Encomienda is system of labor management. It is the word used as a label for the system Spain implemented for the management of its New World colonies. The word derives from the Spanish word encomendar which means to entrust, or to put in someone’s care, or to assign a fiduciary duty. The root concept of encomienda is that one group of people were entrusted to the care of another group of people. That concept, when planted in the soil of the New World, sprouted into a system in which the early conquerors, or conqusitadors, received tribute in the form of labor and other valuables from the conquered in exchange for protection and religious instruction. The system mutated into several varieties through subsequent generations while retaining the central character of the conquerors being the prime beneficiary of the labor of the conquered.
Encomienda was born in the latter days of the Spanish Reconquista. The Reconquista is the name given to the centuries long endeavor to retake, or reconquer, the Iberian peninsula from the Moors who had dominated since the 700s. In the latter era of the Reconquista, the last half century or so, encomienda was conceived as a way of rewarding military endeavor by providing both incentives and compensations. It was a three way1arrangement involving the Conquerors and the Conquered and the commodity of the labor of the conquered. The Crown granted to the conquering military a right of tribute from the conquered.
The Reconquista ended successfully for Spain in 1492, the very year that Christopher Columbus discovered the new world. Within ten years, settlements had commenced in the Caribbean Sea and within thirty years, the Aztec Empire was under Spanish control. As the expanse of the territory and the populace of that new world became apparent, it was perhaps the easiest path of administration to transfer encomienda from the Iberian Peninsula to the Americas.
In 1501, the Crown declared the “Indios”, the native peoples of the Americas, to be subjects of the Crown. This decree granted them legal status and appears to have been, at least partly, to protect them from outright enslavement. In 1503 encomienda was legally redefined for the New World. Retaining the concept of entrustment, encomienda became the grant by the Crown to the conquistador, or encomiendero, of a certain number of Indios. The encomiendero was obligated to protect the Indios and to provide them with religious instruction, and was empowered to collect tribute from the Indios in the form of labor or produce or silver and gold.
The system became immensely profitable for the encomienderos and also for Spain. It became a catchphrase among 16th century Spaniards to say, “sin indios no hay Indias“, that is, without Indians, there are no Indies. This emphasized that the value of the “Indies” was not the land itself, but it was the “Indians”, or more specifically, the indentured labor of the people of the land.2
In most cases it was little different than outright slavery. The lasting imprint of the system upon the character of Latin America has been considered by some to be a reason for its lagging economic progress in the 21st century.
Christopher Columbus granted encomienda in Hispaniola.3 It is said that he required tribute upon pain of punishment, sometimes brutal. Later, Cortes and his followers were granted encomienda in the region that became Mexico.
The Crown had reservations about the implementation of encomienda in the New World from the beginning. In response to growing reports of abuses, the Crown implemented the New Laws in 1542 as reforms to encomienda.
The New Laws provided increased protections for the Indios. Force could not be used to obtain work from unwilling people, products beyond a reasonable tribute must be paid for, and abuses of the people could result in the forfeiture of the encomienda to the Crown. The New Laws also provided restrictions to the encomienderos. In addition to potential forfeiture for abuse of the people, the encomienda would not be possessed in perpetuity by the family of the encomiendero. The prospect of these restrictions had been vigorously opposed by many of the encomienderos, and, upon their implementation, led to various revolts against the Crown. But the rebellions were ultimately put down, the empire continued, and the new laws became relaxed in time. In time, the encomiendas reverted to the possession of the Crown, the new Laws were relaxed, and encomienderos were replaced by corregidors.
The persons of the encomienderos,4 generally the first and second generation conquistadors, passed with time, but the position they occupied remained in the form of the corregidors. Similarly, the encomindas5 6too, passed with time, but the reminder of that mode of polity remained in the form of the corregimiento7. The independence of the indigents had long been gone, and the last of the actually indentured servants passed with time, but the memory remained in the stories of the people. The crown continued in authority and possession and the indigent continued as peasants8 These corregidores tended to be hated by the people as much as the encomienderos9. They represented the claim of the crown over the labor of the people.
By 1800, encomienda had been long gone as an institution, but the shape of encomienda had been stamped upon the culture. The Crown ruled and the peasants paid tribute through the system of corregidores and corregiementos. The peninsulares10 had the highest station, the criolles11occupied a secondary status but were generally in positions of power in New Spain. Mestizos12 held the third station followed by Indians and last of all imported slaves. The indigenous peoples with the strongest natural claim labored for the benefit of those with the claim of ancient conquest.
It was this system that revolutionaries Hidalgo, Allende, Morelos and Josefa encountered and resisted.
- The three element arrangement of the feudal system of the Middle Ages, lord, vassal, fief, might be seen as the forerunner of encomienda. The lord was a landowner who provided rights of use and other forms of support or protection. The vassal rendered fealty and other forms of tribute for the use of those rights. The fief was those rights. The compass of fief was very large and could accommodate most anything of value including hunting privileges, rights of taxation, monopolies as well as land use. The fief was heritable.
- “Land awardees customarily complained about how “worthless” territory was without a population of encomendados.” wikipedia encomienda
- Now Haiti and Dominican Republic occupying the western and eastern halves respectively
- acutal recipients of specific grants of encomienda
- the grant itself, the actual legal obligation of a certain quantity of souls from a certain region in indentured servitude to an encomiendero
- the form of the right of tribute was the labor of a defined number of undefined persons from a defined tribe or region. The specific persons were decided by the indigenous leadership of that tribe or region. Thus the tribe or region became accustomed to the exercise of authority of the Crown, and not just the unlucky souls forced to provide tribute. It is not difficult to image the transference of this “power” to a new but similar system.
- an administrative subdivision of a country.
- generally poor laborers in the agricultural sector
- Minster, Christopher. “Spain’s American Colonies and the Encomienda System.” ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/spains-american-colonies-encomienda-system-2136545 (accessed May 24, 2020).
- people born in Spain, the Iberian Peninsula, and living in New Spain
- people of pure Spanish blood but born in New Spain as opposed to European born
- mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry