The word encomienda is derived from the Spanish word encomendar, which means to entrust. In 1503 Queen Isabella brought the encomienda to the New World in reaction to the alarming reports of the decline in Indian numbers. She felt there would be fewer deaths if the Indians weren't being hunted by slave traders or overworked in mines, but instead were working voluntarily.

The encomienda granted conquistadors the royal share of Indian labor and production in exchange for being responsible for the well being of their charges. Colonists had the right to control the labor of and collect the tribute from an Indian community as a reward for service to the Spanish Crown. Unlike the Spanish peninsular version of the encomienda, the grant in the New World did not give the grantee (encomendero) legal right to own land. It also did not give them legal jurisdiction over the natives although many assumed that right.

It was supposed to be a temporary stewardship of the Indians but the colonists turned it into something the Jesuits felt was a new form of Indian slavery.

In return for this system the encomendero promised to settle down and found a family in the villa, to protect the Indians and to arrange for their conversion to Roman Catholic faith. Obando, Cortés and Pizarro granted the first encomiendas in the Antilles, Mexico and Peru respectively.

Accompanying the encomienda was the mita (pronounced mee-tah) system, a rotating draft of Indian labor that colonists adopted from a local Auechuan culture for crop rotation. The encomiendas in Peru depended on this system, as their Indians worked in the silver mines under harsh conditions. 13,300 Indians were divided into 3 mitas, making 4,433 Indians actively working the mines during 4 month periods. The harshest conditions are described at Potosí in Bolivia, where Indians would enter the mine on Monday, having been given only one ration, and stay there until Saturday evening without ever coming out of the mines inbetween. Their wives would ascend the mountain every day to bring them food, because at 15,000 feet little to no food resources grew.

In the 16th century, encomiendas ranged in size from as many as 23,000 heads of household (Cortés' encomienda) to a few hundred in some areas of Central America. The number of grants for encomiendas was always seen by the colonists as too few. To counter the colonists, who were out of control, the Crown issued the New Laws in 1542, a portion of which abolished encomiendas at the death of the current holder.

Winn, Peter. Americas: The Changing Face of Latin America and the Caribbean. 1999
Rosenberg, Kincaid, Logan. Americas: An Anthology. 1992

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