Encomienda System – APUSH
What is the encomienda system? How did it come to be? The encomienda system is a labor system established by the Spanish Crown in the 1500s. This new system rewarded Spanish explorers, conquistadors, and military men with land in the New World. But they didn’t just get the land, they got the labor of the people living on the land as well.
How can Spain do that? How can Spain just give these people land and the people on it? You see, when Cortez and Pizarro conquered the Aztec and Incan Empires, and when the rest of the conquistadors claimed all the land for Spain, Spain recognizes those land claims and everyone on it as Spanish subjects. Spain recognized all the land claimed in the New World as its own, and therefore, all the people living on that land in the New World were Spanish subjects. So the King could divvy out land and governmental authority as he saw fit.
So just a little bit of background. In 1492, Columbus discovers the New World, and this ignites a huge exploration campaign by Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella, they risked a lot of money and bet big that Columbus would find something when he sailed across the Atlantic. When Columbus found something, Ferdinand and Isabella send a lot of other explorers to the New World to find whatever they can, take whatever they can, and send it back to Spain. What ended up happening, no one could’ve foreseen. Spain begins to topple the empires in the New World, and then Spain claims all that land for itself. But how’s Spain and, more importantly, the King of Spain, going control and colonize all this land he just claimed? That’s why he sets up the encomienda system. The King of Spain provides land to Spanish military men, conquistadors, and explorers. And the King says, “You get the land, and you get the labor on that land, you just have to pay me taxes.” This is similar to the feudal system that had existed in Europe for centuries. The King, who claims the land, allows noblemen to run the land in exchange for taxes.
As these new Spaniards start to control the land, the expectation from the Spanish Crown is that, “I’ll give you this land, and in exchange, you give me taxes, you protect my subjects, and you spread Christianity.” But these Spaniards who were benefiting from the encomienda system, they thought the indigenous population to be inferior. Spain had just toppled these empires with a few hundred men, and when they toppled the empire, they found evidence of cannibalism, human sacrifice, pagan religions. These findings formed the opinion in the Spaniard’s mind that this was a savage race of people.
New Laws and Reformation
So the Spaniards developed the opinion that the indigenous populations were savage, and barbaric, and inferior, and they needed to be governed by a more enlightened culture. So the encomienda system, which was set up similar to the feudal system- which wasn’t that great of a system if you were a peasant- quickly devolved into a system of, slavery. The forced labor of the encomienda system became ripe with abuse and neglect. The Spaniards who ran the encomiendas, they would tear families apart, they would enforce very hard labor conditions, they enacted severe punishments for small infractions, and it wasn’t long until the indigenous populations that had been subjected began to revolt. And these revolts very quickly turned into large rebellions. And these large rebellions quickly became noticed in Europe, so that before long, the King of Spain enacted the New Laws These New Laws were designed to reform the encomienda system and curb or eliminate the abuses and neglect that were so widespread. In addition to the revolts, you have advocates for the Native Americans arguing that they are equal free men who deserve the same rights as the Spaniards. The most notable advocate, Bartolmé de las Casas.
The encomienda system didn’t last long, but it established the precedent of subjugating colonized people by force, and it sparked debate – the Valladolid Debate – in Europe about European colonization and the morality of it. And in fact, this debate became so prevalent that, in 1550, the King issued the Valladolid debate about the morality of European colonization. What are your thoughts on the encomienda system?