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Encomienda System

Encomienda System

How do you control both the indigenous population and the explorers-conquerors in the territories they claim? How do you profit from colonial territories thousands of miles away if you are not directly controlling them? The Spanish answer to these questions was the encomienda system used in their colonized territories in the Americas during the late 1400s and early 1500s. What was the encomienda system? What were its impact and significance? And were there any benefits, if any? You can find out here.

The Encomienda System Explained

The encomienda system did not begin with the Spanish conquest of Central and South America in the 1510s. The system began on the Iberian Peninsula between the 800s to the 1400s and was later refined to fit the needs of the rapidly expanding Spanish territory in the New World.

The Encomienda System:

A labor system created by the Spanish monarchy in which Spanish conquistadors, explorers, governors, and select indigenous individuals were rewarded with grants to use indigenous peoples for labor and exact tribute from them in the form of gold or raw materials, with a tax paid to the Spanish Crown. The “encomenderos” would protect the indigenous peoples and convert them to Catholicism in return for the grant.

The Encomienda System: Brief Background

In the 700s CE, a group of Muslims from North Africa called the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal). Catholic Spain began an extended military campaign to regain the region. This campaign was called the Reconquista reconquest. It lasted from the 800s until the fall of Grenada in 1492.

During this crusade, the Spanish Crown rewarded military personnel with encomiendas–from the Spanish encomendar, meaning: to entrust someone with a mission or purpose–a grant of land from which the encomenderos would use the Moor population for labor, convert the Moor population to Catholicism, protect the Moor population, and take taxes from the Moors to pay tribute to the King. In 1499, this system was put into practice on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean and later used on the American mainland during the Spanish Conquest of Hernan Cortes and Ferdinand Pizarro.

Encomienda System Spain StudySmarter

A map showing the Moor invasion of Iberia, controlling all the territory in green. The Kingdom of Leon y Castilla would reconquer the territory from 800 CE to 1492 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

The Encomienda System Impact

The Spanish Crown legally defined the encomienda system in 1503 to be used to conquer the Americas. Conquistadors, explorers, governors, and even some select indigenous people were granted encomiendas. In the Americas, unlike the proto-system in the Peninsula used to subjugate the Moors, the “encomenderos” were not granted land. Instead, they were given oversight over the indigenous peoples of a specific territory.

In theory, the encomenderos would use the indigenous population as labor to extract gold, crops, and other materials from the land. The people would pay a tax to the encomenderos, who would, in turn, produce a tribute to the Spanish Crown. In return for being granted an encomienda, the encomenderos would protect the indigenous people as it was their labor source and convert them the Catholicism.

In practice, however, the encomenderos would gain control of significant parts of the indigenous territory, and many failed to uphold their rules of protecting the native peoples. What was established as a system designed to gain labor and protect the labor source became a system of state-sponsored enslavement of the native population of the Americas.

At the core!

The core issue with the system was that the enslavement of the indigenous populations and the abuses towards them was in direct conflict with the rule of the Spanish Crown. In 1501, Queen Isabella declared that all indigenous peoples of the Americas were Spanish subjects–allowing them to be taxed and converted. However, enslaving a Spanish subject was illegal. Thus the practice of many of the encomenderos put them at moral and financial odds with the Spanish monarchy.

Reform, Decay, and Abolition

The Spanish Monarchy attempted to address the abuses of the encomienda system in the Americas by passing the New Laws of 1542. These laws did the following:

  • Created new regulations of the encomienda system

  • Established methods to gradually end the use of the system in the Americas

  • Reinforced the prohibition of enslaving the indigenous populations.

  • Acknowledged that the Spanish government could do little to control the actions and enforce customary laws in the Americas.

Encomienda System Spanish Empire StudySmarter

A map detailing the Spanish Empire at its height. Source Wikimedia Commons. Author: User Nagihuin CC-BY-4.0

In 1550, King Charles I of Spain even ordered a debate in the Spanish court over the practice of encomiendas, known as the Valladolid Debate. This debate between scholars resulted in some reform of the system but did little to stop the abuses and expansion of Spanish territory in the Americas.

Did you know?

Even with these new changes, it only lasted a few decades in most American territories where the Spanish used the encomienda system. In many regions, the indigenous population began a sharp decline due to the spread of diseases, e.g., smallpox, and the system's abusive practices.

Encomienda System Benefits

The overall benefits of the encomienda system are all very one-sided towards the encomenderos who profited off of the labor and land they controlled. You can argue that the Spanish Crown benefited from the tribute the encomenderos offered, but not enough to maintain the practice as they moved to reform the system in 1542 and began to abolish the system in territories starting in the 1600s up to its complete abolition in 1791.

Encomienda System labor in the Spanish colonies StudySmarterArrieros, by Carl Nebel, illustrating rural work in New Spain. Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The system did not benefit the indigenous population. The abuses and enslavement of the indigenous people annihilated both the culture and the people themselves. The forced conversion to Catholicism led to the weakening and destruction of indigenous religions and rituals. The spread of diseases, rebellions such as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, and other violent conflicts wiped out the population. Eventually led to the decay of the system and the need for Spain to bring in enslaved labor from other regions such as Africa.

Encomienda System Significance

The encomienda system had long-lasting effects on the Americas, especially Spanish-controlled territories. As only people of high station, Spanish nobility, or specified indigenous people were the only ones granted encomiendas, the system consequently influenced race and ethnicity as the main determinants of economic and political power in the Spanish colonies.

The Encomienda System - Key Takeaways

  • The system began on the Iberian peninsula between the 800s to the 1400s and was later refined to fit the needs of the rapidly expanding Spanish territory in the New World.
  • A labor system created by the Spanish monarchy in which Spanish conquistadors, explorers, governors, and select indigenous individuals were rewarded with grants to use indigenous peoples for labor and exact tribute from them in the form of gold or raw materials, with a tax paid to the Spanish Crown. The “encomenderos” would protect the indigenous peoples and convert them to Catholicism in return for the grant.
  • In theory, the encomenderos would use the indigenous population as labor to extract gold, crops, and other materials from the land. The people would pay a tax to the encomenderos, who would, in turn, produce a tribute to the Spanish Crown. In return for being granted an encomienda, the encomenderos would protect the indigenous people as it was their labor source and convert them the Catholicism.
  • In practice, however, the encomenderos would gain control of significant parts of the indigenous territory, and many failed to uphold their rules of protecting the native peoples. What was established as a system designed to gain labor and protect the labor source became a system of state-sponsored enslavement of the native population of the Americas.
  • In 1550, King Charles I of Spain even ordered a debate in the Spanish court over the practice of encomiendas, known as the Valladolid Debate. This debate between scholars resulted in some reform of the system but did little to stop the abuses and expansion of Spanish territory in the Americas.
  • As only people of high station, Spanish nobility, or specified indigenous people were the only ones granted encomiendas, the system consequently influenced race and ethnicity as the main determinants of economic and political power in the Spanish colonies.

Frequently Asked Questions about Encomienda System

A labor system created by the Spanish monarchy in which Spanish conquistadors, explorers, governors, and select indigenous individuals were rewarded with grants to use indigenous peoples for labor and exact tribute from them in the form of gold or raw materials, with a tax paid to the Spanish Crown.  

In practice, however, the encomenderos would gain control of significant parts of the indigenous territory, and many failed to uphold their rules of protecting the native peoples. What was established as a system designed to gain labor and protect the labor source became a system of state-sponsored enslavement of the native population of the Americas.  

Spanish territory and colonies in the Americas, the Philippines, and in Spain itself during the reconquista.

In theory, the encomenderos would use the indigenous population as labor to extract gold, crops, and other materials from the land. The people would pay a tax to the encomenderos, who would, in turn, produce a tribute to the Spanish Crown. In return for being granted an encomienda, the encomenderos would protect the indigenous people as it was their labor source and convert them the Catholicism.  

In theory, the encomenderos would use the indigenous population as labor to extract gold, crops, and other materials from the land. The people would pay a tax to the encomenderos, who would, in turn, produce a tribute to the Spanish Crown. In return for being granted an encomienda, the encomenderos would protect the indigenous people as it was their labor source and convert them the Catholicism. 


In practice, however, the encomenderos would gain control of significant parts of the indigenous territory, and many failed to uphold their rules of protecting the native peoples. What was established as a system designed to gain labor and protect the labor source became a system of state-sponsored enslavement of the native population of the Americas. 

Final Encomienda System Quiz

Question

When did Spain first use the encomienda system? 

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Answer

During the Reconquista against the Muslim Moors in Iberia

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Question

True or False: The Encomienda System granted regions of land. 

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Answer

False, encomenderos were given oversight over the indigenous peoples of a region.

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Question

In return for their labor, indigenous peoples were to receive what from their Spanish encomenderos? 

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Answer

Protection and in some cases conversion to Catholicism 

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Question

What was one of the main issues with the Encomienda System in the Americas? 

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Answer

It became a system of enslavement

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Question

Why did the Spanish Monarch have problems with how the Encomienda System was implemented in the Americas?

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Answer

The Queen of Spain had made all peoples in the Americas Spanish subjects, and thus should not be enslaved. 

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Question

Which of the following was not an attempt at reform of the Encomienda System through the New Laws of 1542? 

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Answer

Established that the Spanish Government had complete and total control over their American colonies. 

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Question

What contributed to the eventual end of the encomienda system in the Americas? 

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Answer

The sharp decline of the indigenous populations due to diseases and death. 

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Question

Who benefitted the most from the encomienda system? 

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Answer

The Encomenderos 

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Question

What was an unintended consequence to the failure of the encomienda system due to the decline of the indigenous population? 

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Answer

The Spanish began to import enslaved peoples from Africa 

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Question

What was the lasting impact of the encomienda system on the Americas? 

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Answer

Because only Spanish of high station gained encomiendas, it had a great impact on the social and economic classes of the Spanish colonies in the Americas. 

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