World History 2 80 - 6.1.1 Spain’s Encomienda System

The Spanish were the first to establish major colonies in North America after Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492. They became the earliest Europeans to force the Indigenous population to labor for them, initially by outright enslavement, a practice that slowly evolved into systems that were more complex. By 1502, they had created the encomienda system as part of a broader search for “God, Gold, and Glory” in their vast empire. In this context, God refers to attempts to spread the Catholic faith, gold to the search for wealth, and glory to hopes of obtaining personal fame.

The term encomienda comes from the Spanish word encomendar, which means “to entrust.” The encomienda was a system of entrusting valuable territories and peoples to those who had proven to the crown that they were worthy of that trust. The Spanish government gave each grantee, known as an encomendero, the right to demand labor from Indigenous people living in a specific area. In exchange, the Spaniards were supposed to provide guidance, education, and leadership to these Native Americans. While encomiendas did not technically include the ownership of any land, encomenderos often took possession of lands where the people under their control lived. Sometimes the system of forced labor even devolved into what was functionally, if not legally, slavery.

Most recipients of encomiendas were conquistadors being rewarded for campaigns that had won glory for Spain. However, a few Native Americans also received them. When the expedition led by conquistador Hernán Cortés fought a war against the Aztec Empire (1519–1521), the Tlaxcalans of central Mexico allied with Cortés’s forces against the Aztecs, their traditional enemies. As a reward for their service, the Spanish government gave some Tlaxcalans encomiendas, and the tribe enjoyed a far better position in the Spanish Empire than many other Native American groups. Perhaps the most unusual encomendera was Malintzin, a formerly enslaved Indigenous woman who served as Cortés’s chief interpreter during the conquest of the Aztec Empire (Figure 6.3). Malintzin received her encomienda as a reward for this service, without which Cortés’s campaign against the Aztecs might have failed.

A drawing is shown of an army and people marching toward the right along a dark, pebbled, wavy road. Seven of the men are dressed in full armor, with only their eyes showing through their helmets. They all hold round shields, four hold tall spears, and one holds a very large red flag with two points and a picture of an angel with wings and a halo on it. Behind the army on the left there are three people in loincloths and black hair carry objects by ropes tied around their foreheads. They are bent over against the weight. In the middle of the army there is a white horse and in front of the horse is a dark-skinned man with long black hair, wearing a shirt, short pants, tights, and hat. He is holding a spear. In the front of the army on the right there is a man wearing an armored coat, shorts striped red and white pants, white tights, holding his black top hat in his hand. He has red hair and a beard. In front of him stands a woman with dark pinned up hair and a red and white dress with her arms outstretched. A blue oval stamp is in the top right of the picture.
Figure 6.3 This page from an Aztec manuscript of the sixteenth or seventeenth century shows the Spanish army on the march, with Cortés and the translator named Malintzin at the far right. (credit: “Codex Azcatitlan” by Gallica Digital Library/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Encomenderos typically abused their authority, overseeing an exploitive arrangement marked by horrific working conditions and acts of extreme violence against anyone who failed to comply with their demands. The encomienda system became the dominant source of labor in Spanish American colonies, which included areas now known as Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Mexico, and much of South America (Figure 6.4).

A world map is shown. In North America, a small sliver on the western coast of Canada, most of the United States (except the eastern region and Great Lakes), the islands in the Caribbean, and Central America are shaded. The northwestern region of South America, including the connecting tip of Central America are shaded. The southern part and western coast of South America is shaded.
Figure 6.4 This map shows the area controlled by Spain in its colonization of the Americas. Native American communities often retained effective control over territory that was “claimed” by European powers. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

After a brief period as an encomendero, in 1514 the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas became one of the system’s greatest critics (Figure 6.5). He spent most of the next decade traveling across Latin America and Spain speaking out against its brutality. In his 1552 book, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Las Casas argued that “the Spanish fell like ravening wolves upon” Native Americans. He claimed the Spanish “tear the natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress, tormenting, harrying and persecuting them mercilessly.” Las Casas eventually convinced King Charles V to implement the New Laws of 1542 that sought to end the encomienda system, but Spanish settlers in the Americas violently opposed the reforms and the system remained.

Image (a) is a painting of the profile of a man sitting in a chair writing on white paper at a table with a feathered pen. He has hair around the crown of his head, a large nose, rosy cheeks and lips, and is wearing a dark flowy hooded cloak over a white shirt. A cross hangs from his neck. The background is dark and the words “D. Fr. Bartolome De Las Casa” are shown across the top with the year “1566” underneath. Part (b) is the cover of a book. A square portion in the middle shows an elaborate shield with stripes, lions, and fleur de lis decorations throughout. Feathered wings extend out of the shield on both sides and eagles heads come out in two directions at the top of the shield with a crown in between. Words in red and black are written below the image. The bottom of the shield shows an animal claw extending out of the shield on each side and clasping around a column with a rounded ball on top. Across the top of the book cover in a rectangle a tall fountain with animal heads on top stands in the middle with a four-legged, pointy nosed animal with wings for ears on either side. Both animal’s reins lead to the hand of a naked person sitting atop the animal. Behind each is a snarling head of a dog that is wound up inside itself. Along both the sides of the cover are identical rectangles with a tall column intricately carved with feathers, tassels, and animals. Across the bottom rectangle a short fountain sits in the middle with beasts’ heads on either side leading to a horn where swirls and another beast head spills out.
Figure 6.5 (a) Shown in a sixteenth-century portrait by an unknown painter, Bartolomé de las Casas was one of the most outspoken critics of the encomienda system. (b) The cover of his book, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, is shown. (credit a: modification of work “Portrait of Bartolomé de Las Casas” by General Archive of the Indies/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Cover of ‘A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies’” by John Carter Brown Library/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Dueling Voices

The Impact of Spanish Colonization

For insights into Spanish colonization, consider the two following primary sources, the first written by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and the second by Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish priest, looking back in 1542 after approximately forty years of experience in Spanish America.

Thursday, October 11

All I saw were youths, none more than thirty years of age. They are very well made, with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances. Their hair is short and coarse, almost like the hairs of a horse’s tail. . . . They neither carry nor know anything of arms, for I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their darts being wands without iron, some of them having a fish’s tooth at the end, and others being pointed in various ways. . . . They should be good servants and intelligent, for I observed that they quickly took in what was said to them, and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as it appeared to me that they had no religion.

Sunday, October 14

These people are very simple as regards the use of arms, as your Highnesses will see from the seven that I caused to be taken, to bring home and learn our language and return; unless your Highnesses should order them all to be brought to Castile, or to be kept as captives on the same island; for with fifty men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them.

The Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage), Translated by Clements R. Markham

It was upon these gentle lambs, imbued by the Creator with all the qualities we have mentioned, that from the very first day they clapped eyes on them the Spanish fell like ravening wolves upon the fold, or like tigers and savage lions who have not eaten meat for days. The pattern established at the outset has remained unchanged to this day, and the Spaniards still do nothing save tear the natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress, tormenting, harrying and persecuting them mercilessly. . . . When the Spanish first journeyed there, the indigenous population of the island of Hispaniola stood at some three million; today only two hundred survive. The island of Cuba, which extends for a distance almost as great as that separating Valladolid from Rome, is now to all intents and purposes uninhabited; and two other large, beautiful and fertile islands, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, have been similarly devastated. Not a living soul remains today on any of the islands of the Bahamas, which lie to the north of Hispaniola and Cuba, even though every single one of the sixty or so islands in the group, as well as those known as the Isles of Giants and others in the area, both large and small, is more fertile and more beautiful than the Royal Gardens in Seville.

—Bartolomé de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies

  • How does Columbus describe the Native Americans?
  • What insights does Las Casas’s account provide into life in the Spanish colonies?
  • Why do you think Columbus’s diary is so different from Las Casas’s book?

Link to Learning

Read this longer account by Bartolomé de las Casas of the encomienda system and note the illustrations that accompany it. Consider how the words and text work together to communicate Las Casas’s criticism of the system and of abuses by Spanish colonizers in general.

The complaints of reformers, including Las Casas, inspired the black legend, which claimed the Spanish were particularly cruel imperialists who abused their colonial subjects. Like many historical legends, the black legend is rooted in fact. The Spanish often mistreated Native Americans, but writers from Spain’s colonial rivals, most notably the English, frequently exaggerated Spanish cruelty to justify their own colonial abuses. Despite their intense rivalries, both the English and the Spanish were guilty of abusing Native Americans. Even reformers like Las Casas, who opposed the worst abuses of Native Americans, were flawed. Las Casas’s approach to Native Americans was often paternalistic, and he typically treated non-Europeans as children who would benefit from the benevolent guidance of Europeans rather than as equals.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax