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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.

Indian 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 (Calero, 67).

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 labor supply.

Within 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

Giving 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 them.

In the 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.

The major 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.