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The encomienda (Spanish pronunciation: [eŋkoˈmjenda]) was a legal system that was employed mainly by the Spanish crown during the Spanish colonization of the Americas to regulate Native Americans and autonomy.
In the encomienda, the Spanish crown granted a person a specified number of natives for whom they were to take responsibility. In theory, the receiver of the grant was to protect the natives from warring tribes and to instruct them in the Spanish language and in the Catholic faith: in return they could extract tribute from the natives in the form of labor, gold, or other products. In practice, the difference between encomienda and slavery could be minimal. Many natives were forced to do hard labor and subjected to extreme punishment and death if they resisted.
The etymology of encomienda and encomendero lies in the Spanish verb encomendar, "to entrust". The encomienda was based on the familiar 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 differed from the Peninsular institution in that 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 to run were to remain in their possession. This right 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 crown. The system was formally abolished in 1720, but had lost effectiveness much earlier. In many areas it had been abandoned for other forms of labour. In certain areas, this quasi-feudal system persisted. In Mexico, for instance, it was not until the constitutional reform after the Mexican Revolution that the encomienda system was abolished, and the ejido became a legal entity again. (see also the history of the Chiapas conflict)
The grantees of the encomienda were usually conquistadors and soldiers, but they also included women and Native notables. For example, Doña Marina and the daughters of Montezuma were granted extensive encomiendas as dowries. Puppet Inca rulers established 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. Conquistadors were granted trusteeship over the indigenous people they helped conquer. 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, because it was the first major organizational law instituted on a continent where disease, war and turmoil reigned. Indeed the settler-conquistadors knew 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.
In the Philippines, the encomienda was granted also to the local nobles (Principalía), through the law enacted by Philip II, on 11 June 1594. It was used to acquire ownership large expanses of land, many of which (like Makati) continue to be owned by affluent families.
In 1503, the crown began to legally grant encomiendas to soldiers, conquistadors and officials. The system of encomiendas was aided by the Crown's organizing the indigenous into small harbors known as reducciones, in response to the declining 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. Encomenderos became familiar with Native lands; they were positioned to take control of land belonging to the Natives under their trusteeship through legal or extralegal means, when the opportunity arose. As initially defined, the encomendero and his heir were only supposed to benefit from the grant for two generations; however, this was often not the case, especially if the heir rendered some service to the crown. The encomienda system did eventually come to a legal end in 1720, when the crown made a new attempt at eradicating the institution. The encomenderos were then required to pay remaining encomienda labourers for their work.
The encomiendas became very corrupt and harsh. In the neighborhood of La Conception, 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 on, a chieftain named Guarionex laid havoc to the countryside before an Indian-Spanish army of about 3,090 routed the Ciguana forces under his leadership. It is safe to say that although expecting Spanish protection from warring tribes, the islanders sought to join the Spanish forces and, through sheer exasperation, helped the Spaniards deal with the ignorances to the surrounding environment.
Initially, the encomendado was supposed to be returned to the crown after two generations, however this was frequently overlooked. In 1574, the Viceroy of Peru Diego Lopez de Velasco investigated the encomiendas and concluded that there were 32,000 Spanish families in the New World, 4,000 of which had encomiendas. There were 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 America especially in the 16th century, emphasizes the economic importance and appeal of this indentured labor, even above that of precious metals or other natural resources. Land awardees customarily complained about how "worthless" territory was, unless it also comprised a population of encomendados.
The downfall of the encomienda system began as early as 1510, when Dominican missionaries began protesting the abuse of the native people by Spanish colonists. A sharp encounter between an encomendero named Valenzuela and a local Cacique named Enriquillo represents the relationship between the natives and the enforcers of the system. By 1538, Emperor Charles V realized the seriousness of the Taíno revolt and compelled policy changes over the labor of the Indians. 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 Law of the Indie 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 Núñez Vela.
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, 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 labor force.
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.
The standard history in English of the encomienda system Leslie Byrd Simpson, The Encomienda in New Spain: The Beginning of Spanish Mexico (1950), a thorough revision of his work of 1929.