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.
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.