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The basic definition of the Encomienda system is that it is a form of labor offered as a tribute in Spanish America. It was a means of supplying cheap labor (Celso, 1976). It seems that it originally worked in Spain against the conquered moors then the concept applied in the Americas. The one in charge of the settlement was a 'Conquistador'. He charged the locals tribute for their lands by the labor that they offered. The lands went to the deserving individuals according to the discretion of the conquistador. They also offered personal services and in return, the conquistador was obligated to protect his wards and their lands.
General Characteristics of the System
They also instructed the wards in matters of the church. This system however, brought much hardship to the population of the West Indies. It decreased rapidly, and in response, the Spanish crown tried to subvert it, although, had gained much momentum, and became a de facto law. It was not until the new laws promulgated in 1542 that the system finally died out. The Spanish brought many of their customs along with them when they reached the new world. The system was known by the same name in Spain had a similar definition.
This was giving of a portion of land but at the same time restricting property rights to the resident Indians. The Spanish needed a reason to hoodwink everyone else and even themselves of seizure of the Indian's land. This reason would feature in numerous conquest and colonization excuses. The reason of Christianity and that it was their obligation to bring 'salvation' to the savages. According to Proach (2009), the Spanish opinion was that they were doing the Indian natives a favor by introducing order to their society. To them they were not capable of being competent enough to trade and practice meaningful religion.
The Spanish crown set some checks and balances, although in to defuse the overarching of the totalitarian authority. In this effect, the king and queen of Spain issued orders to the Encomenderos in charge that they desist from the torture or mistreatment of the natives. This was a double speak because, at the same time, they authorized the forced conversion to the Christian faith of the same natives. In some cases, the natives were not so obliging to leave their pagan religions.
The Encomenderos allowed between two and three years with the natives that were under their responsibility. In this duration, they pay them whatever small wages they acquired from the labor and supplied them with the essentials to continue living. At one point, there was encouragement of the total assimilation of the natives (Proach, 2009). The Catholic Church suggested that the natives inter-marry with the foreigners to accomplish that suggestion. The orders of the crown predictably, however, proved as lip service to the conquistadors. These individuals wanted wealth and property but did not want to have to sweat for it. All they had to was taking the land from the natives.
The natives endured under the persecution of the conquistadors. They received none of the rights they deserved. In fact, the invaders only perceived them as sources of income that provided a source of revenue for conquistadors looking to get rich quick. It is with this reason that they demanded payment for the provisions they gave them. They worked odd hours for the Spanish and received little in return. The situation worsened for the natives who were already in a bad way. This resulted in many native casualties of adverse working conditions and poor living standards.
This system applied by many historians as one of the most crippling institutions implemented by the colonists of Spain. It represented hardship and oppression of natives at the hands of the Spanish invaders. It is remarkably similar to many conquest projects in one aspect. Most of these projects start with noble intentions but end up causing extreme damage to the original society. The charitable purposes transform to greed and corruption of the official authorities. There are various examples of the unfolding of these events that have been repeated throughout history. They include colonization's across the African continent and even in the United States.
Reason for no resistance
There was varied success of assimilating the Indians into the customs of the Spanish. In New Spain, this was true because of the fact that Mexico had already established similar systems. The system in Mexico focused on the growth of some key crops. The main was corn and the people surrounded their lifestyle around it. The life of growing subsistence crops was not a new concept. In fact, they occupied themselves with a lifestyle they did not have time to care about the incoming people who had an interest in their land (Simpson, 2008).
This illustrates, by the way, that the Spanish became accustomed to the Goths and Arabs who came into their lands and tried to conquer them. They, as a result, had a system controlled by the conquerors of that period. They established a feudal system that transferred to the new world. In a situation, the invader and the conquered shared; connections were the conqueror would protect the land from other invaders and in return levy a tribute for that protection. The residents are then obliged to serve him, and him to protect them solely.
The society subdivided according to conqueror and vassal. The Indians were easy targets; it seemed because of the fact that they faced conquerors before who took their land. Therefore, it was not a new experience. The Spanish was just another set of conquerors eager to set their rule upon them. There were some semblances of resistance; however, these were weak and died out. The Indians suffered overwhelming power of the Spanish society forced upon them. Some of them adapted to their new conditions and learned Spanish. They accepted the Spanish beliefs on Christianity and allowed the growth of foreign crops on their soil.
According to Calero (1997), the only customs that the Indians allowed themselves to keep were those of family and their land. These could have been in the form of burial rights. The church went on to create structures in the native villages that resembled some of the order in the homeland. They created parishes to induct Indians to Christianity. In this situation, the revenue units converted to administrative ones. This was so that the priest in charge would get the first product of the tax from the Indian laborers.
This would receive this payment before the administrative Encomendero of that location. The clerics would also be provided with goods to help with their stay at the villages. The Spanish originally believed that if the Indians were left to fend for their own and be exempt from the system they had enforced, then they would run haywire. They would not cooperate with them in matters of commerce. This would be inappropriate for the trade sector of the Spaniards. Since the Spanish crown had ordered that the Indians and similarly be persuaded into Christianity, they encouraged intermarriage.
This functioned to speed up the assimilation process to break down the differences in both societies. These purposes then began to suffer abuses from the official authorities. According to Calero (1997), the Encomenderos began a lazy attitude that suggested that they did nothing because of the simple reason that the Indians would do all of the work on their behalf. The position that they held above the Indians became one that sought after for one simple reason which was the tribute the Indians gave to them.
The tributes enforced on the Indians were not new to them. They had been practicing this on a customary and ritual basis. Therefore, the Spanish just capitalized on the practice for own benefit. The tributes that the Spanish Encomenderos received from the Indians were mostly in the form of grain and hunted game. The best tribute that the Indians could offer to the Encomenderos was the service of a personal form. This applied to service in the plantations, military duty, or service in the mines. The Spanish took full advantage of this fact and exploited them to the maximum (Calero, 1997).
Applications of the system in colonies
Therefore, the Spanish needed the plan to work not just for the Indians but also for themselves. Some Spanish colonies received stood out and exhibited most of the characteristics mentioned of the Encomienda system. Peru was one of these colonies. Peru had an abundance of resources that even the natives did not use. This of course changed upon the arrival of the Spanish. They perceived the resources as business opportunities and quickly converted. They imported slaves from Africa in the millions to work alongside the Indians. There were gross violations of human rights, but the main enforcers were in another continent and so 'out of sight, out of mind'.
At the same time, there were certain towns in the area that were remote even from the local superior. This was all the leeway needed by someone in charge at such a location. At this time, there was an Encomendero named Chacon' (Fuqua, 2010). He gave an account of the happenings at this period. He gave an account that differed with the other Encomenderos on matters of mercy, although, this did not reflect on the tributes. He reflected a system that was new and left to its own devices to evolve. The result was corruption because of no accountability that was evident.
Help from the crown and individuals
At the beginning, the Encomenderos regulated how much tribute they received and in what form. This created a lot of leeway for abuse of rights. The crown later remedied this discrepancy by legislations against the mistreatment of the Indians. This happened under the crown in Castille. The king and queen, Ferdinand and Isabella also played a part in the legislations against mistreatment. They tried to make up fixed tributes and bring tributes by human labor to an end. They also helped by implanting a judicial system to keep things from going out of control. This was the Audencia, which would control the placement of Indians into Encomiendas over time (Calero, 1997).
The crown was not the only entity that came out to defend the rights of the Indians. There were certain individuals that voiced their opinions. One of these individuals was the bishop 'Bartolome' de Las Casas'. His ideas seemed quite radical at the time. He encouraged the liberation of the Indians as well as the decommissioning of the Encomiendas system. He saw the weaknesses of the system and supposed that it was exploitative to the Indian's way of life. The number of Indian casualties that fell to the system disheartened him.
This advocacy for rights made him somewhat of a hero. His only weakness was that he could not change his perspective even when the facts had changed. Even when the abuses were eradicated from practice and the social system modified significantly, the bishop did not change his opinion on the Encomiendas. He became obsessed with the topic and agitated against the system constantly. He wrote books about it like 'The destruction of the indies'. At this point, there were some that benefitted from the system that its abolition would devastate their way of life completely (Simpson, 2008).
Finally, the nail in the coffin was the new laws that enacted in 1542. Their purpose aimed at the welfare of the Indian community. The laws affected the Encomiendas system vastly. For one, the Indians received rights to the ownership of land, and secondly the Catholic Church no longer had a hold on the natives and only affected the Christians themselves. The laws controlled the trade between Indians and the Spanish, conditioning the safety of the Indians during transactions. The laws, however, did not seem to go according to plan. They encouraged the independence of the Indians from the Spanish, but in return, the plan backfired economically.
Conclusion of the System
There was an economic depression during this period due to the excess dependence on the Encomienda system itself. In response to this, system reshaped to fit the conditions. In the end, the system aimed to assimilate the new world Indians to the Spanish society and make a better environment for trading in the process. The negligence and inadequate forethought, contributed to the way the system became extremely abusive and corrupt to the Indians. It is yet another example throughout history of moral intentions that ended up being forgotten in the process of accomplishing the main goal. Therefore, the main concept lost meaning altogether, but somehow found its way back to the appropriate result.