A New System for the New World
The Encomienda system was established during the second voyage of Columbus to help facilitate mining and other needs. The term comes from the spanish word for “to entrust” and was essentially slavery with extra steps. Although they would never call it slavery because again the queen did not approve of enslaving the native people.
The basic concept was that Spain would grant a parcel of land to a conquistador, soldier, official, etc. and they would be “the entrusted.” They would then be allowed to exact a tribute from the locals in the form of labor and wealth. The entrusted was then expected to provide military protection and religious instruction in the Christian faith.
It was a system that led to many abuses similar to those seen in slavery, and the only real difference between this system and the eventual slave trade is that the laborers in the Encomienda system were not allowed to be sold. Beyond that, it was still a cruel, violent, and dehumanizing practice that carried on in the Americas and eventually the Philippines until 1721.
In 1512, the Spanish crown attempted to pass laws to prevent cruel treatment in the Encomienda system, realizing that an inhumane system would hurt their goals of spreading Christianity, but the laws failed in the face of colonial opposition.
A 1552 publication called A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies was written by Bartolome de las Casas to document his first-hand witness of some of the horrors that occurred in the Spanish colonization of the Americas. It is worth reading through, but for brevity sake I will just give a snippet.
“Now being oppressed by such evil usage, and afflicted with such greate Torments and violent Entertainment they began to understand that such Men as those had not their Mission from Heaven; and therefore some of them conceal’d their Provisions and others to their Wives and Children in lurking holes, but some, to avoid the obdurate and dreadful temper of such a Nation, sought their Refuge on the craggy tops of Mountains…
…From which time they began to consider by what wayes and means they might expel the Spaniards out of their Countrey, and immediately took up Arms. But, good God, what Arms, do you imagin? Namely such, both Offensive and Defensive, as resemble Reeds wherewith Boys sport with one another, more than Manly Arms and Weapons.
Which the Spaniards no sooner perceived, but they, mounted on generous Steeds, well weapon’d with Lances and Swords, begin to exercise their bloody Butcheries and Strategems, and overrunning their Cities and Towns, spar’d no Age, or Sex, nay not so much as Women with Child, but ripping up their Bellies, tore them alive in pieces. They laid Wagers among themselves, who should with a Sword at one blow cut, or divide a Man in two; or which of them should decollate or behead a Man, with the greatest dexterity; nay farther, which should sheath his Sword in the Bowels of a Man with the quickest dispatch and expedition.
They snatcht young Babes from the Mothers Breasts, and then dasht out the brains of those innocents against the Rocks; others they cast into Rivers scoffing and jeering them, and call’d upon their Bodies when falling with derision, the true testimony of their Cruelty, to come to them, and inhumanely exposing others to their Merciless Swords, together with the Mothers that gave them Life.
They erected certain Gibbets, large, but low made, so that their feet almost reacht the ground, every one of which was so order’d as to bear Thirteen Persons in Honour and Reverence (as they said blasphemously) of our Redeemer and his Twelve Apostles, under which they made a Fire to burn them to Ashes whilst hanging on them…“Bartolome de las Casas
I find it hard to comment on the snippet I just copied in here because it is so much worse than we ever like to think about when it comes to history.
The document that snippet comes from is much longer and filled with more accounts of similar things.
Why this matters
This matters because for better or worse this is what the start of the New World looked like. This type of thing, the stuff being described by Las Casas, is what everything else was eventually built on top of.
It might be easy to dismiss as a US citizen because it was Spanish settlers in the Caribbean over 500 years ago, but in the long arc of history 500 years ago isn’t that much and the English settlers would take a lot of cues from Spain when they began to colonize the New World.
The United States has accepted Columbus as being part of our shared story, as part of what led us here, and that means we have to also accept the parts of that story that we aren’t proud of.
You can draw a straight line from the horrors described by Las Casas to Andrew Jackson, The Indian Removal Act, and The Trail of Tears.
To be clear, I’m not saying any modern people need to feel personal guilt for what Columbus and the Spanish did. There is no point to that.
But I do think it is important to look at the precedents, ideas, and practices that were in place. That way we have a good understanding of what the English were building on when Great Britain starts to venture to the New World in a few decades.