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by Daron Lusk

The repartimiento de indios refers to the forced labor of indigenous people in the Spanish colonial system. These people, Natives, were allocated to the encomenderos, the owners of the encomiendas. The actual land given to deserving subjects by the Spanish Crown are the encomiendas while the distribution of the labor force, the Indians, is referred to as the repartimiento. These two terms are used interchangeably until the passing of the New Laws in 1542. After the New Laws were passed the repartimiento referred to the allocation of the labor force while the tributes paid by the labor force is referred to as the encomienda. While this gets confusing when researching the topic, it becomes more obvious once the New Laws were passed.

In order to understand the difference between the encomienda and the repartimiento systems, this paper will give an overall background of the development of the encomienda. It will then detail how the two systems differed and what effect this difference had on not only the Indian labor force but also the Crown itself.

Repartimiento is defined as the process of distribution of indigenous peoples to forced labor. During the early settlement of Spanish-American colonies, the Crown, under Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain, worthy Spaniards were given tracts of land as payment for their services to their home country. Along with the land, these "encomenderos" were allotted the Native people of the land as the labor force to work the land.

As early as 1492, the Spanish Crown recognized the importance of working the new land that they had settled. The harsh wilderness and unfamiliar terrain that they found in the New World was deadly to most of the earliest settlers. Therefore, the Spanish settlers began a system of enslavement which forced the Native Indian cultures into the role of bondsmen. The sensitive and often unruly Native population, still suffering the wrath of European diseases into their society, quickly began to dwindle in numbers. Also, the slavery system was expensive and the Indian population that did survive often turned to violence such as the revolt of 1494, to resist the European pressures.

Therefore, a new system had to be established to allow the Spanish colonists to control the Indian population, to assist in the conversion of the Native population to the Catholic Church, and to take full advantage of the untouched silver and gold mines that filled the inlands of Latin America. The early beginnings of the Repartimiento system can be found in the initial establishment of the encomienda system. The encomienda system derived from the Spanish colonists need for a steady labor supply to tame and harvest the new land. The makeup of the Europeans who first traveled to the New World were primarily thieves, ex-soldiers, and prisoners, who came only to reduce their sentences ordered by the court. There were, however, a small group of elites who traveled to the colonies and established themselves as leaders among the colonists.

Upon their arrival these ill-prepared people found the struggles of colonial life almost too much to bear. They frequently faced starvation and death by disease. Their only relief in these early days came in the form of supply vessels that were few and far between. These vessels were often filled with only spoiled foods and water rotten tools. The only manner of survival for these early settlers was to force the Native population to supply them with food. Even Columbus, after the Indian revolt of 1494, placed Indians under the control of land owners, where the Natives would work to support the colonists. He only petitioned Ferdinand and Isabella after he had initiated the system that came to be called the encomienda system. The initial system instituted this early was actually an adaptation of a similar Spanish method of forced labor. Eventually, Fray Nicolas de Ovando laid the foundation for further relationships between the Spanish settlers and the Native population regarding the use of their labor. Ovando was chosen as royal governor because of his experience in the region of Granada, and he immediately proposed ideals to regulate the relationship between the Spaniards and the Natives. Among these first decrees, Ovando stated, "Since it will be necessary, in order to mine gold and to carry out the other works that we have ordered, to make use of the services of the Indians, you will compel them to work in our service, paying them the wage which you think it is just they should have." With these decrees, he laid out a primitive instruction base which developed into the repartimiento system.

Ovando continued to look after the labor supply of the Indian population. Not only was the Crown interested in forcing the Natives to help provide food but they also wanted to use the Indians' labor to extract the gold from the nearby mines. Ovando, having had experience with the labor system of Espanola, decided to attempt to adopt the encomienda system into New Spain to better regulate the labor system of the Indians. In a letter written by Queen Isabella to Ovando, she clearly agrees that the Indian labor should be forced to aid the survival of the Spanish colonies, by producing foods and fortifications, as well as the mining that the Crown desperately desired to take part in.

Upon Isabella's approval to Ovando to incorporate the encomienda system into the Spanish colonies, she also laid the foundation for better Spanish-Native relations in the New World. Since European conquest, the relationship between the Natives and the Spaniards had been abusive at best. Native people were enslaved and starved to the point that their Native populations dwindled near extinction. As the humanity of the situation improved and Native labor was used more openly for Spaniard gains, the Indians were still mistreated and taken advantage of. The encomienda system would regulate the relationship between the encomenderos and the labor force that supplied their survival.

Upon Isabella's death the responsibilities of regulating the encomiendas fell to Ferdinand, whose first goal was to make as much money from the Native labor force that they could possibly get. Ferdinand did not necessarily care for the humane treatment of the Indians, though he did not treat them inhumanely either. He chose, instead to decree that the Indians should remain as forced labor and not be enslaved unless they became unruly and then they should be enslaved and most should be sold. With this he established his manner of dealing with the Indians without taking a definite stand on the slavery issue. According to Lesley Byrd Simpson in The Encomienda in New Spain, Ferdinand contemplated regulating the distribution of the Native labor but decided against it because he felt that it would take away from the Indian production in the gold mines.

The continued death and horrible conditions that the Indian population was subjected to began to be noticed. By 1510, Domingo de Mendoza, who was the Cardinal-Archbishop of Seville and the President of the Council of Castile, sent a company of Dominican missionaries to Espanola. Fray Pedro de Cordoba headed this company. The missionaries could not believe what they saw when they arrived. They found the relationship between the Indians and the colonists to be one of abuse and almost relentless cruelty to the Natives. They immediately began to protest to the colonists and forced the encomenderos to organize their defense before the courts in Spain. The missionaries sent one of their own, Fray Antonio de Montesinos, to meet the courts and to argue their case for the better treatments of the Native peoples.

The Dominicans gained a favorable decision before the courts and Montesinos later gained the approval by Ferdinand himself to review the laws governing the labor of the colonies. Ferdinand called a committee to further review the complaints of the missionaries. The committee constructed a set of laws designed to regulate the treatment of the Native population but at no time did the laws seem to question the use of Native labor to produce the wealth of the colonies. The Laws of Burgos as they were named issued thirty-five rulings that regulated the Indians usage and the degree to which the Indians labor could be used or abused.

The Laws of Burgos passed on July 28, 1513, placed restrictions on the use of Indian labor and attempted to control the encomenderos abuse of the sensitive Native tribes. The Laws regulated the time that Natives could spend at doing certain work and also set specific times of rest between the work that they were forced to carry out. Of course, the Laws upheld the Crown's own interest in keeping the Indians loyal to them. The Laws dictated that the Indians would be removed from their homes and placed within the confines of the Spanish towns. They would also be forced to regularly attend church services and be trained to the Catholic religion. The Laws of Burgos are specifically laid out to convert the Indians not only religiously but also culturally. They regulated the clothing of the Indians and even their food.

To say the least, the Dominican friars were not happy with the outcome of their efforts but they continually pushed for further reforms of the encomienda system. During their pleas to the Spanish Crown they gained the attention of Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas had lived in Espanola and Cuba for the past ten years and had become aware of the conditions of the Indians under the repartimiento-encomienda system. He had actually been the recipient of an encomienda and subjected his Indians to the same treatment that he now opposed. Las Casas would quickly become and remain the leader of the movement that sought to abolish the labor system in the New World.

Las Casas devoted the next fifty years to promoting the end of the repartimiento system. In 1515, las Casas and Montesinos were granted permission to go to Seville and meet with the King to air their aggressions. There las Casas met with the King but was met with indecision and was brushed aside and sent to discuss his ideas with lesser officials. Before Ferdinand could make a decision concerning las Casas' abolition ideas he died on January 23, 1516. Las Casas then turned to the soon-to-be King, Charles I. On his trip to visit Charles, Las Casas met a Franciscan friar who would become one of las Casas' best advocates to abolish the repartimiento system.

Las Casas made contact with Cardinal Ximénez de Cisneros, who immediately convened a council to listen to las Casas' proposal. The council was asked to consider the regulating of the encomienda system, the freeing of the Indian labor force and the administering of the Native population by the Church. All of these proposals were astounding considering the power and prestige of the encomenderos of the time. Las Casas chose three prominent men of the Church, known as the Jeronymites, to administer his reforms but soon found them to be disagreeable to his ideas and to his forced rule over them. He quickly lost control over the reforms that he helped to establish and found no help from Cisneros who remained confident in Luis de Figueroa, Bernadino de Manzanedo, and Alonso de Santo Domingo.

These three men were given the responsibility of initiating the reforms within the New World. Upon their arrival they were to gather the inhabitants of the caciques and encomiendas and notify them of the Crowns new policy toward Spanish-Indian relations. They were supposed to help the Spaniards and the Indians to work together to develop a system that would work out the grievances between the two cultures. The reforms also stated that the Indians would be free subjects of the Crown and should have been treated accordingly. The new reforms also called for the removal of the caciques into Spanish towns and the people there should pay a tribute to the King. The encomenderos would be compensated from this tribute for the loss of their labor force but they could continue to work the mines on their own account if they chose.

The Indian villages were established near the mines for easier access and all would be given access to a church and hospital. The Indians would also be given better food supplies and their workload would be lessened, with the women being restricted from heavy workloads. Indians within these villages would be given clothing and better living conditions so that they would more readily accept the religious teachings that the missionaries were adamant about continuing. Priest would be assigned to each village and direct the religious teachings for the three hundred inhabitants of each village. However, most of these reforms were established in vain because upon the arrival of the three Jeronymites they reported that the Indians were well treated and that the land that they saw was not in need of any major revisions. They actually advocated for the trade of Negro slaves to be brought to the New World to incorporate another industry for the Crown.

Once a committee was convened to report on the views of the three Jeronymites, they reported similar findings. The committee reported that the Indians lived good lives under the encomienda system and that id they were freed from the control of the encomenderos they would quickly revert to their "wild" ways. The committee reported that they witnessed Christianized Natives revert to their Native religious acts only after a short time away from their religious teachings. Natives would only work the mines when forced by the Spanish. Because they placed no value on material possessions they did not understand the value of the gold that they produced or the value that the income would bring to the King of Spain. Ultimately, the council decided that las Casas misinterpreted the conditions of the Indian population and that the Natives would have to remain under the control of the current system in order to convert them and make them useful subjects.

It was decided that slave labor should be imported to work the mines and that the Indian labor should be converted over time to the production of the soil. Until this time agriculture had been virtually ignored because of the overwhelming desire to supply gold to the Crown. The idea was that because the encomenderos had no guarantee to the future of their labor force they had misused their labor to get more production out of them. If they were reassured that they would not lose their labor, the encomenderos would treat them with more care and attention and subject the Negro work force to the brunt of the mining work. The Indians would then be used for the production of agriculture, which would again supplement the initial fall in economic gain from the New World.

When Hernan Cortez made his outstanding discovery of the inhabitants of Mexico his initial decision was to restrict the giving of encomiendas to his troops so that the Indian population would be more willing to work and accept the Spanish rule. Cortez had seen what devastating affects that the encomienda system had on the Native of population of Espanola and he was determined to keep the encomiendas out of Mexico. The Crown supported him and they instructed him to keep control of his men and not to allow them to pressure the Indians into any further hostilities. The Crown believed that Spanish settlers purposely instituted grievances with the Indians so that the Indians would become unruly and give the Spaniards an excuse to place them under the encomenderos rule.

Cortez held firm to his stance but the pressures of his men finally over powered him. His initial army that had conquered the Native population insisted that they be compensated for their work in land grants and therefore should be given an adequate labor force to work that land. Cortez, despite his initial objection to the idea, gave in because of the threat that an unruly mass of soldiers could be for him.

The Crown decreed that Cortez would not, "not make any repartimiento or encomienda in that land, or consent to any assignment of the Indians, but are to allow them (the Indians) to live in liberty, as our vassals in Castile live, and if before the arrival of this letter you have given any Indians in encomienda to any Christians, you will remove them." The Crown further instructed them to encourage the Indians to accept the religious instruction of the Spaniards and to insist that they do so or be forced to accept the Christian faith. They were to force the Indians to give up sacrifice and to encourage them to enter into free economic trade with the Spaniards as the other vassals had done, so as to bring them into more frequent contact with the Spaniards. Most of all the Spaniards were instructed to keep all of the promises that they made the Natives and to hold strictly to the agreements that they made.

The Crown understood the kind of men that the conquistadors were and they hoped to take steps to prevent any mistreatment of the Indians that might cause war. Any movements that might have led to war were prevented under severe penalty and Spaniards were allowed to freely associate with Indians on their own accord for fear that they might insult or degrade the Natives which would result in aggressive feelings toward the Spaniards. Also, the Crown decreed that the Spaniards were not to take any of the Native women away from their families for their own pleasures. Again this was to restrict the possible aggression from the Natives.

Upon receiving the letter from the Spanish government, Cortez flat out refused to obey the Crown deciding that inhibiting his men would only cause trouble within their ranks. Cortez laid out his argument in a well thought out and well written argument that changed the future of the Native population in Mexico. He wrote that the Spanish Crown would sacrifice their new lands because the Indians would not be able to hold the land if the Spaniards did not stay and control it for them. Therefore, Cortez fell back on the religious theme that the Indians would fall back into their sinful way of life and the Crown would never gain the acceptance of the Natives or the land that they resided on.

Cortez also claimed that the Indians were far better treated under the encomienda system that he had already established and that the Indians refused to return to the life outside of the encomienda. Cortez claimed that the Indians had been subjected to slavery and used as sacrifices and that a threat that they often used against any unruly Native was to tell him that he would be returned to his former captors for sacrifice. This, of course, seems a bit unreasonable due to the fact that the Indians population of Mexico was under Spanish control or dying of the European diseases. The threat of returning unruly Natives back to their former enslaves was not something that could have been carried out.

Cortez then reassured the Crown that he was familiar with the atrocities that the encomienda system had brought to the Natives in Espanola, and would take great measures to make sure that his men did not mistreat the Indians. He claimed that the Natives of Mexico would not be sent to the mines or plantations for hard labor and that none of the Spaniards would take it upon themselves to mistreat the Indians under their control. Cortez wrote that the slaves who were abundant would be the only labor subjected to the hard work and dangerous conditions of the gold mines.

Next, Cortez disagreed with the Crown when it came to tributes being paid by the Natives. Cortez claimed that the Indians had no way to pay such a tribute and even if they did it would break the economy of the Indian towns and the entire region would suffer. He claimed to have seen first hand the destruction that heavy tributes placed on the Indian populations had on towns and that with the removal of tributes from those towns the Native populations began to prosper once more.

Finally, Cortez argued that if the encomienda system was abolished then the Crown would not anyone there to protect the land and to keep it in the hands of the Crown. This was an argument that the Crown could not ignore. After all Cortez had a point. If the encomienda system was abolished then the men that controlled the land would rise up and the turmoil would strip the Crown of the prosperous future that might have in the rich land that Cortez had delivered to them.

Thus the encomienda system was spread to the new lands of Mexico and the overwhelming mistreatment of the Native population continued. That is until the New Laws of 1542. In the New Laws, which came about due to the inhumane treatment of the Native populations, Spain decreed that no longer would the Indians be subjected to unchecked aggression of the encomenderos. The New Laws established the method of distribution that is called the repartimiento. The repartimiento de indios, or the distribution of Indians, allocated certain numbers of Indians to certain Spanish landowners for certain terms of service. Upon the service, the Indians would be paid a salary and the treatment of the Indian labor would be strictly controlled. The Indians, or repartidos, as they were called under this system after 1542, were selected and allocated according to economic need of the landowner or the royal need.

For instance, if the royal mines were in need of increased labor and a local landowner needed more labor to get his crop in the ground, then the first order of business would be to serve the royal needs first. The economic stability of the Crown overshadowed the need of the farmer. The repartidos were also under the control of the government official that distributed the labor and also recalled the labor if any mistreatment were to take place. There was corruption in the system, as some royal administrators were bought off and many Indians still suffered inhumane treatment under the control of their boss.

The repartimiento system differed from the original encomienda system due to the fact that the labor force was paid a salary for their term of work where as under the encomienda system, the laborers had not been paid or subsidized in any way. In this manner, the Indians could afford to pay tribute to the Crown as the Crown believed that loyal vassals should have done. After the passing of the New Laws in 1542, the encomienda referred to this tribute that the Indian labor paid not only to the Crown but also to the encomenderos, or the Church.

In order for a Spaniard to receive labor he had to appeal to the royal official who would then allocate out the necessary labor force that the job or jobs required. This royal official would keep up with the number of Indians placed into this labor field and also the amount of tribute paid out by the Indians. Every Indians village was subjected to the repartimiento system and according to official numbers each tribal member over the age of fifteen had to serve six percent of each year under the system. This translates to only one month of one year but the labor that these Indians were subjected to was enough to kill or seriously injure any strong male.

Each Indian community had to provide the system with a labor force. Again, numbers indicate that two to four percent of each community was supplied throughout the year to the system. Numbers also fluctuated according to the economic necessity of the Spanish landowners. So, some communities could have contributed as much as fifty percent of the their community labor to the system in a year's time.

After 1542, the repartimiento system took on a more favorable answer to the labor relationships between the Spaniards and the natives in the New World. Under the encomienda system, Indians were subjected to the rules and harsh treatment of the landowner, or encomenderos, with little or no care given by the Spanish Crown. Las Casas attempted to institute reforms to protect the Indians but his extended efforts, which took up most of his life, came to no satisfactory end. While the Indian labor force under the repartimiento system were subjected to better treatment and even a salary for their work they were still forced to take part in the labor to serve the Crown and forced to pay what little salary they received to the Crown. Therefore, it become apparent that the repartimiento system was not so much a humanitarian effort as it was a measure by the Spanish Crown to keep their labor force alive and more willing to work for the Crown.


Simpson, Lesley Byrd, The Encomienda in New Spain, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1950)

Poole, Stafford C.M., ed. In Defense of the Indians The Defense of the Most Reverend Lord, Don Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, of the Order of Preachers, Late Bishop of Chiapa, Against the Persecutors and Slanderers of the Peoples of the New World Discovered Across the Seas (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974)

Himmerich y Valencia, Robert, The Encomenderos of New Spain, 1521-1555 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991) online source used under the heading of "The Repartimiento System" accessed June 04, 2003.