[en-koh-mee-en-duh, -kom-ee-; Sp. eng-kaw-myen-dah]
encomienda [Span. encomendar=to entrust], system of tributory labor established in Spanish America. Developed as a means of securing an adequate and cheap labor supply, the encomienda was first used over the conquered Moors of Spain. Transplanted to the New World, it gave the conquistador control over the native populations by requiring them to pay tribute from their lands, which were "granted" to deserving subjects of the Spanish crown. The natives often rendered personal services as well. In return the grantee was theoretically obligated to protect his wards, to instruct them in the Christian faith, and to defend their right to use the land for their own subsistence. When first applied in the West Indies, this labor system wrought such hardship that the population was soon decimated. This resulted in efforts by the Spanish king and the Dominican order to suppress encomiendas, but the need of the conquerors to reward their supporters led to de facto recognition of the practice. The crown prevented the encomienda from becoming hereditary, and with the New Laws (1542) promulgated by Las Casas, the system gradually died out, to be replaced by the repartimiento and finally debt peonage. Similar systems of land and labor apportionment were adopted by other colonial powers, notably the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the French.

See L. B. Simpson, The Encomienda in New Spain (rev. ed. 1966); J. F. Bannon, Indian Labor in the Spanish Indies (1966).

The encomienda system is a trusteeship labor system that was employed by the Spanish crown during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the Philippines in order to consolidate their conquests. The status of Indians as wards of the trustees under the encomienda system served to "define the status of the Indian population. Conquistadors were granted trusteeship over the indigenous people they conquered, in an expansion of familiar medieval feudal institutions, notably the commendation ceremony, which had been established in New Castile during the Reconquista. The encomiendo system differed from the developed form of feudalism in that it did not entail any direct land tenure by the encomendero; Indian lands were to remain in their possession, a right that was formally protected by the Crown of Castile because at the beginning of the Conquest most of the rights of administration in the new lands went to the Castilian Queen. These were laws that the Crown attempted to impose in all of the Spanish colonies in the Americas and in the Philippines. The maximum size of an encomienda was three hundred Indians, though it rarely reached near to that number. The encomenderos had the authorization to tax the people under their care and to summon them for labor, but they were not given juridical authority. In return, the encomenderos were expected to maintain order through an established military and to provide teachings in Catholicism. The little respect that the Europeans had for the Amerindians, however, helped corrupt the system rather quickly. So, what was supposed to assist in the evangelization of the Natives and in the creation of a stable society became a blatant tool of oppression. The Crown established the encomienda system in Hispaniola in May 1493. While it reserved the right of revoking an encomienda from the hands of an unjust encomendero, it rarely did.

In the papal bull Inter caetera (1493) the Borgia Pope Alexander VI had granted the western newly found lands to the Castilian Crown, on the condition that it evangelize these new lands. "...By this he allocated everything discovered by Columbus to the Crown of Castile, on the condition that the monarchs set about propagating the Christian faith there, and provided the lands concerned… Because the ultimate title of the Amerindian's land lay with the Castilian Crown, the system in the New World differed in that it did not entail any direct land tenure by the encomendero. Amerindian lands were to remain in their possession, a right that was formally protected by the Crown of Castile's initial title.. These were laws that the Crown attempted to impose in all of the Spanish colonies in the Americas and in the Philippines.

In the New World and the Philippines

The Crown established the first encomiendas in the New World on Hispaniola in 1493. The maximum size of an encomienda was three hundred Amerindians, although they were usually much smaller. The encomenderos were similar to feudal lords in that they were entitled to demand tribute from the people under their care in the form of specie, kind, or corvee, but great distances, and the encomenderos ruthlessly exploited the people under their ostensible care. Using their influence and power as encomenderos and land owners of the plantations that existed side-by-side with the encomiendas, they increased taxes, seized more lands from the natives, and ultimately forced many Amerindians into a quasi-slavery. They reasoned that riches were wasted on pagans and more properly bestowed upon Christian subjects of the Spanish king. Bernal Diaz concisely summarized his motives as "to serve God and His Majesty, to give light to those who were in darkness, and to grow rich, as all men desire to do."

By reading the Requerimiento, which ordered defiant Indians, in Spanish, to accept Spanish rule and the Christian God as greater than their own. If the Indians ignored this order, they deserved the harsh punishments of a “just war.” The requerimiento was, therefore, a justification of conquest on account of being denied right of way.

This exploitation of the indigenous natives and the other negative influences of the European presence of encomenderos were some of the factors that led to the breakdown of the entire encomienda system, which ceased to exercise any vital function in New Spain by the end of the sixteenth century, though the institution was not abolished. Another equally important factor was the scrupulousness of the Spanish laws governing the encomienda system, which made it difficult for mestizos or people with no clear Amerindian lineage to be liable to encomienda service. The breakdown of tribal lineages coupled with European intermarriage undermined the labor pool available by the end of the 16th century.

The downfall of the encomienda system began in 1544, 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 the New Laws and soon revolted against Núñez Vela.

Other problems of the encomienda system in Peru resulted from the breaking up of extended families, or ayllus, bringing an end to their economic system of vertical exchanges. Further, epidemic diseases that the Europeans brought to America - such as the plague and smallpox - killed a large percentage of the indigenous population, which had no natural defenses against them. (See Population history of American indigenous peoples.) According to Leslie Byrd Simpson, "the catastrophic decline of the native population during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries... doomed thew encomienda as a device for procuring cheap labor". It must be noted, however, that the reorganizing of ayllus and geographical relocation of entire communities was a practice already put in place by the ruling Inca in order to control a vast population. The Spanish simply continued the practice. The reality of this system, arbitrary as it was, was complex and never one-sided in terms of ethnicity. Among the principal social actors interested in the continuation of the encomiendas one could usually find the pre-Incan tribal chiefs or curacas themselves, eager to be assigned encomiendas.

The encomienda system was also introduced to the Philippines when Legazpi started to give lands to Spaniards who helped enrich Spain. Encomienda were a reward of the King of Spain to Spaniards who acted for the benefit of the name of Spain. Taxes came from Filipinos.

The encomienda system was essential to the Spanish crown's sustaining its control over North, Central and South America in the first decades after the conquest, because it was the first major organizational law instituted on a continent where disease, war and turmoil reigned. The encomienda system was succeeded by the crown-managed repartimiento and the privately-owned hacienda as land ownership became more profitable than acquisition of labor force The last encomiendas were abolished in 1791.

The standard history in English of the encomienda system is Leslie Byrd Simpson, The Encomienda in New Spain: The Beginning of Spanish Mexico (1950), a through revision of his work of 1929, which scholarship in the past half century has modified in approach and deepened in local depth.

See also



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