Encomienda, the right to control the labor of and collect tribute from an Indian community, granted to subjects, especially the first conquerors and their descendants, as a reward for service to the Spanish crown. Unlike the Spanish peninsular version of the encomienda, the grant in the New World did not give the grantee, or encomendero, legal right to own land. It also did not give encomenderos legal jurisdiction over the natives, although many encomenderos assumed that right. In return the encomendero promised to settle down and found a family in the nearest Spanish town, or villa; to protect the Indians; and to arrange for their conversion to the Roman Catholic faith.
In the Antilles the institution was firmly established under Governor Nicolás de Ovbando. Hernán Cortés granted the first encomiendas in Mexico, and Francisco Pizarro did so in Peru. In the sixteenth century, encomiendas ranged in size from as many as 23,000 heads of households (Cortés's personal encomienda) to a few hundred in some areas of Central America and Peru.
Although there were never enough such grants to reward all those who felt they deserved one, the encomienda proved a useful institution, from the crown's point of view, in the first two or three decades after the discovery and conquest of the New World kingdoms of Mexico and Peru. It placed hundreds and sometimes thousands of Indians under the control of individual Spaniards at a time when a bureaucracy had not yet been established. The encomenderos put the Indians to work mining gold and silver; building houses, town halls, and churches; cultivating indigenous and imported crops; herding animals; and transporting goods.
Control of Indian labor became the basis of the fortunes of the encomendero elite, who became wealthy by selling provisions to arriving Spanish immigrants and by renting them stores and homes that had been built with the Indian labor they controlled. They invested revenues generated by their encomienda laborers in stock-raising enterprises. Some even became silent partners with merchants involved in lucrative import and export activities. Their wealth and their status as first-and second-generation conquerors gave them the leisure and respect that enabled them to exercise an early monopoly of the town councils. As councilmen they set prices for basic goods and services as well as the standards of morality and sanitation for the Spanish community. They screened applicants for formal citizen status in the town and gave out house lots and suburban lands for kitchen gardens and orchards. They also were empowered to grant lands further afield. Their wealth, political power, influence, and prestige as conquerors and first settlers (later transferred to their descendants) made them almost omnipotent and, as such, independent of the wishes of the crown.
To counter their power, the crown began to issue protective legislation, such as the Laws of Burgos (1512) and the New Laws (1542). One provision of the latter abolished encomiendas at the death of the current holder. The resulting widespread protest throughout Spanish America along with a rebellion and civil war in Peru forced the crown to back down in the short run, but they also strengthened its resolve to break the power of the encomendero elite. It eventually did so by regulating the amount of tribute that the Indian population had to deliver; by abolishing personal, unpaid service by the Indians to the encomendero; by creating a loyal royal bureaucracy; and by fostering the rise of an independent class of Spanish farmers that would counterbalance the encomendero class. It was the landowners (and the mine owners) who eventually displaced the encomenderos at the top of the colonial social pyramid.
The connection between the encomienda and the hacienda, or large landed estate, has been the subject of debate. Some have argued that the hacienda developed directly from the encomienda. This was the case when and where encomenderos used their positions of authority—on the town council, for example—to grant themselves land parcels (mercedes) from among the lands once used by their Indian charges. However, such cases were relatively few in number.
Far more often, other scholars contend, haciendas developed independently of encomiendas. Like the encomenderos, many individuals who received land grants were given parcels from among those that had been abandoned by Indians because of either death or flight. However, the owners of these parcels depended on the repartimiento or mita (rotating draft of forced Indian labor) system that had been instituted after the crown prohibited the use of free personal services by the encomendero around the middle of the sixteenth century. These small enterprises were expanded over the years by the obtaining of additional land grants, by usurpation of Indian lands, by composición (obtaining legal title to untitled land by paying a fee to the royal treasury), by purchase, and by long-term lease to become the nuclei of what someday would be large estates, or haciendas.
The task of collecting tribute and overseeing the Indian communities was given to the corregidor de indios, a district administrator or governor, who was part of the bureaucratic apparatus established by the crown to regain control of the New World kingdoms from the all-powerful encomenderos. Except in peripheral areas of the Spanish New World Empire, like Paraguay, the encomienda had become by the start of the seventeenth century little more than a prestigious claim to a government pension, divorced of any direct control over the Indians.
C. H. Haring, The Spanish Empire in America (1947).
Charles Gibson, Spain in America (1966).
James Lockhart, "Encomienda and Hacienda: The Evolution of the Great Estate in the Spanish Indies," in Hispanic American Historical Review 49, no. 3 (1969): 411-429.
Robert G. Keith, "Encomienda, Hacienda, and Corregimiento in Spanish America: A Structural Analysis," in Hispanic American Historical Review 51, no. 3 (1971): 431-446.
Guamán Poma de Ayala, Felipe. Nueva crónica y buen gobierno. 3 vols. Ed. John Murra, Rolena Adorno & Jorge L. Urioste. Madrid: Historia 16, 1987, folios 547-559.
Mira Caballos, Esteban. El indio antillano: Repartimiento, encomienda y esclavitud (1492–1542). Sevilla: Múñoz Moya Editor, 1997.
Presta, Ana María. Encomienda, familia y negocios en Charcas colonial (Bolivia): Los encomenderos de La Plata, 1550–1600. Lima: IEP, Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2000.
Rodríguez Baquero, Luis Enrique. Encomienda y vida dia-ria entre los indios de Muzo, 1550–1620. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Cultura Hispánica, 1995.
Susan E. RamÍrez
The encomienda was a grant of the right to use labor and exact tribute from a given group of natives conveyed to a person in return for service to the Spanish crown. The origins of the institution in the Americas dates back to 1497 when Christopher Columbus assigned native communities to Francisco Roldá and his men. Roldá and his company had risen in revolt against the Crown's authority and refused to reestablish peace except at that price. Subsequently, under Governor Frey Nicolás de Ovando (in office 1502–1509), who as Commander of the Order of Alcátara had administered encomiendas in Spain, the grants were institutionalized and extended to the entire Island of Hispaniola as a means to control the natives. The encomienda was not a land grant (merced). Instead, the conveyance consisted of native peoples, identified by their chiefs, put at the disposal of the encomendero or grantee to work in their homes or on public and private construction projects, and in their fields and mines. Initially, the natives labored without limit, benefit, or tenure. In time, royal officials made such grants with conditions: that the encomenderos marry, live in a nearby town, Christianize the natives, and protect and treat them benevolently. Thus began an institution that supported a class of powerful individuals, created by royal fiat, that would figure prominently in the history of the New World for the next century and into the eighteenth century on the fringes of the Spanish New World empire.
Encomenderos, addressed as encomenderos feudatarios, had no peers at first. They held a monopoly of local political power as the only persons able to sit on the town council. Their grants also gave them a near monopoly over native labor. Later-arriving Spanish immigrants depended on them for the help they needed to build homes and shops, tend plants and animals, or mine ore. This control and their prestige as first founders and conquerors quickly enriched the majority of encomenderos.
Harsh treatment of the natives and the catastrophic decline in their numbers due to disease, overwork, starvation, and flight caused the crown and Council of the Indies to reconsider the encomienda. Royal officials sent decrees ordering the fair treatment of the natives. These were codified in the Laws of Burgos of 1512 and again in the New Laws of 1542. One clause of the latter abolished the encomienda at the death of the holder. Encomenderos in Mexico protested this assault on their status and wellbeing. The encomenderos of Peru revolted, and eventually confronted the first viceroy, Blasco Núñez Vela. They found him unyielding in his zeal to implement the laws, so they beheaded him, setting off a civil war that was not totally quelled until 1549.
The rebellion and civil war in the Andes together with continuing news of the unchecked mistreatment of the natives and their dwindling numbers forced the crown to take steps to reconquer the Americas from an ever more powerful and semi-autonomous encomendero nobility. The encomienda was thereafter renewed (or not) on an individual basis, at the death of the previous encomienda holder; assigned a steep transfer tax; and gradually eliminated, except on the frontiers of the empire (e.g., Paraguay). The crown also appointed local magistrates, called corregidores de indios, as its representatives to mediate the relations between encomenderos, non-encomendero settlers, and the natives. In this way, the crown could more easily direct the use of indigenous labor to activities deemed worthwhile, like mining. The increasing control and eventual disappearance of these grants ended the political dominance of the encomendero class. Power passed to royal officials, miners, landowners, and eventually merchants. The surviving native population, under increasingly Hispanicized chiefs and overlords, then became liable for a tribute payment to a royal official and for periodic, temporary, rotating, and paid labor service to designees of the Spanish crown.
Avellaneda, Jose Ignacio. The Conquerors of the New Kingdom of Granada. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Himmerich y Valencia, Robert. The Encomenderos of New Spain, 1521–1555. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.
Keith, Robert G.. "Encomienda, Hacienda, and Corregimiento in Spanish America: A Structural Analysis." Hispanic American Historical Review 51, no. 3 (August 1971): 431-446.
Moya Pons, Frank. Después de Coló: Trabajo, sociedad, y política en la economía del oro. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1986.
Puente Brunke, Jose de la. Encomienda y encomenderos en el Peru: Estudio social y politico de una institucion colonial. Seville, Spain: Diputacion Provincial de Sevilla, 1992.
Encomienda is a Spanish word meaning "commission." It refers to a system that was used by Spain in the New World to reward the conquistadors (conquerors). The encomienda dates back to earlier times. It was developed in feudal Spain, when the Moors (North African Muslims) occupied parts of the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal). An encomienda was booty given to a Spaniard who conquered a Moorish province. It was usually the land that had belonged to the Moorish leader of the conquered territory. This practice made its way to the West Indies (Caribbean islands) by 1499: Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), who is believed to have opposed the traditional feudal system, nevertheless conceded encomiendas to his men. After Spain conquered Mexico and Peru in the mid-1500s, the system was established on the mainland as well. Spaniards were awarded the lands occupied by the Native Americans whom they had conquered. The native inhabitants, who were encomendado (meaning "commended" or "entrusted") to the Spaniards, were expected to pay tribute to the Spaniards and to work for them in the fields or mines. The encomienda system came close to slavery. It proved disastrous to the native populations. Mistreated by their supposed protectors and exposed to European diseases (such as smallpox, and measles) to which they had no immunity, the Indians died in large numbers. As the population declined the Spanish government made regulations to do away with the system. The encomienda became increasingly rare throughout the sixteenth century, and by the end of the following century it had disappeared altogether. The encomienda system was at least partly responsible for the emergence of a new mixed population called Mestizos— people who are of white European and American Indian descent.
See also: Mestizo