The encomienda system was used in the mines as well as on plantations. By the 1540s, tons of silver from the Potosí region of Peru and Bolivia filled Spanish treasure ships. Year after year, thousands of Native Americans were forced to extract the rich ore from dangerous shafts deep inside the Andes Mountains. As thousands of Native Americans died from the terrible conditions, they were replaced by thousands more.
A few bold priests, like Bartolomé de Las Casas (bahr toh loh MAY deh lahs KAHS ahs), condemned the evils of the encomienda system. In vivid reports to Spain, Las Casas detailed the horrors that Spanish rule had brought to Native Americans and pleaded with the king to end the abuse.
Prodded by Las Casas, Spain passed the New Laws of the Indies in 1542. The laws forbade enslavement and abuse of Native Americans, but Spain was too far away to enforce them. Many Native Americans were forced to become peons, workers forced to labor for a landlord in order to pay off a debt. Landlords advanced them food, tools, or seeds, creating debts that workers could never pay off in their lifetime.
To fill the labor shortage, Las Casas urged colonists to import workers from Africa. He believed that Africans were immune to tropical diseases and had skills in farming, mining, and metalworking.
Las Casas later regretted that advice because it furthered the brutal African slave trade.
The Spanish began bringing Africans to the Americas as slave laborers by the 1530s. As demand for sugar products skyrocketed, the settlers imported millions of Africans as slaves. They were forced to work as field hands, miners, or servants in the houses of wealthy landowners. Others became skilled artists and artisans.
Within a few generations, Africans and their American-born descendants greatly outnumbered European settlers throughout the Americas. In the cities, some enslaved Africans earned enough money to buy their freedom. Others resisted slavery by rebelling or running away. You will learn more about slavery in the Americas in a later lesson.
What was the encomienda system?
This Mexican painting from the 1700s shows a Spanish man with his Native American wife and their mestizo child, who is trying on a new pair of shoes.
In Spanish America, a diverse mix of peoples gave rise to a new society. The blending of Native American, African, and European peoples and traditions resulted in a culture distinct to the Americas.
Spanish colonial society was made of distinct social classes. At the top were peninsulares (peh neen soo LAY rayz), people born in Spain. (The term peninsular referred to the Iberian Peninsula, on which Spain is located.) Peninsulares filled the highest positions in both colonial governments and the Catholic Church. Next came creoles, American-born descendants of Spanish settlers. Creoles owned most of the plantations, ranches, and mines.
Other classes stood lower in the social order and reflected the mixing of populations. They included mestizos, people of Native American and European descent, and mulattoes, people of African and European descent. Native Americans and people of African descent formed the lowest social classes.