The Encomienda System in New Spain

The Encomienda System was established in response to the colonists’ need for Indian labour, but became the most destructive system in the history of Spanish America.

When the Spanish arrived in the New World, they brought with them a set of customs and traditions from their old Spain. One of the systems that were commonly practiced in Western Europe was forced labour. In Spain, this was knownas the Encomienda system. An encomienda was a means of providing a Spaniard a portion of land and restricted property rights over a certain number of Indians. The Encomienda system quickly became entrenched in South and Central America. Although it was implemented with the intention to care for and provide for the Native Americans, it became the most abusive and destructive system in colonial New Spain.

The Need to Indoctrinate and Instruct Natives in the Catholic Faith

The Spanish used religion to justify their domination over the Native Americans. The conquistadors maintained it was God’s will that they indoctrinate the Native Americans in the Catholic faith. Under the law of Burgos, any encomendero with more than fifty Natives had to educate one boy in writing and religious doctrine so that he could in turn, teach his people these things. “Some of the Native communities were even divided into territorial doctrinas or parishes with its own priest and church building where Indians would be instructed about the Christian faith,” says Michael Busbin. However, this method “quickly became an opportunity for the encomenderos to exploit and utilize the Indians for their own ends,” says Meredith Scott.

The Belief the Native Americans Were Incompetent

The need to Christianize the Natives was not the only reason for the Spanish to establish the encomienda system. The common belief that the Native Americans were savage and incompetent people unable to live a Christian life and conduct money and trade, fuelled the Spaniards’ desire to establish the encomienda system. Consequently, the Spaniards believed the Natives needed to be clothed, educated and taught about God. If they were left on their own, they would not cooperate with the Spaniards in matters of commerce, and so would ruin New Spain’s economy.

The Responsibility of Encomenderos

King Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain issued an order stating that all encomenderos were forbidden to mistreat the Natives. However, at the same time, they granted the encomenderos the right to persuade the natives to abandon their pagan religions and traditions.

Although the encomenderos were fully responsible for the Natives on their land, the Natives were granted to them for only two or three years at a time. The encomenderos were to pay the Natives a sum for their work and supply them with the provisions they needed to live. At one point, the Catholic Monarchs even encouraged intermarriage between the Spanish and the Natives as a way to completely assimilate the Natives into Spanish society.

Native Americans as a Source of Immediate Revenue

The Conquistadors, however, ignored the King and Queen’s commands. The Spanish colonists desired wealth without having to work for it. Every Spanish colonist that came to the New World expected to own land and have the natives do all the work for them. The natives were stripped of their rights because they were seen as a source of immediate revenue for the encomenderos.

The encomenderos demanded the natives pay them tribute in response to the provisions they gave them. The natives were forced to work night and day with very little to no pay in return. “This eventually led to the death of many already down-trodden Indians,” says Michael Busbin. In fact the abuse encomiendas inflicted on their Natives took place for several years and, consequently, led to a sharp decline in the Native population in Spanish America. It was not until the middle of the sixteenth century that the Spanish Crown would finally take action against the destruction that was being wrought upon the Natives at the hands of the Spanish colonists in its overseas colonies.

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