by Daron Lusk
The repartimiento de indios refers to the forced labor of indigenous people in the
Spanish colonial system. These people, Natives, were allocated to the encomenderos, the
owners of the encomiendas. The actual land given to deserving subjects by the Spanish
Crown are the encomiendas while the distribution of the labor force, the Indians, is referred
to as the repartimiento. These two terms are used interchangeably until the passing of the
New Laws in 1542. After the New Laws were passed the repartimiento referred to the
allocation of the labor force while the tributes paid by the labor force is referred to as the
encomienda. While this gets confusing when researching the topic, it becomes more obvious
once the New Laws were passed.
In order to understand the difference between the encomienda and the repartimiento
systems, this paper will give an overall background of the development of the encomienda.
It will then detail how the two systems differed and what effect this difference had on not only
the Indian labor force but also the Crown itself.
Repartimiento is defined as the process of distribution of indigenous peoples to forced
labor. During the early settlement of Spanish-American colonies, the Crown, under Ferdinand
and Isabella, King and Queen of Spain, worthy Spaniards were given tracts of land as
payment for their services to their home country. Along with the land, these "encomenderos"
were allotted the Native people of the land as the labor force to work the land.
As early as 1492, the Spanish Crown recognized the importance of working the new
land that they had settled. The harsh wilderness and unfamiliar terrain that they found in the
New World was deadly to most of the earliest settlers. Therefore, the Spanish settlers began
a system of enslavement which forced the Native Indian cultures into the role of bondsmen.
The sensitive and often unruly Native population, still suffering the wrath of European
diseases into their society, quickly began to dwindle in numbers. Also, the slavery system was
expensive and the Indian population that did survive often turned to violence such as the
revolt of 1494, to resist the European pressures.
Therefore, a new system had to be established to allow the Spanish colonists to
control the Indian population, to assist in the conversion of the Native population to the
Catholic Church, and to take full advantage of the untouched silver and gold mines that filled
the inlands of Latin America. The early beginnings of the Repartimiento system can be found
in the initial establishment of the encomienda system. The encomienda system derived from
the Spanish colonists need for a steady labor supply to tame and harvest the new land. The
makeup of the Europeans who first traveled to the New World were primarily thieves, ex-soldiers, and prisoners, who came only to reduce their sentences ordered by the court. There
were, however, a small group of elites who traveled to the colonies and established
themselves as leaders among the colonists.
Upon their arrival these ill-prepared people found the struggles of colonial life almost
too much to bear. They frequently faced starvation and death by disease. Their only relief
in these early days came in the form of supply vessels that were few and far between. These
vessels were often filled with only spoiled foods and water rotten tools. The only manner of
survival for these early settlers was to force the Native population to supply them with food.
Even Columbus, after the Indian revolt of 1494, placed Indians under the control of land
owners, where the Natives would work to support the colonists. He only petitioned
Ferdinand and Isabella after he had initiated the system that came to be called the encomienda
system. The initial system instituted this early was actually an adaptation of a similar Spanish
method of forced labor. Eventually, Fray Nicolas de Ovando laid the foundation for further
relationships between the Spanish settlers and the Native population regarding the use of their
labor. Ovando was chosen as royal governor because of his experience in the region of
Granada, and he immediately proposed ideals to regulate the relationship between the
Spaniards and the Natives. Among these first decrees, Ovando stated, "Since it will be
necessary, in order to mine gold and to carry out the other works that we have ordered, to
make use of the services of the Indians, you will compel them to work in our service, paying
them the wage which you think it is just they should have." With these decrees, he laid out
a primitive instruction base which developed into the repartimiento system.
Ovando continued to look after the labor supply of the Indian population. Not only
was the Crown interested in forcing the Natives to help provide food but they also wanted
to use the Indians' labor to extract the gold from the nearby mines. Ovando, having had
experience with the labor system of Espanola, decided to attempt to adopt the encomienda
system into New Spain to better regulate the labor system of the Indians. In a letter written
by Queen Isabella to Ovando, she clearly agrees that the Indian labor should be forced to aid
the survival of the Spanish colonies, by producing foods and fortifications, as well as the
mining that the Crown desperately desired to take part in.
Upon Isabella's approval to Ovando to incorporate the encomienda system into the
Spanish colonies, she also laid the foundation for better Spanish-Native relations in the New
World. Since European conquest, the relationship between the Natives and the Spaniards had
been abusive at best. Native people were enslaved and starved to the point that their Native
populations dwindled near extinction. As the humanity of the situation improved and Native
labor was used more openly for Spaniard gains, the Indians were still mistreated and taken
advantage of. The encomienda system would regulate the relationship between the
encomenderos and the labor force that supplied their survival.
Upon Isabella's death the responsibilities of regulating the encomiendas fell to Ferdinand,
whose first goal was to make as much money from the Native labor force that they could
possibly get. Ferdinand did not necessarily care for the humane treatment of the Indians,
though he did not treat them inhumanely either. He chose, instead to decree that the Indians
should remain as forced labor and not be enslaved unless they became unruly and then they
should be enslaved and most should be sold. With this he established his manner of dealing
with the Indians without taking a definite stand on the slavery issue. According to Lesley
Byrd Simpson in The Encomienda in New Spain, Ferdinand contemplated regulating the
distribution of the Native labor but decided against it because he felt that it would take away
from the Indian production in the gold mines.
The continued death and horrible conditions that the Indian population was subjected
to began to be noticed. By 1510, Domingo de Mendoza, who was the Cardinal-Archbishop
of Seville and the President of the Council of Castile, sent a company of Dominican
missionaries to Espanola. Fray Pedro de Cordoba headed this company. The missionaries
could not believe what they saw when they arrived. They found the relationship between the
Indians and the colonists to be one of abuse and almost relentless cruelty to the Natives. They
immediately began to protest to the colonists and forced the encomenderos to organize their
defense before the courts in Spain. The missionaries sent one of their own, Fray Antonio de
Montesinos, to meet the courts and to argue their case for the better treatments of the Native
The Dominicans gained a favorable decision before the courts and Montesinos later
gained the approval by Ferdinand himself to review the laws governing the labor of the
colonies. Ferdinand called a committee to further review the complaints of the missionaries.
The committee constructed a set of laws designed to regulate the treatment of the Native
population but at no time did the laws seem to question the use of Native labor to produce
the wealth of the colonies. The Laws of Burgos as they were named issued thirty-five rulings
that regulated the Indians usage and the degree to which the Indians labor could be used or
The Laws of Burgos passed on July 28, 1513, placed restrictions on the use of Indian
labor and attempted to control the encomenderos abuse of the sensitive Native tribes. The
Laws regulated the time that Natives could spend at doing certain work and also set specific
times of rest between the work that they were forced to carry out. Of course, the Laws
upheld the Crown's own interest in keeping the Indians loyal to them. The Laws dictated that
the Indians would be removed from their homes and placed within the confines of the Spanish
towns. They would also be forced to regularly attend church services and be trained to the
Catholic religion. The Laws of Burgos are specifically laid out to convert the Indians not only
religiously but also culturally. They regulated the clothing of the Indians and even their food.
To say the least, the Dominican friars were not happy with the outcome of their efforts
but they continually pushed for further reforms of the encomienda system. During their pleas
to the Spanish Crown they gained the attention of Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas had
lived in Espanola and Cuba for the past ten years and had become aware of the conditions of
the Indians under the repartimiento-encomienda system. He had actually been the recipient
of an encomienda and subjected his Indians to the same treatment that he now opposed. Las
Casas would quickly become and remain the leader of the movement that sought to abolish
the labor system in the New World.
Las Casas devoted the next fifty years to promoting the end of the repartimiento
system. In 1515, las Casas and Montesinos were granted permission to go to Seville and
meet with the King to air their aggressions. There las Casas met with the King but was met
with indecision and was brushed aside and sent to discuss his ideas with lesser officials.
Before Ferdinand could make a decision concerning las Casas' abolition ideas he died on
January 23, 1516. Las Casas then turned to the soon-to-be King, Charles I. On his trip to
visit Charles, Las Casas met a Franciscan friar who would become one of las Casas' best
advocates to abolish the repartimiento system.
Las Casas made contact with Cardinal Ximénez de Cisneros, who immediately
convened a council to listen to las Casas' proposal. The council was asked to consider the
regulating of the encomienda system, the freeing of the Indian labor force and the
administering of the Native population by the Church. All of these proposals were astounding
considering the power and prestige of the encomenderos of the time. Las Casas chose three
prominent men of the Church, known as the Jeronymites, to administer his reforms but soon
found them to be disagreeable to his ideas and to his forced rule over them. He quickly lost
control over the reforms that he helped to establish and found no help from Cisneros who
remained confident in Luis de Figueroa, Bernadino de Manzanedo, and Alonso de Santo
These three men were given the responsibility of initiating the reforms within the New
World. Upon their arrival they were to gather the inhabitants of the caciques and
encomiendas and notify them of the Crowns new policy toward Spanish-Indian relations.
They were supposed to help the Spaniards and the Indians to work together to develop a
system that would work out the grievances between the two cultures. The reforms also stated
that the Indians would be free subjects of the Crown and should have been treated
accordingly. The new reforms also called for the removal of the caciques into Spanish towns
and the people there should pay a tribute to the King. The encomenderos would be
compensated from this tribute for the loss of their labor force but they could continue to work
the mines on their own account if they chose.
The Indian villages were established near the mines for easier access and all would be
given access to a church and hospital. The Indians would also be given better food supplies
and their workload would be lessened, with the women being restricted from heavy
workloads. Indians within these villages would be given clothing and better living conditions
so that they would more readily accept the religious teachings that the missionaries were
adamant about continuing. Priest would be assigned to each village and direct the religious
teachings for the three hundred inhabitants of each village. However, most of these reforms
were established in vain because upon the arrival of the three Jeronymites they reported that
the Indians were well treated and that the land that they saw was not in need of any major
revisions. They actually advocated for the trade of Negro slaves to be brought to the New
World to incorporate another industry for the Crown.
Once a committee was convened to report on the views of the three Jeronymites, they
reported similar findings. The committee reported that the Indians lived good lives under the
encomienda system and that id they were freed from the control of the encomenderos they
would quickly revert to their "wild" ways. The committee reported that they witnessed
Christianized Natives revert to their Native religious acts only after a short time away from
their religious teachings. Natives would only work the mines when forced by the Spanish.
Because they placed no value on material possessions they did not understand the value of
the gold that they produced or the value that the income would bring to the King of Spain.
Ultimately, the council decided that las Casas misinterpreted the conditions of the Indian
population and that the Natives would have to remain under the control of the current system
in order to convert them and make them useful subjects.
It was decided that slave labor should be imported to work the mines and that the
Indian labor should be converted over time to the production of the soil. Until this time
agriculture had been virtually ignored because of the overwhelming desire to supply gold to
the Crown. The idea was that because the encomenderos had no guarantee to the future of
their labor force they had misused their labor to get more production out of them. If they
were reassured that they would not lose their labor, the encomenderos would treat them with
more care and attention and subject the Negro work force to the brunt of the mining work.
The Indians would then be used for the production of agriculture, which would again
supplement the initial fall in economic gain from the New World.
When Hernan Cortez made his outstanding discovery of the inhabitants of Mexico his
initial decision was to restrict the giving of encomiendas to his troops so that the Indian
population would be more willing to work and accept the Spanish rule. Cortez had seen what
devastating affects that the encomienda system had on the Native of population of Espanola
and he was determined to keep the encomiendas out of Mexico. The Crown supported him
and they instructed him to keep control of his men and not to allow them to pressure the
Indians into any further hostilities. The Crown believed that Spanish settlers purposely
instituted grievances with the Indians so that the Indians would become unruly and give the
Spaniards an excuse to place them under the encomenderos rule.
Cortez held firm to his stance but the pressures of his men finally over powered him.
His initial army that had conquered the Native population insisted that they be compensated
for their work in land grants and therefore should be given an adequate labor force to work
that land. Cortez, despite his initial objection to the idea, gave in because of the threat that
an unruly mass of soldiers could be for him.
The Crown decreed that Cortez would not, "not make any repartimiento or
encomienda in that land, or consent to any assignment of the Indians, but are to allow them
(the Indians) to live in liberty, as our vassals in Castile live, and if before the arrival of this
letter you have given any Indians in encomienda to any Christians, you will remove them."
The Crown further instructed them to encourage the Indians to accept the religious
instruction of the Spaniards and to insist that they do so or be forced to accept the Christian
faith. They were to force the Indians to give up sacrifice and to encourage them to enter into
free economic trade with the Spaniards as the other vassals had done, so as to bring them into
more frequent contact with the Spaniards. Most of all the Spaniards were instructed to keep
all of the promises that they made the Natives and to hold strictly to the agreements that they
The Crown understood the kind of men that the conquistadors were and they hoped
to take steps to prevent any mistreatment of the Indians that might cause war. Any
movements that might have led to war were prevented under severe penalty and Spaniards
were allowed to freely associate with Indians on their own accord for fear that they might
insult or degrade the Natives which would result in aggressive feelings toward the Spaniards.
Also, the Crown decreed that the Spaniards were not to take any of the Native women away
from their families for their own pleasures. Again this was to restrict the possible aggression
from the Natives.
Upon receiving the letter from the Spanish government, Cortez flat out refused to
obey the Crown deciding that inhibiting his men would only cause trouble within their ranks.
Cortez laid out his argument in a well thought out and well written argument that changed the
future of the Native population in Mexico. He wrote that the Spanish Crown would sacrifice
their new lands because the Indians would not be able to hold the land if the Spaniards did not
stay and control it for them. Therefore, Cortez fell back on the religious theme that the
Indians would fall back into their sinful way of life and the Crown would never gain the
acceptance of the Natives or the land that they resided on.
Cortez also claimed that the Indians were far better treated under the encomienda
system that he had already established and that the Indians refused to return to the life outside
of the encomienda. Cortez claimed that the Indians had been subjected to slavery and used
as sacrifices and that a threat that they often used against any unruly Native was to tell him
that he would be returned to his former captors for sacrifice. This, of course, seems a bit
unreasonable due to the fact that the Indians population of Mexico was under Spanish control
or dying of the European diseases. The threat of returning unruly Natives back to their
former enslaves was not something that could have been carried out.
Cortez then reassured the Crown that he was familiar with the atrocities that the
encomienda system had brought to the Natives in Espanola, and would take great measures
to make sure that his men did not mistreat the Indians. He claimed that the Natives of Mexico
would not be sent to the mines or plantations for hard labor and that none of the Spaniards
would take it upon themselves to mistreat the Indians under their control. Cortez
the slaves who were abundant would be the only labor subjected to the hard work and
dangerous conditions of the gold mines.
Next, Cortez disagreed with the Crown when it came to tributes being paid by the
Natives. Cortez claimed that the Indians had no way to pay such a tribute and even if they
did it would break the economy of the Indian towns and the entire region would suffer. He
claimed to have seen first hand the destruction that heavy tributes placed on the Indian
populations had on towns and that with the removal of tributes from those towns the Native
populations began to prosper once more.
Finally, Cortez argued that if the encomienda system was abolished then the Crown
would not anyone there to protect the land and to keep it in the hands of the Crown. This
was an argument that the Crown could not ignore. After all Cortez had a point. If the
encomienda system was abolished then the men that controlled the land would rise up and the
turmoil would strip the Crown of the prosperous future that might have in the rich land that
Cortez had delivered to them.
Thus the encomienda system was spread to the new lands of Mexico and the
overwhelming mistreatment of the Native population continued. That is until the New Laws
of 1542. In the New Laws, which came about due to the inhumane treatment of the Native
populations, Spain decreed that no longer would the Indians be subjected to unchecked
aggression of the encomenderos. The New Laws established the method of distribution that
is called the repartimiento. The repartimiento de indios, or the distribution of Indians,
allocated certain numbers of Indians to certain Spanish landowners for certain terms of
service. Upon the service, the Indians would be paid a salary and the treatment of the Indian
labor would be strictly controlled. The Indians, or repartidos, as they were called under this
system after 1542, were selected and allocated according to economic need of the landowner
or the royal need.
For instance, if the royal mines were in need of increased labor and a local landowner
needed more labor to get his crop in the ground, then the first order of business would be to
serve the royal needs first. The economic stability of the Crown overshadowed the need of
the farmer. The repartidos were also under the control of the government official that
distributed the labor and also recalled the labor if any mistreatment were to take place. There
was corruption in the system, as some royal administrators were bought off and many Indians
still suffered inhumane treatment under the control of their boss.
The repartimiento system differed from the original encomienda system due to the fact
that the labor force was paid a salary for their term of work where as under the encomienda
system, the laborers had not been paid or subsidized in any way. In this manner, the Indians
could afford to pay tribute to the Crown as the Crown believed that loyal vassals should have
done. After the passing of the New Laws in 1542, the encomienda referred to this tribute that
the Indian labor paid not only to the Crown but also to the encomenderos, or the Church.
In order for a Spaniard to receive labor he had to appeal to the royal official who
would then allocate out the necessary labor force that the job or jobs required. This royal
official would keep up with the number of Indians placed into this labor field and also the
amount of tribute paid out by the Indians. Every Indians village was subjected to the
repartimiento system and according to official numbers each tribal member over the age of
fifteen had to serve six percent of each year under the system. This translates to only one
month of one year but the labor that these Indians were subjected to was enough to kill or
seriously injure any strong male.
Each Indian community had to provide the system with a labor force. Again, numbers
indicate that two to four percent of each community was supplied throughout the year to the
system. Numbers also fluctuated according to the economic necessity of the Spanish
landowners. So, some communities could have contributed as much as fifty percent of the
their community labor to the system in a year's time.
After 1542, the repartimiento system took on a more favorable answer to the labor
relationships between the Spaniards and the natives in the New World. Under the
encomienda system, Indians were subjected to the rules and harsh treatment of the landowner,
or encomenderos, with little or no care given by the Spanish Crown. Las Casas attempted
to institute reforms to protect the Indians but his extended efforts, which took up most of his
life, came to no satisfactory end. While the Indian labor force under the repartimiento system
were subjected to better treatment and even a salary for their work they were still forced to
take part in the labor to serve the Crown and forced to pay what little salary they received to
the Crown. Therefore, it become apparent that the repartimiento system was not so much a
humanitarian effort as it was a measure by the Spanish Crown to keep their labor force alive
and more willing to work for the Crown.
Simpson, Lesley Byrd, The Encomienda in New Spain, (Berkley: University of
California Press, 1950)
Poole, Stafford C.M., ed. In Defense of the Indians The Defense of the Most
Reverend Lord, Don Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, of the Order of Preachers, Late
Bishop of Chiapa, Against the Persecutors and Slanderers of the Peoples of the New
World Discovered Across the Seas (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974)
Himmerich y Valencia, Robert, The Encomenderos of New Spain, 1521-1555
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991)
www.unm.edu/~nvaldes/350/repart.htm. online source used under the heading of "The
Repartimiento System" accessed June 04, 2003.