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The Encomienda System of Slavery

In the 1500s, Spain systematically conquered parts of North, Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. With Indigenous governments such as the efficient Inca Empire in ruins, the Spanish conquistadors needed to find a way to rule their new subjects. The encomienda system was put in place in several areas, most importantly in Peru. Under the encomienda system, prominent Spaniards were entrusted with Native Peruvian communities. In exchange for the stolen labor of Indigenous people and tribute, the Spanish lord would provide protection and education. In reality, however, the encomienda system was thinly-masked enslavement and led to some of the worst horrors of the colonial era.

The Encomienda System

The word encomienda comes from the Spanish word encomendar, meaning "to entrust." The encomienda system had been used in feudal Spain during the reconquest and had survived in some form ever since. In the Americas, the first encomiendas were handed out by Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean. Spanish conquistadors, settlers, priests, or colonial officials were given a repartimiento, or grant of land. These lands were often quite vast. The land included any Indigenous cities, towns, communities, or families that lived there. The Indigenous people were supposed to provide tribute, in the form of gold or silver, crops, and foodstuffs, animals such as pigs or llamas or anything else the land produced. The Indigenous people could also be made to work for a certain amount of time, say on a sugarcane plantation or in a mine. In return, the encomendero was responsible for the well-being of the enslaved people and was to see to it that they were converted and educated about Christianity.

A Troublesome System

The Spanish crown reluctantly approved the granting of encomiendas because it needed to reward the conquistadors and establish a system of governance in the newly-conquered territories, and the encomiendas were a quick-fix that killed both birds with one stone. The system essentially made landed nobility out of men whose only skills were murder, mayhem, and torture: the kings hesitated to set up a New World oligarchy which could later prove troublesome. It also swiftly led to abuses: encomenderos made unreasonable demands of the Native Peruvians who lived on their lands, working them excessively or demanding tribute of crops that could not be grown on the land. These problems appeared quickly. The first New World haciendas, granted in the Caribbean, often had only 50 to 100 Indigenous people and even on such a small scale, it wasn’t long before the encomenderos had virtually enslaved their subjects.

Encomiendas in Peru

In Peru, where encomiendas were granted on the ruins of the rich and mighty Inca Empire, the abuses soon reached epic proportions. The encomenderos there showed an inhuman indifference to the suffering of the families on their encomiendas. They did not change the quotas even when crops failed or disasters struck: many Native Peruvians were forced to choose between fulfilling quotas and starving to death or failing to meet quotas and facing the often-lethal punishment of the overseers. Men and women were forced to work in mines for weeks at a time, often by candlelight in deep shafts. The mercury mines were particularly lethal. During the first years of the colonial era, Native Peruvians died by the hundreds of thousands.

Administration of the Encomiendas

The owners of the encomiendas were not supposed to ever visit the encomienda lands: this was supposed to cut down on abuses. The Indigenous people instead brought the tribute to wherever the owner happened to be, generally in the larger cities. The Indigenous people were often forced to walk for days with heavy loads to be delivered to their encomendero. The lands were run by cruel overseers and Native chieftains who often demanded extra tribute themselves, making the lives of the Indigenous people even more miserable. Priests were supposed to live on the encomienda lands, instructing the Indigenous people in Catholicism, and often these men became defenders of the people they taught, but just as often they committed abuses of their own, living with Native women or demanding tribute of their own.

The Reformers

While the conquistadors were wringing every last speck of gold from their miserable subjects, the ghastly reports of abuses piled up in Spain. The Spanish crown was in a tough spot: the "royal fifth," or 20% tax on conquests and mining in the New World, was fueling the expansion of the Spanish Empire. On the other hand, the crown had made it quite clear that the Indigenous people were not enslaved but Spanish subjects with certain rights, which were being flagrant, systematically, and horrifically violated. Reformers such as Bartolomé de las Casas were predicting everything from the complete depopulation of the Americas to the eternal damnation of everyone involved in the whole sordid enterprise. In 1542, Charles V of Spain finally listened to them and passed the so-called "New Laws."

The New Laws

The New Laws were a series of royal ordinances designed to halt the abuses of the encomienda system, particularly in Peru. Native Peruvians were to have their rights as citizens of Spain and could not be forced to work if they did not want to. Reasonable tribute could be collected, but any additional work was to be paid for. Existing encomiendas would pass to the crown upon the death of the encomendero, and no new encomiendas were to be granted. Furthermore, anyone who abused Indigenous people or who had participated in the conquistador civil wars could lose their encomiendas. The king approved the laws and sent a Viceroy, Blasco Núñez Vela, to Lima with clear orders to enforce them.


The colonial elite was livid with rage when the provisions of the New Laws became known. The encomenderos had lobbied for years for the encomiendas to be made permanent and passable from one generation to another, something the King had always resisted. The New Laws removed all hope of perpetuity being granted. In Peru, most of the settlers had taken part in the conquistador civil wars and could, therefore, lose their encomiendas immediately. The settlers rallied around Gonzalo Pizarro, one of the leaders of the original conquest of the Inca Empire and brother of Francisco Pizarro. Pizarro defeated Viceroy Núñez, who was killed in battle, and basically ruled Peru for two years before another royalist army defeated him; Pizarro was captured and executed. A few years later, the second rebellion under Francisco Hernández Girón took place and was also put down.

End of the Encomienda System

The King of Spain almost lost Peru during these conquistador uprisings. Gonzalo Pizarro's supporters had urged him to declare himself King of Peru, but he refused: had he done so, Peru might have successfully split from Spain 300 years early. Charles V felt it prudent to suspend or repeal the most hated aspects of the New Laws. The Spanish crown still steadfastly refused to grant encomiendas in perpetuity, however, so slowly these lands reverted to the crown.

Some of the encomenderos managed to secure title-deeds to certain lands: unlike the encomiendas, these could be passed down from one generation to the next. Those families that held land would eventually become oligarchies that controlled the Indigenous people.

Once the encomiendas reverted to the crown, they were overseen by corregidores, royal agents who administered crown holdings. These men proved to be every bit as bad as the encomenderos had been: corregidores were appointed for relatively brief periods, so they tended to squeeze as much as they could out of a particular holding while they could. In other words, although the encomiendas were phased out eventually by the crown, the lot of the Indigenous people did not improve.

The encomienda system was one of the many horrors inflicted on the Indigenous people of the New World during the conquest and colonial eras. It was essentially enslavement, given but a thin (and illusory) veneer of respectability for the Catholic education that it implied. It legally allowed the Spaniards to work the Indigenous people literally to death in the fields and mines. It seems counter-productive to kill off your own workers, but the Spanish conquistadors in question were only interested in getting as rich as they could as quickly as they could: this greed led directly to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Indigenous population.

To the conquistadors and settlers, the encomiendas were nothing less than their fair and just reward for the risks they had taken during the conquest. They saw the New Laws as the actions of an ungrateful king who, after all, had been sent 20% of Atahualpa's ransom. Reading them today, the New Laws do not seem radical — they provide for basic human rights such as the right to be paid for work and the right to not be unreasonably taxed. The fact that the settlers rebelled, fought and died to fight the New Laws only shows how deeply they had sunk into greed and cruelty.


  • Burkholder, Mark and Lyman L. Johnson. Colonial Latin America. Fourth Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

  • Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Inca London: Pan Books, 2004 (original 1970).

  • Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962

  • Patterson, Thomas C. The Inca Empire: The Formation and Disintegration of a Pre-Capitalist State.New York: Berg Publishers, 1991.

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