What was the Encomienda System?

The encomienda system was a Spanish feudal system prevalent in the 16th century in the Americas. Although it was purported to benefit the Indigenous communities over which it ruled, it was, in essence, very thinly veiled slavery.

It led to the Spanish conquistadors amassing land in the colonies and taking advantage of the labor of the people who inhabited them.

Life in the Encomienda system

The Encomienda System

In the 1500s, Spain conquered parts of North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean one after another. At the time, the Inca Empire and other Indigenous governments could not fight back. 

The conquistadors needed a form of government to dominate their new colonies. The Spanish crown also needed to award the conquistadors while implementing a new governance system. 

To this end, it instituted the encomienda system in many conquered regions in the Americas. It served as a makeshift model that helped the crown achieve its goals.

The word “encomienda” has its roots in the Spanish word “encomendar,” which means “to entrust.” The encomienda system originated in feudal Spain during the Reconquista (reconquest) of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim dominion. It continued to persist in some form or another ever since. 

This system entrusted Spanish conquistadors, settlers, colonial officials, or priests with Native American communities. The encomendero (an encomienda’s holder) could retain 80% of the wealth he gained from the conquered territories. Meanwhile, the crown would get the royal fifth or the remaining 20%.

The encomendero also received the labor of the Indigenous people for a specific period. In addition, they also got some form of tribute from their communities, such as gold, silver, crops, cattle, etc.

In exchange, the encomenderos were tasked with the Native Americans’ well-being, protection, education, and conversion to Christianity.

In the Americas, Christopher Columbus handed out the initial encomiendas in the Caribbean region.

A System of Abuse

The Spanish crown had grudgingly authorized the institution of the encomienda system. It feared it would end up creating an oligarchy that would diminish its control of the newly conquered lands.

Essentially, the encomienda system turned murderous men into landed nobles, and its faulty design quickly led to its abuse. 

Encomenderos treated Native Americans harshly, overworked them, or demanded crops that couldn’t grow on the land as tribute.

The system created to grant the encomenderos labor only for mining or farming gave them complete control of the Native Americans’ land. As a result, they ignored their responsibilities toward the Native Americans and instead took advantage of their labor and the land’s riches.

In Peru, the encomienda system built on the ruins of the once-powerful Inca Empire saw the abuse reach inhuman levels. 

The encomenderos displayed a cruel indifference to the mistreatment and hardships of their subjects. 

They refused to alter the tribute quotas even in the face of poor harvests and disasters, and Native Peruvians had to keep working even if they starved to death. And if quotas were not fulfilled, the workers had to face the encomenderos’ brutal punishment.

The encomenderos also forced men and women to work in mines for weeks, mostly in deep and dark shafts only lit by candlelight. The mercury mines were especially dangerous and deadly.

In the first few years of the colonial era, hundreds of thousands of Native Americans died due to the greed and cruelty of the encomenderos.

Moreover, many others perished after contracting European diseases through increased contact, such as bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, mumps, influenza, cholera, chickenpox, diphtheria, typhus, malaria, leprosy, and yellow fever.


As the encomenderos meted out abuse to the Native Americans and accumulated wealth most cruelly, the Spanish crown began to receive gruesome reports of what was happening. 

It was now in a fix, as the 20% tax it received from the New World went toward expanding the empire.

Meanwhile, the crown had clearly stated that the Native Americans were not slaves but Spanish citizens who enjoyed certain rights. Unfortunately, this rule was consistently flouted by the encomenderos.

Bartolomé de las Casas and other reformers shared details of the goings-on in the Americas. They also predicted the complete depopulation of the region and other horrific consequences if this reign of terror continued.

To quell this abuse, Ferdinand II passed the Laws of Burgos on December 27, 1512. It laid out rules for the treatment of the Indigenous peoples and the Christian obligations of the encomenderos. 

However, strong colonial opposition led to conquistador civil wars and the eventual failure of this law.

The New Laws of the Indies

In 1542, Charles V issued the New Laws of the Indies to stop the abuse of the Native Americans at the hands of the encomenderos. 

It stated that Native Americans were Spanish subjects protected by certain rights, and encomenderos could not force them to work.

The encomenderos were allowed to collect reasonable tribute, but they had to pay for extra labor. In addition, Encomiendas were not to be inherited, so upon an encomendero’s death, their properties would return to the crown. 

The crown would no longer grant any new encomiendas. Moreover, encomenderos who mistreated the Native Americans or had taken part in the civil wars would forfeit their encomiendas.

Conquistador Uprisings

The encomenderos were furious when they learned about the New Laws. They started a rebellion under conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro, who was eventually captured and executed. 

A few years later, the crown put down another uprising under Francisco Hernández Girón.

The Fall of the System

The Spanish crown nearly lost the Americas during the rebellions. After quelling the uprisings, Charles V decided to revoke the worst provisions of the New Laws. 

In 1552, he reissued a watered-down version of the laws to appease the encomenderos. He denied granting hereditary encomiendas, so they gradually returned to the crown. However, some encomenderos had secured title deeds to their lands, which they could pass down to their descendants.

As for the encomiendas passed to the crown, corregidores (administrators of crown holdings) were appointed to oversee them. Sadly, they were as corrupt as the encomenderos.

Their appointments lasted for short periods, so they would wring as much as possible from their holdings. So, even if the crown phased out the encomienda system, the workers did not see an improvement in their conditions.

The encomienda system was officially scrapped in the late 1700s and was finally replaced by the hacienda system.








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