Encomienda (Spanish pronunciation: [eŋkoˈmjenda]) was a labor system in Spain and its empire. It rewarded conquerors with the labor of particular groups of subject people. It was first established in Spain during the Roman period, but used also following the Christian conquest of Muslim territories. It was applied on a much larger scale during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the 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 Indians, held in perpetuity by the grant holder, called the encomendero, and his descendants.
In the encomienda, the Spanish Crown granted a person a specified number of natives from a specific community. Indigenous leaders were charged with mobilizing the assessed tribute and labor. In turn, encomenderos were to ensure the native people 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 ouster of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish crown sent a royal governor, Fray Nicolás de Ovando, who established the formal encomienda system. In many cases natives were forced to do hard labor and subjected to extreme punishment and death if they resisted. However, Queen Isabella of Castile forbade Indian slavery and deemed the indigenous to be "free vassals of the crown". 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. This system was similar to the labor that the former indigenous Inca Empire and its predecessors had earlier required from subject peoples.
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.
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; Indian 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.
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 Hernan Cortes's 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. The settler-conquistadors were confronted by the fury of the aroused Indian lords; voyagers, explorers, and the friars did not. 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.
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.
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." 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 Concepcion, north of Santo Domingo, the adelantado of Santiago heard rumors of a 15,000-man army planning to stage a rebellion. 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 Indian-Spanish army of about 3,090 routed the Ciguana people under his leadership. 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.
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. 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.
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 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.
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 Indians laboring in the encomiendas. 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 made two failed attempts to end the abuses of the encomienda system, through the Law of Burgos (1512–13) and the New Law of the Indies (1542). Furthermore, these laws were indeed beneficial to the authorities.
The priest of Hispaniola and former encomendero Bartolomé de las Casas underwent a profound conversion after seeing the abuse of the native people. 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. 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.
Nevertheless, the encomienda system was generally replaced by the crown-managed repartimiento system throughout Spanish America after mid-century. Like the encomienda, the new repartimento 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". 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.
The encomienda was strongly based on the encomendado's tribal identity. Mixed-race (Mestizo) individuals, for example, could not by law be subjected to the encomienda. This moved many Amerindians to deliberately seek to dilute their tribal identity and that of their descendants as a way for them to escape the service, by seeking intermarriage with people from different ethnicities, especially Spaniards or Creoles. In this way the encomienda somewhat weakened Amerindians' tribal identification and ethnicity, which in turn diminished the pool of available encomendados.