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What is Encomienda?

Encomienda was a labor system in colonial Latin America, granting Spanish colonists control over indigenous communities for forced work and tribute, in exchange for supposed protection and Christianization. This exploitative practice profoundly impacted native populations. How did it shape the societies we see today? Join us as we delve into the legacy of the encomienda system.
Jason C. Chavis
Jason C. Chavis

Encomienda was a system established by the Spanish during the initial colonization efforts undertaken upon the Americas and the Philippines. The purpose was to create a labor force of the indigenous peoples of these areas as well as force Catholic religion upon the populace. Colonists from Europe were given a certain portion of the population which they would command. The natives would work for their new-found leadership, offering tribute such as gold and supplying food. In return, the Europeans would teach them the Spanish language and religious practices.

This system was first used by Christopher Columbus on the island of Hispaniola, present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic. He employed a system of retribution against those natives resisting the principles of encomienda, which was considered harsh even by the period's standards. Using the local population, he began to construct some of the first settlements, but ended up decimating the population through disease and malnutrition.

A portrait of Christopher Columbus, who used the system of encomienda on the island of Hispaniola.
A portrait of Christopher Columbus, who used the system of encomienda on the island of Hispaniola.

Within the system of encomienda, the natives were not considered slaves or indentured servants, but essentially wards of the Europeans. As conquistadors continued their domination over Latin America, they would seize tribes and use the leaders as puppet officials. These populations were often also used as bargaining chips between Spanish colonists. For example, a person could award the wardship of a certain group as part of a dowry in marriage.

Many historians point to the benefits of encomienda as stabilizing the local population in times of great upheaval. As war, famine and disease spread across the Americas, the system of labor and tribute kept the native population in line while not fanning the flames of complete rebellion against colonization. Over the course of time, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries encomienda resulted in vast reductions of Indian populations.

Unlike the English, Dutch, and French systems, which forced the native populations from land areas, the Spanish system allowed the indigenous people to retain their geographic regions. Instead, encomienda promoted a segmenting of the Spanish colonists into small population centers which governed the natives. This is the reason that, despite many atrocities, the native population is still heavily represented in the regions of Latin America when much of the Native American groups of North America were effectively destroyed.

The concept of encomienda was adopted by the Spanish Crown in 1503 during the early days of colonization. It was first put in place to reward the military officials leading the charge for exploration across the Americas. The system also worked to the benefit of the Spanish by keeping the population in check. Over the course of the next two centuries, the practice developed into principles of forced labor not far removed from slavery. Due to this fact, the Crown effectively dismantled the concept in 1720.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the encomienda system?

The encomienda system was a labor system instituted by the Spanish crown during the colonization of the Americas. It granted Spanish settlers (encomenderos) the right to extract tribute and labor from the indigenous people living on allotted lands. In exchange, the encomenderos were supposed to provide protection and religious instruction. However, it often led to severe exploitation and was akin to forced labor, contributing to the decline of the indigenous population.

How did the encomienda system affect indigenous populations?

The encomienda system had devastating effects on indigenous populations. It resulted in significant forced labor, which, along with the introduction of European diseases, led to a dramatic decline in the indigenous population. According to historical estimates, the native population of Hispaniola decreased from about 250,000 in 1492 to just a few thousand by the 1540s, largely due to the harsh conditions of the encomienda system and disease.

When and why was the encomienda system abolished?

The encomienda system began to be phased out in the mid-16th century due to its brutality and the efforts of reformers like Bartolomé de las Casas, who advocated for the rights of indigenous peoples. The New Laws of 1542 attempted to reform the system and prevent the abuse of indigenous people, leading to its gradual abolition. However, remnants of the system persisted in various forms well into the 17th century.

What was the role of the encomenderos?

Encomenderos were Spanish settlers who were granted the right to collect tribute and labor from the indigenous people within their encomienda. Their role was to act as protectors and Christian educators of the native people. In practice, however, many encomenderos exploited the indigenous population for labor in mines, plantations, and other enterprises, often neglecting their responsibilities for protection and welfare.

Did the encomienda system exist outside of the Americas?

While the encomienda system was primarily associated with Spanish colonies in the Americas, similar systems of labor and tribute existed in other Spanish territories, such as the Philippines. The system in the Philippines also involved the allocation of indigenous people to Spanish encomenderos, who were responsible for their Christianization and protection, but like in the Americas, it often led to exploitation.

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Discussion Comments


@Markerrag -- another thing that is directly related to that policy is the liberation theology that is dominant in some Catholic churches throughout the areas where Encomienda was practiced. That theology looks as religion as a way -- and a justification -- to bring people to freedom from oppression.

The fascinating thing about that is that Catholicism, which as imposed under the policy of Encomienda, is the very vehicle through which people subject to colonization advanced the notion of independence through liberation theology. Ironic, no?


One noteworthy thing about this period is that it is directly at the root of a couple of things -- a generational dislike of Spain among many groups that evolved from those who lived under that policy and the enduring legacy of Catholicism in much of Latin America.

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    • A portrait of Christopher Columbus, who used the system of encomienda on the island of Hispaniola.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      A portrait of Christopher Columbus, who used the system of encomienda on the island of Hispaniola.