Laborers, Aztec and Inca

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Laborers, Aztec and Inca

Spanish colonial rule introduced a number of changes to the lives of Aztec and Inca laborers. These included changes in goods produced, methods of production, locations of work, and mechanisms of employment and control. At the same time, Spanish colonialism tended to adapt to existing labor practices, so amidst great changes there was also significant continuity over several centuries. The greatest of these continuities was the agrarian and generally autonomous character of Indian labor.


In 1450 the vast majority of the millions of indigenous laborers in the Aztec and Inca Empires engaged in surplus production of agricultural products, including both subsistence goods and luxury items. Agricultural laborers cooperated to produce their own subsistence on land owned by their community, while also providing some of their surplus production to the imperial state claiming their allegiance. Artisans and merchants also worked in the complex imperial economies, generally serving the luxury demands of the rulers. This system continued into the early nineteenth century despite the Spanish conquest of the American empires.

After the conquest, Spanish conquistadors, settlers, priests, and royal officials competed with one another and with the Spanish Crown to control the existing surplus production of indigenous laborers. This competition introduced important changes that affected labor directly. Gold and silver mining depended on Indian laborers, who had mined smaller quantities of the metals before the conquest, but who now did so on a larger scale in arid northern New Spain or highland Andes silver mines. Likewise, new agricultural enterprises emerged as Spanish colonists gained control over potentially productive land. Crops from America (such as tobacco and cacao) as well as crops introduced from outside the Americas (such as sugar) were produced for market using indigenous labor. Even where Indians retained the land, markets for their products expanded as a result of colonial commercial connections, so their labor connected them to buyers much further away. For instance, in southern New Spain, where Indian laborers retained control of cochineal production throughout the colonial period, the red dyestuff became the second most valuable export from that colony, after silver.

Perhaps the greatest factor that produced changes in labor practices was demographic decline, which disrupted existing labor regimes and practices much more thoroughly than did the arrival of Europeans. Diseases decimated indigenous populations, and that in turn affected labor patterns. One reason was that Spanish settlers could then gain ownership of potentially useful land without infringing on the Crown's protection of land belonging to indigenous taxpayers. Once they had that land, colonists needed more labor to make the land profitable, which led to the replacement of Indian labor with African slaves for certain kinds of enterprises. Finally, once the land and labor patterns had adjusted to the declining indigenous population, a reversal occurred around the middle of the seventeenth century. The Indian population recovered for the next century and a half, but increasing numbers of Indians faced a very different situation of land tenure and labor practices that required many laborers who lacked access to subsistence to seek employment in cities or on rural estates. This trend, in turn, promoted the growth of new enterprises such as obrajes, mills that produced textiles for a growing market that lacked access to household production of such necessities.


Under Aztec and Inca rule, labor was organized in fictive kinship groups in which workers contributed to the communal economy. The Aztec and Inca Empires both gained control of these existing local institutions by military conquest, and they both connected labor to the state by collecting tribute from the local kin-group leaders.

After the Spanish conquest a series of institutions emerged to account for the changes in labor practices and colonists' demands. Among the first institutions to provide Indian labor to Spanish employers was the encomienda, in which early settlers received control over the labor of groups of Indians in exchange for providing military service to the Crown and instructing their Indians in Catholicism.

Although this new institution did not directly undermine preconquest practice, as it continued to rely on existing hierarchies of providing labor and tribute, demographic decline undermined the viability of the encomienda. Meanwhile, newly arriving Spanish settlers who lacked encomiendas wanted laborers. In response, the Crown in the latter half of the sixteenth century introduced the repartimiento, a rotating labor draft operated by royal officials by which a portion of potential laborers from every Indian village offered their labor for hire to Spanish employers.

As Spanish colonists accumulated more land and the Indian population declined, the repartimiento system, too, failed to meet the demand for Indian labor. Rotating labor drafts only survived after about 1630 in the form of the mita, which provided Indian workers to silver and mercury miners in the Andes. In the place of state-directed rotating draft labor arose wage labor, in which employers offered to pay higher wages to attract workers for their enterprises. In many instances, in fact, employers offered advance wages to compete for workers. Wage labor in various forms also prevailed in many mining centers. Indians in northern Mexico, for example, could earn a partido (a share of the ore that they extracted) while mining. Even at mining centers whose labor came from the mita, wage labor emerged for skilled jobs in the refining process.

Thus, like labor practice, institutions of controlling labor changed over time for laborers within empires in the Americas. Despite the many changes, a substantial number of laborers in the late Spanish colonial period continued to work on agricultural enterprises on land owned by their own community, just as their ancestors who lived under Aztec or Inca rule had done. The greatest difference, in terms of world trade, was that the products of many of these laborers now reached markets around the world, which had not been true in 1450.

SEE ALSO Empire, Spanish; Encomienda and Repartimiento;Labor, Types of;New Spain;Peru.


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Baskes, Jeremy. Indians, Merchants, and Markets: A Reinterpretation of the Repartimiento and Spanish-Indian Economic Relations in Colonial Oaxaca, 1750–1821. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Gibson, Charles. The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico, 1519–1810. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1964.

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Jason L. Ward

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Laborers, Aztec and Inca

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