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Composición, a procedure used in the Spanish Indies to settle legal disputes by payment of fees to the royal treasury. Initially, composición was used to legitimize or revoke titles to guardianships (encomiendas) over the Indians in cases where the original title could not be produced by the holder (composición de encomiendas). Later it was used to validate land-ownership in cases of land seized, often illegally, from Indian communities by Spaniards or land occupied by colonizers as squatters for farming or cattle raising. Usually, after residing on the land for an appropriate time, the claimant asked authorities for a composición to validate his land title in return for a payment of a fee (composición de tierras).

The procedure was useful to Spaniards wishing to acquire native lands, particularly as indigenous communities were decimated by disease or were moved to other areas away from their villages to be Christianized and thus unable to challenge the composición. Moreover, it provided the Real Hacienda (royal treasury) with revenues, and it also allowed foreigners to remain in Spanish America despite strong prohibitions against their presence there. In return for payment of a yearly assessment, approved aliens were permitted to remain in the Indies (composición de extranjeros). Foreign women and foreign priests were exempt from this levy.

See alsoColonialism; Real Hacienda.


Arranz Lara, Nuria. Instituciones de derecho indiano en la Nueva España. Chetumal, Quintana Roo, México: Editora Norte Sur, 2000.

Knight, Alan. Mexico: The Colonial Era. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Recopilación de leyes de los reynos de las Indias, 4 vols. (1681; repr. 1973), libro IV, título XII; leyes XV-XXI; libro IX, título XXVII: leyes XI-XXXI.

                                         John Jay TePaske