In the sixteenth century, Spain and Portugal conquered the majority of the continental territory of the Americas. Civilizations that inhabited present-day Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and other countries were conquered by Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish initially adopted traditional slavery as it had been practiced in the West Indies. But the encomienda was introduced in the early 1500s as an alternate form of forced labor as a response to a mandate emitted by Pope Paul III Farnese.
While scholars often refer to the Spanish encomienda as a system of labor, it should be highlighted that it was a form of slavery. The encomienda was forced labor with unrealistic and abusive expectations from workers. The Spanish encomienda was a type of slavery because the encomenderos controlled the work and lifestyle of workers native to the Americas. By calling the Spanish encomienda a “system,” scholars have suggested a dangerous separation from our idea of slavery. This separation is rooted in the rhetoric used by the Spanish monarchy to justify the implementation of the encomienda.
An encomienda was an organization by which Spaniards (encomenderos) managed property rights over the land and labor of natives from the Americas. Spaniards demanded a quota or percentage of the output from the labor of natives. This could be in the form of goods, metals, currency, or other types of services. Encomenderos would provide instruction in the Catholic faith, pay taxes to the Spanish Crown, and provide military protection over the land. The encomienda was established after “Pope Paul III Farnese published the bull Sublima Deus, excommunicating any Christian who enslaved [natives to the Americas]” in 1537.
This image above is a mural painted by Diego Rivera in Mexico’s National Palace. We see a clear depiction of the abuses that the Aztecs suffered when working to produce the output that the Spaniards demanded. There is a member of the high Spanish aristocracy in the middle of this mural receiving payment from another Spaniard, with an individual between them recording the transaction. This is probably a depiction of an encomendero paying a representative of the Spanish Crown his due taxes. The atrocities in this mural happen around this transaction and clear depictions of the involvement of Catholic instruction. Spaniards exploited and mistreated natives, as depicted in the strenuous work of Aztecs of chopping and carrying tree trunks while a friar raises the Holy Cross, with the justification of a need to spread Catholicism.
Although the rhetoric around the encomienda in the sixteenth century was that of a less brutal system to slavery, rules of the encomienda could make it even more brutal work than the slavery form of labor practiced when the conquistadores initially settled in New Spain. Encomenderos were forbidden inheritance rights. Encomiendas did not automatically transfer to future generations. They would revert to the Crown upon the death of the second-generation encomendero.
Inheritance prohibition, combined with the abolition of slave ownership, lead to incentives for encomenderos to destroy human capital more quickly than before. Second-generation encomenderos had no assurance that their family members would enjoy the fruits generated by their management and their workers after their deaths. Natives were not legally owned by Spaniards. Encomenderos, therefore, had no reason to watch for the health of Aztecs, Mayans, and other people native to the Americas. The encomienda prohibited the relocation of workers by the encomenderos. While this proved beneficial for keeping families together, the inability to trade and rent people forced to work under the encomienda to other Spaniards reduced economies of scale and incentivized Spaniards to demand higher productivity—even if that meant forcing working painfully long shifts in arduous conditions.
The encomienda prevailed for a couple of centuries and was especially popular in Soconusco and its neighboring fertile regions. Soconusco—home to the world’s premier cacao in the sixteenth century—is part of a large, Pacific lowland plain which runs all the way from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec down to the border country of Guatemala and El Salvador.
“So rich was this piedmont zone in this product that highland Maya kingdoms had vied for control of these lands, and the Aztecs had made their most profitable conquest by taking over Soconusco. Lured by the cacao, the Spaniards were here soon after the Conquest.”
Soconusco was an incredibly important region for the Spaniards not only because they needed to satisfy the growing popularity and demand for cacao in Europe, but also because cacao seeds were used as currency in parts of New Spain. The Spanish conquistadores therefore filled these regions with encomiendas that grew cacao in lands rich in conditions suited for the growth of Theobroma cacao.
The Spanish continued using the encomienda extensively in conquered lands, even by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Sublima Deus emitted by Pope Paul III Farnese set up a path for Spanish Crown to justify the encomienda. The transition from slavery to the encomienda was surrounded by the rhetoric of a divine intervention and action. The narrative was that of a transition from brutality to a Pope-approved form of labor—even if cruelty did not cease. The Sublima Deus set up the encomienda, not because the Pope suggested such “system,” but because he affirmed that “the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.” The Spanish Crown therefore justified this form of forced labor by offering Catholic instruction, even if thousands of natives to the Americas fought to preserve their cultures and religions.
The Spanish Crown also justified the encomienda with the provision of “protection.” Yet the presence of Spaniards did the opposite. Spaniards brought diseases from Europe in their bodies, vessels, and cargos. The testimony of Bernal del Castillo evidenced the impact of the Spanish presence in the population of Soconusco:
“Let us turn to the province of Soconusco… it used to be peopled by more than 15,000 [heads of households]… and the whole province was a garden of cacao trees and was very pleasant, and now… it is so desolate and abandoned that there are no more than twelve hundred inhabitants in it.”
The Spanish brought diseases to the Americas to which the immune systems of the natives to the Americas had never been exposed. These diseases wiped out the vast majority of populations across New Spain, including Soconusco’s. The Spanish promised protection, but their proximity to those natives working under the encomienda proved more deadly than any war or famine these civilizations had endured.
Overall, there is no question that the encomienda was a form of slavery, even if scholars repeatedly dismiss this fact by constantly focusing on the organization of this “system” rather than its brutality. The Spanish used the spread of Catholicism to justify this form of slavery, mainly as a response to the Sublima Deus. The protection that Spaniards provided to those working under the encomienda was actually an attack on the safety and health of entire civilizations. Spaniards robbed natives to the Americas their ability to practice and pass on their culture, legacy, tradition, and religion by forcing them to work under the encomienda. And the production of cacao incentivized the spread of such form of slavery.
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Kaplan, Jonathan. “Cacao Heartland in the Southern Maya Region.” Research Gate.
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Pope Paul III Farnese. “Sublimis Deus.” Historia De México, Funación Carlos Slim, 1537.
Rivera, Diego. La Conquista Española De La Nación Azteca.
Yeager, T. (1995). Encomienda or Slavery? The Spanish Crown’s Choice of Labor Organization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America. The Journal of Economic History, 55(4), 842-859. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2123819