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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.

The encomienda (Spanish pronunciation:  [eŋkoˈmjenda] ( Loudspeaker.svg listen )) was a Spanish labor system that rewarded conquerors with the labor of particular groups of conquered non-Christian people. The laborers, in theory, were provided with benefits by the conquerors for whom they labored, the Catholic religion being a principal benefit. The encomienda was first established in Spain following the Christian conquest of Moorish territories (known to Christians 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 or her 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 in 1500, the Spanish Crown had him replaced with Francisco de Bobadilla. [2] Bobadilla was suceeded by a royal governor, Fray Nicolás de Ovando, who established the formal encomienda system. [3] In many cases natives were forced to do hard labor and subjected to extreme punishment and death if they resisted. [4] However, Queen Isabella I of Castile forbade slavery of the native population and deemed the indigenous to be "free vassals of the crown". [5] Various versions of the 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 remained in their settlements with their families. [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. [7]

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. [8] This system was a method of rewarding soldiers and moneymen who defeated the Moors. [8] 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. [9]


Hernan Cortes, conqueror of the Aztecs and premier encomendero of New Spain Retrato de Hernan Cortes.jpg
Hernán Cortés, conqueror of the Aztecs and premier encomendero of New Spain

The first grantees of the encomienda system, called 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 the natives to pay tributes or face brutal punishments. Tributes were required to be paid in gold. However, during this time gold was scarce. [8]

Women and indigenous elites were also encomenderos. Doña Maria Jaramillo, the daughter of Doña Marina and conqueror Juan Jaramillo, received income from her deceased father's encomiendas. [10] 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. [11] [12] [13] 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. [14] 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. [7]

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. [15]


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." [16] 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. [17] 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. [18] 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. [19]

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. [20]

Reform and abolition

Initial controversy

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. [21] 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. [22] 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. [23] 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. [24]

The liberation of thousands of Native Americans held in bondage throughout the Spanish empire by the new Viceroy Blasco Núñez Vela on his journey to Peru led to his eventual murder and armed conflict between the Encomenderos and the Spanish crown which ended with the execution of those encomenderos involved. [25]

Final abolition

In most of the Spanish domains acquired in the 16th centiry the encomienda phenomenon lasted only a few decades. However in Peru and New Spain the encomienda institution lasted much longer. [26]

In Chiloé Archipelago in southern Chile, where the encomienda had been abusive enough to unleash a revolt in 1712, the encomienda was abolished in 1782. [27] In the rest of Chile it was abolished in 1789, and in the whole Spanish Empire in 1791. [27] [28] [29] [30]


The encomienda system was generally replaced by the crown-managed repartimiento system throughout Spanish America after mid-sixteenth century. [7] 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". [7] 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: also known as the Codex Tepetlaoztoc, is a 16th-century Mesoamerican pictorial manuscript which was part of a lawsuit against the Spanish Encomenderos for mistreatment. Kingsborough.jpg
Codex Kingsborough: also known as the Codex Tepetlaoztoc, is a 16th-century Mesoamerican pictorial manuscript which was part of a lawsuit against the Spanish Encomenderos for mistreatment.

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 because of 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 because of 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. [36] Instead he contends that enslavement in gold and silver mines was the primary reason why the Native American population of Hispaniola dropped so significantly [37] [36] 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 subjected to. [36] According to anthropologist Jason Hickel, a third of Arawak workers died every six months from lethal forced labor in the mines. [38]

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. [39]

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" [40] 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. [8] 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. [41] [42] 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. [43] Over the course of the Spanish conquest of Guatemala the Spanish exported 50,000 Maya slaves [44]

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. [45] 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, [46] 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. [47] The work of historians such as Peter Bakewell, [48] Noble David Cook, [49] Enrique Tandeter [50] and Raquel Gil Montero [51] 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.

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. [52]

Skepticism toward accusations of genocide

Genocide is the intentional action to destroy a people—usually defined as an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group—in whole or in part. Skepticism towards accusations of genocide linked to the Encomienda and the Spanish conquest and settlement of the Americas more generally typically involve the arguments that Spain was the only western power to grant Native Americans rights and to forbid indigenous slavery in the Americas. [53] The encomienda itself, a medieval institution transplanted from the reconquest of Muslim Spain was, in fact, meant to ensure the protection of Native Americans before it was abolished with the New Laws of 1543 due to its misuse as an instrument of forced labor. Many accusations of genocide are also based on figures provided by Bartolome de las Casas which have been widely discredited by modern academia, yet were used to forge the anti-Spanish Black Legend, portraying Spaniards as barbarous and violent. [54] [55] [56] [57] [58]

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. [59]

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. [60] 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%. [61]

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. [62] Elsa Malvido suggests that the plague caused the hemorrhagic fevers described by the Spanish physicians, while a recent study recently proposed by microbiologist Rodolfo Acuna-Soto suggests that the diseases that decimated the population were actually a native hemorrhagic plague carried by rodents. [63]

See also

Related Research Articles

European colonization of the Americas Settlement and conquest of North and South America by Europeans

Although Europeans had explored and colonized northeastern North America c. 1000 CE, European colonization of the Americas typically refers to the events that took place in the Americas between about 1500 CE and 1800 CE, during the Age of Exploration. During this time period, several European empires–primarily Spain, Portugal, Britain, and France—began to explore and claim the natural resources and human capital of the Americas resulting in the disestablishment of some Indigenous Nations, and the establishment of several settler-colonial states. Some formerly European settler colonies—including New Mexico, Alaska, the Prairies/northern Great Plains, and the "Northwest Territories" in North America; the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Yucatán Peninsula, and the Darién Gap in Central America; and the northwest Amazon, the central Andes, and the Guianas in South America—remain relatively rural, sparsely populated and Indigenous into the 21st century, however several settler-colonial states, including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, and the United States grew into settler-colonial empires in their own right. Many of the social structures—including religions, political boundaries, and linguae francae—that predominate the western hemisphere in the 21st century are descendants of the structures established during this period.

Spanish colonization of the Americas Invasion of the American continents and incorporation into the Spanish Empire

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Bartolomé de las Casas Spanish Dominican friar, historian, and social reformer

Bartolomé de las Casas was a 16th-century Spanish landowner, friar, priest, and bishop, famed as a 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.

Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar

Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar was a Spanish conquistador and first governor of Cuba. In 1511 he led the successful conquest and colonization of Cuba. As the first governor of the island, he established several municipalities that remain important to this day and positioned Cuba as a center of trade and a staging point for expeditions of conquest elsewhere. From Cuba he chartered important expeditions that led to the Spanish discovery and conquest of Mexico.

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The Nahuas are a group of the indigenous people of Mexico and El Salvador, historically also present in parts of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The Nahuas comprise the largest indigenous group in Mexico and second largest group in El Salvador. The Aztecs were of Nahua ethnicity, and the Toltecs are often thought to have been as well.

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Antonio de Mendoza y Pacheco was the first Viceroy of New Spain, serving from November 14, 1535 to November 25, 1550, and the third Viceroy of Peru, from September 23, 1551, until his death on July 21, 1552.

<i>A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies</i>

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The Laws of Burgos, promulgated on 27 December 1512 in Burgos, Crown of Castile (Spain), was the first codified set of laws governing the behavior of Spaniards in the Americas, particularly with regard to the Indigenous people of the Americas ('native Caribbean Indians'). They forbade the maltreatment of the indigenous people and endorsed their conversion to Catholicism. The laws were created following the conquest and Spanish colonization of the Americas in the West Indies, where the common law of Castile was not fully applicable.

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Slavery in Colombia

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Further reading