The encomienda system is deeply entrenched in the history and culture of South and
Central America, and is one of the most damaging institutions that the Spanish colonists
implemented in the New World. The system came to signify the oppression and exploitation of
Native Americans, although its originators did not set out with such intent.
When the Spanish explorers claimed the lands in the New World, they set up institutions
with which they were familiar at home in Castile, and at that time, there were strong links to their
feudalistic history. Therefore, the Spanish modified their model of feudalism to fit both the
needs and conditions in New Spain and the Caribbean (Chamberlain 2). This form of feudalism,
the encomienda system, was created in May 1493, by the Crown in Castile who reserved the
right to grant and remove the encomiendas as seen fit. However, encomiendas were only taken
away from Spanish in extreme cases (Chamberlain 3). The encomienda itself was a grant of
Indians within a geographic region, which were given to an encomendero, the Spaniard who
received the grant of Indians.
At the start of the system, the sole justification for the Spanish dominion over the Indians
was to indoctrinate the Indians in the Catholic faith (Valencia 3). In fact, under the Law of
Burgos, any encomendero with 50 or more Indians had to educate one boy in reading and writing
and religious doctrine, so that he could teach the other Indians these things (Burgos 26).
However, it quickly became an opportunity for the encomenderos to exploit and utilize the
Indians to their own ends. This was because the Indians were required to pay the encomendero a
tribute in return for protection and religious instruction (Valencia 4). Originally, the Indians
which were divided for an encomendero were called repartimientas, but then became known as
encomiendas when the original grantee of the Indians died and they were given to a new
encomendero (Chamberlain 5). The encomienda system did not entail any land tenure by the
encomendero; in fact, the land of the Indians was to remain in their possession, a right that was
formally protected by the Crown (Chamberlain 3). However, the encomenderos did often own
land nearby their encomiendas and had natives working on plantations (Valencia 11). Another
interesting point is that the encomienda grant did not give the Spaniard the right to exercise any
political authority or jurisdiction over the Indians (Chamberlain 3). However, these distinctions
were very difficult to enforce, because there was an ocean between the rulers making the laws
and the colonists in charge of the natives. As time went on, the conquerors of New Spain came
to expect the encomiendas as their reward, so the practice became an institution and it eventually
became tradition to divide newly conquered territories among the conquerors (Chamberlain 11).
The "need" for the encomiendas arose out of the condition of the Indians when the