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Life in Encomienda
This 1522 illustration of the horrors of the encomienda system highlights the way women and children were particularly vulnerable to abuse by their Spanish overlords.
Content Warning: This resource addresses sexual assault and physical violence.
The spread of Catholicism was the stated goal of the Spanish conquest of the New World, but the Spanish also wanted to profit from their new territories. Once the treasure of Native civilizations was looted, colonists turned to mining and plantation farming, and needed to find cheap labor to maximize their profits. In her early instructions for the governance of the colonies, Queen Isabella I of Spain required all Native people to pay tribute to the crown or its representatives. Out of this directive, the encomienda system was born.
In this system, encomenderos were awarded the control of all of the Native people who lived in a defined territory, usually in recognition of special services to the crown. For example, conquistador Hernán Cortés was awarded an encomienda territory that included 115,000 Native inhabitants. Cortés’s power over his people was absolute. He could demand tribute in the form of crops or currency. He could force them to construct forts and towns, or work the mines or plantations. He could sexually exploit the women, and even sell the people who worked for him to other encomenderos. In time, the horrors of life on the encomiendas would spark outrage back in Spain.
About the Image
Bartholomé de las Casas arrived in the New World in 1502 as part of one of the first waves of the Spanish invasion of the Americas. He was rewarded with an encomienda for his services to the crown. Over time, he grew horrified by the outrageous abuse suffered by Native people under the encomienda system, and in 1515, he gave up his own encomienda and began a campaign to end the system. This illustration comes from a book he published in 1542. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies is de las Casas’s firsthand account of the abuses he witnessed, and the illustrations that accompanied the text were intended to horrify readers. This particular illustration centers the suffering of women and children, and hints at the sexual exploitation Native women experienced at the hands of their oppressors.
Bartholomé de las Casas’s work outraged readers back in Spain and prompted the Spanish government to pass the New Laws in 1542. The New Laws aimed to free all Native people from the encomienda system within a generation. This was not a definitive end to the exploitation of Native people in the Spanish colonies, but it was an important step in addressing their oppression.
- conquistador: The name for the Spanish or Portuguese military leaders who conquered Central and South America in the 1500s.
- encomenderos: The name for people who controlled encomiendas.
- encomienda: A grant by the Spanish king or queen that allowed a person to demand tribute and forced labor from the Native people in a defined territory.
- tribute: Payment made to a ruler.
- What does this image reveal about the lives of Native people under the encomienda system?
- In what ways were women uniquely vulnerable to the abuses of the encomienda system?
- Why were images like this circulated in Spain? What was the outcome of the campaign to end the encomienda system?
- This image was created as part of a campaign to end the encomienda system. Ask students to write a letter to King Charles V of Spain, describing their reaction to the image and why the encomienda system should be ended.
- Combine this image with the document about the Middle Passage for a lesson on suffering people of color endured for the profit of the Spanish colonies.
- The encomienda system was just one form of labor exploitation practiced in the colonial Americas. Combine this image with any of the following resources to consider differing labor exploitation practices, the lives of those exploited, and why labor exploitation was critical to the development of the New World: Life Story: Dennis and Hannah Holland, Mortar and Pestle for Pounding Rice, and Fighting for Freedom in New Amsterdam.
- Pair this image with Queen Isabella I’s instructions for the New World to facilitate a discussion of Isabella’s ideals vs. the reality of the Spanish conquest.
- The sexual exploitation of women was practiced throughout the colonial Americas. You can learn more about this widespread problem by exploring the following resources: Women and the Code Noir, Life Story: Marie-Josèphe Angélique, Marrying into the New World, Legislating Reproduction and Racial Difference, Life Story: Dennis and Hannah Holland, Life Story: Malitzen (La Malinche), and Life Story: Doña Teresa de Aguilera y Roche.
- Some Native women learned to use the laws of Spain against their oppressors. To learn more read the story of The Gateras of Quito.
POWER AND POLITICS; WORK, LABOR, AND ECONOMY; ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE
New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections
- For more resources relating to the Spanish colonies of the Americas, see Nueva York: 1613-1945.