Encomienda (Spanish pronunciation: [eŋkoˈmjenda] (listen)) was a Spanish labor system that rewarded conquerors with the labor of particular groups of subject people. It was first established in Spain following the Christian recovery of their territories under Muslim rule (known as the Reconquista). And it was applied on a much larger scale during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the Philippines. Conquered peoples were considered vassals of the Spanish monarch. The Crown awarded an encomienda as a grant to a particular individual. In the conquest era of the sixteenth century, the grants were considered to be a monopoly on the labor of particular groups of indigenous peoples, held in perpetuity by the grant holder, called the encomendero, and his descendants.
Encomiendas devolved from their original Iberian form into a form of "communal" slavery. In the encomienda, the Spanish Crown granted a person a specified number of natives from a specific community but did not dictate which individuals in the community would have to provide their labor. Indigenous leaders were charged with mobilizing the assessed tribute and labor. In turn, encomenderos were to ensure that the encomienda natives were given instruction in the Christian faith and Spanish language, and protect them from warring tribes or pirates; they had to suppress rebellion against Spaniards, and maintain infrastructure. In return, the natives would provide tributes in the form of metals, maize, wheat, pork, or other agricultural products.
With the ousting of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish crown sent a royal governor, Fray Nicolás de Ovando, who established the formal encomienda system. In many cases natives were forced to do hard labor and subjected to extreme punishment and death if they resisted. However, Queen Isabella I of Castile forbade slavery of the native population and deemed the indigenous to be "free vassals of the crown". Various versions of the Leyes de Indias or Laws of the Indies from 1512 onwards attempted to regulate the interactions between the settlers and natives. Both natives and Spaniards appealed to the Real Audiencias for relief under the encomienda system.
Encomiendas had often been characterized by the geographical displacement of the enslaved and breakup of communities and family units, but in Mexico, the encomienda ruled the free vassals of the crown through existing community hierarchies, and the natives were allowed to keep in touch with their families and homes. This was not true in all areas as in some parts of Hispaniola, Nicaragua, and Guatemala entire regions were depopulated by enslavement. Unlike in the case of the enslavement of Africans, in which mostly adult males were enslaved, the majority of indigenous slaves under encomienda were women and children.
The abolition of the Encomienda in 1542 marks the first major movement towards the abolition of slavery in the Western world. However, coerced labor continued in other forms throughout the Spanish colonies.
The heart of encomienda and encomendero lies in the Spanish verb encomendar, "to entrust". The encomienda was based on the reconquista institution in which adelantados were given the right to extract tribute from Muslims or other peasants in areas that they had conquered and resettled.
The encomienda system traveled to America as the result of the implantation of Castilian law over the territory. The system was created in the Middle Ages and was pivotal to allow for the repopulation and protection of frontier land during the reconquista. The encomienda established a relationship similar to a feudal relationship, in which military protection was traded for certain tributes or by specific work. It was especially prevalent among military orders that were entrusted with the protection of frontier areas. The king usually intervened directly or indirectly in the bond, by guaranteeing the fairness of the agreement and intervening militarily in case of abuse.
The encomienda system in Spanish America differed from the Peninsular institution. The encomenderos did not own the land on which the natives lived. The system did not entail any direct land tenure by the encomendero; native lands were to remain in the possession of their communities. This right was formally protected by the crown of Castile because the rights of administration in the New World belonged to this crown and not to the Catholic monarchs as a whole.