. America), popular in Spanish America especially in the 16th century, emphasizes the economic importance and appeal of this indentured labor. It was ranked higher than allocations of precious metals or other natural resources. Land awardees customarily complained about how "worthless" territory was without a population of encomendados.



The encomienda system was the subject of controversy in Spain and its territories almost from its start. In 1510, an Hispaniola encomendero named Valenzuela murdered a group of Native American leaders who had agreed to meet for peace talks in full confidence. The Taíno Cacique Enriquillo rebelled against the Spaniards between 1519 and 1533. In 1538, Emperor Charles V, realizing the seriousness of the Taíno revolt, changed the laws governing the treatment of people laboring in the encomiendas. [25] Conceding to Las Casas's viewpoint, the peace treaty between the Taínos and the audiencia was eventually disrupted in four to five years. The crown also actively prosecuted abuses of the encomienda system, through the Law of Burgos (1512–13) and the New Law of the Indies (1542).

The priest of Hispaniola and former encomendero Bartolomé de las Casas underwent a profound conversion after seeing the abuse of the native people. [26] He dedicated his life to writing and lobbying to abolish the encomienda system, which he thought systematically enslaved the native people of the New World. Las Casas participated in an important debate, where he pushed for the enactment of the New Laws and an end to the encomienda system. [27] The Laws of Burgos and the New Laws of the Indies failed in the face of colonial opposition and, in fact, the New Laws were postponed in the Viceroyalty of Peru. When Blasco Núñez Vela, the first viceroy of Peru, tried to enforce the New Laws, which provided for the gradual abolition of the encomienda, many of the encomenderos were unwilling to comply with them and revolted against him.

The New Laws of 1542

When the news of this situation and of the abuse of the institution reached Spain, the New Laws were passed to regulate and gradually abolish the system in America, as well as to reiterate the prohibition of enslaving Native Americans. By the time the new laws were passed, 1542, the Spanish crown had acknowledged their inability to control and properly ensure compliance of traditional laws overseas, so they granted to Native Americans specific protections not even Spaniards had, such as the prohibition of enslaving them even in the case of crime or war. These extra protections were an attempt to avoid the proliferation of irregular claims to slavery. [28] Andrés Reséndez, however, presents a more pessimistic view that such intentions where subsequently corrupted, and shortly after the abolition, tens of thousands of people [6] continued to be worked to death in depopulated islands throughout Hispaniola, and he describes indigenous forced labor as "a set of kaleidoscopic practices suited to different markets and regions.

The 1542 restriction was revoked in 1545. [29] [30] The Spanish crown's formal prohibition of slavery of native people in 1542 gave rise to a number of related institutions, such as encomiendas, repartimientos, the selling of convict labor, and ultimately debt peonage ... In other words, formal slavery was replaced by multiple forms of informal labor coercion and enslavement that were extremely difficult to track, let alone eradicate." [6]


The encomienda system was generally replaced by the crown-managed repartimiento system throughout Spanish America after mid-sixteenth century. [11] Like the encomienda, the new repartimiento did not include the attribution of land to anyone, rather only the allotment of native workers. But they were directly allotted to the crown, who, through a local crown official, would assign them to work for settlers for a set period of time, usually several weeks. The repartimiento was an attempt "to reduce the abuses of forced labour". [11] As the number of natives declined and mining activities were replaced by agricultural activities in the seventeenth century, the hacienda, or large landed estates in which laborers were directly employed by the hacienda owners (hacendados), arose because land ownership became more profitable than acquisition of forced labor. [31]

Deaths, disease, and accusations of ethnocide or genocide

Codex Kingsborough : an encomendero veja to an Indian. Copy of the Italian Agostino Aglio 1825-1826, for Lord Kingsborough. Kingsborough.jpg
Codex Kingsborough : an encomendero veja to an Indian. Copy of the Italian Agostino Aglio 1825-1826, for Lord Kingsborough.

Raphael Lemkin (coiner of the term genocide) considers Spain's abuses of the native population of the Americas to constitute cultural and even outright genocide including the abuses of the Encomienda system. He described slavery as "cultural genocide par excellence" noting "it is the most effective and thorough method of destroying culture, of desocializing human beings." He considers colonist guilty due to failing to halt the abuses of the system despite royal orders. He also accuses Spanish colonisers of sexual abuse of Native women, referring to it as an acts of "biological genocide." [32] Economic historian Timothy J. Yeager argued the encomienda was deadlier than conventional slavery due to individual laborer's life being disposable in the face of simply being replaced with a laborer from the same plot of land. [33] University of Hawaii historian David Stannard describes the encomienda as a genocidal system which "had driven many millions of native peoples in Central and South America to early and agonizing deaths." [34]

Yale University's genocide studies program supports this view regarding abuses in Hispaniola. [35] Andrés Reséndez argues that even though the Spanish were aware of the spread of smallpox, they made no mention of it until 1519, a quarter century after Columbus arrived in Hispaniola. [6] Instead he contends that enslavement in gold and silver mines was the primary reason why the Native American population of Hispaniola dropped so significantly [36] [6] and that even though disease was a factor, the native population would have rebounded the same way Europeans did during the Black Death if it were not for the constant enslavement they were subject to. [6] According to anthropologist Jason Hickel, a third of Arawak workers died every six months from lethal forced labor in the mines. [37]

Scope and number of victims

Yale University's genocide studies program while citing the decline of the Taíno population of Hispaniola in 1492 to 1514 as an example of genocide notes that the indigenous population declined from a population between 100,000 and 1,000,000 to only 32,000 a decline of 68% to over 96%. [35]

The native people of Mexico experienced a series of outbreaks of disease in the wake of European conquest, including a catastrophic epidemic that began in 1545 which killed an estimated 5 million to 15 million people, or up to 80% of the native population of Mexico, followed by a second epidemic from 1576 to 1578 killing an additional 2 to 2.5 million people, or about 50% of the remaining native population. Recent research suggests that these infections appear to have been aggravated by the extreme climatic conditions of the time and by the poor living conditions and harsh treatment of the native people under the encomienda system of New Spain. [38]

Enslavement and the encomienda was a heavy cause of depopulation in Guatemala as Bartolomé de Las Casas writes: "one could make a whole book ... out of the atrocities, barbarities, murders, clearances, ravages and other foul injustices perpetrated ... by those that went to Guatemala" [39] Las Casas wrote to the Crown about the brutal treatment of indigenous peoples and that many were eager to convert therefore they were human, so instead he recommended that they use Africans as slaves. [12] The afflictions of Old World diseases, war and overwork in the mines and encomiendas took a heavy toll on the inhabitants of eastern Guatemala, to the extent that indigenous population levels never recovered to their pre-conquest levels. [40] [41] The main cause of the drastic depopulation of Lake Izabal and the Motagua Delta was the constant slave raids by the Miskito Sambu of the Caribbean coast that effectively ended the Maya population of the region; the captured Maya were sold into slavery in the British colony of Jamaica. [9] Over the course of the Spanish conquest of Guatemala the Spanish exported 50,000 Maya slaves [42]

The most proportionally widespread and deadly use of forced labor by Spain was likely in Nicaragua in which between 450,000 [43] and 500,000 [44] indigenous peoples were deported from Nicaragua as slaves-(though some slave originated from different territories) compared to a total indigenous Nicaraguan population of around 600,000 [43] to 1,000,000. [43] Due to mass infection of foreign diseases and enslavement 99% [7] [8] of the population of western Nicaragua perished in 60 years with 575,000 [43] indigenous Nicaraguans having died overall across the country. The indigenous population of the Izalco region in El Salvador was also among the most exploited for force labor in terms of cacao production; [45] 400,000 indigenous peoples perished from disease, warfare and slavery [43] out of 700,000 to 800,000 native Salvadorans [43] and 150,000 of the 400,000 to 600,000 indigenous Hondurans were enslaved [43] [43] (amounting to 25% to 37.5% of their population)

Peru was a hotspot for native labor due to its large silver reserves. In silver mountains such as Cerro Rico many native workers died due to the harsh conditions of the mine life and natural gases. At such a high altitude, pneumonia was always a concern, and mercury poisoning took the lives of many involved in the refining process. [46] Some writers such as Eduardo Galeano, in his work Open Veins of Latin America , estimates that up to eight million have died in the Cerro Rico since the 16th century. Though this number has been attributed to the entirety of the Viceroyalty of Peru by Josiah Conder, [47] who added that these numbers also take into account any depopulation of areas around mines. In 1574, the Viceroy of Peru Diego Lopez de Velasco investigated the encomiendas. He concluded there were 32,000 Spanish families in the New World, 4,000 of whom had encomiendas. They oversaw 1,500,000 natives paying tribute, and 5 million "civilized" natives. [48] The work of historians such as Peter Bakewell, [49] Noble David Cook, [50] Enrique Tandeter [51] and Raquel Gil Montero [52] portray a more accurate description of the human-labor issue (free and non-free workers) with completely different estimates to Eduardo Galeano alleged number of deaths.

One source claims the Spanish conquest was responsible for 1,400,000 to 2,300,000 deaths explicitly excluding tens of millions of deaths from New World disease; [43] while Rudolph Rummel claims that 2 to 15 million indigenous peoples where killed by what he calls "democide"-(government caused murder) in the colonization of the Americas mostly in Latin America [53] -(mostly implying anywhere from just over half to all but 1 so around 1,000,001 to 14,999,999 deaths.)

Skepticism toward alleged demographic declines and accusations of genocide

Noble David Cook, writing about the Black Legend and the conquest of the Americas wrote, "There were too few Spaniards to have killed the millions who were reported to have died in the first century after Old and New World contact" and instead suggests the near total decimation of the indigenous population of Hispaniola as mostly having been caused by diseases like smallpox. [54]

Since 1960 historians, such as Julián Juderías, Woodrow Borah and Sheburne Cooke have challenged both the numbers and the causes offered by Raphael Lemkin. Brendan D. O'Fallona and Lars Fehren-Schmitz separately estimated a historic native mortality of about 50% loss with a quick recovery and little loss in diversity. [55] Rosenblat estimates a lower number for Mexico and Colombia. Acuna-Soto R, Romero LC, and Maguire JH suggested the rate of mortality from disease in native American populations at around 45%. [56]

Regardless of the specific number, it is widely agreed that the peak in mortality started in 1545 and peaked some years later after the New Laws were put in place, the encomienda system was abolished, and women, and more importantly children, were allowed to migrate. What mortality of the native population did occur was mainly attributable to disease. Most scholars agree that the main culprits were European infantile diseases like smallpox, measles, and chicken pox. [57] Elsa Malvido suggests that the plague caused the hemorrhagic fevers described by the Spanish physicians, while a recent, controversial study recently proposed by microbiologist Rodolfo Acuna-Soto suggests that the diseases that decimated the population were actually a native hemorrhagic plague carried by rats. [58]

See also

Related Research Articles

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Bartolomé de las Casas was a 16th-century Spanish colonist, landowner, friar, priest, and bishop, famed as an historian and social reformer. He arrived in Hispaniola as a layman then became a Dominican friar and priest. He was appointed as the first resident Bishop of Chiapas, and the first officially appointed "Protector of the Indians". His extensive writings, the most famous being A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias, chronicle the first decades of colonization of the West Indies. He described the atrocities committed by the colonizers against the indigenous peoples.

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Further reading