After looking at the different forms of labour, the shrinking population, the oppressive conditions, and even slavery, I would like you to consider whether or not the conquest is over.
Have we entered into a new, much more oppressive stage of colonial development, or is the conquest simply something that continues throughout the colonial period? If it is not conquest, what would you call it? Why? Share some examples from the reading.
Post an original comment responding to the discussion question, utilising the readings in your response. There must be at least two citations from the readings to receive credit for discussion. This post must be at least 200 words.
The Spanish crown brought many important institutions to the western hemisphere. We talked about them last week (the two republics, the audiencia, etc.).
Before that, we talked about the conquest itself, particularly the violence involved, how disease ravaged much of the indigenous population, and how the Spanish conquistadors used political divisions between different societies to defeat the larger empires, whether in New Spain (Mexico), New Granada, or Peru.
But after killing many natives and establishing government (with varying degrees of effectiveness, as we will see in the coming weeks), Europeans throughout Latin America began to think much more seriously about what was going to happen next.
How would they settle down? How would they maintain power? How would they become rich? Well, if you are a European in the Americas during the colonial period, achieving those things would be relatively easy– at least in comparison to any indigenous (Indian) or mestizo (person of mixed race) who might want the same thing.
And depending where you were settling down (Mexico? South America?) there were different resources and paths to take in order to consolidate your wealth and power.
The Encomienda System
In Mexico (New Spain), encomiendas existed very early on. In fact, Bartolome de las Casas, the noted “protector of the Indians” was himself from a family of encomenderos.
So, the system itself goes way back to the early 1500’s. However, as the colonial government became established, and colonists (Criollos and Peninsulares) began looking for ways to make money, they realised that trying to get rich by stealing gold and other precious items was not going to get them there.
In fact, to truly get rich, they realised that the best way to sustain their wealth was through agriculture and labour– for which they used Indian labour.
However, on ranches and farms in Mexico, they did not use the Indians as slaves– at least not in the technical sense. Maintaining a stable workforce was difficult in the agricultural sector if one used slave.
Most of the slaves in New Spain were in urban areas, working as servants, artisans, or other skilled positions. manumission (buying freedom) was possible, as was marriage for slaves in Spanish America.
Nonetheless, most of the slaves in Spanish America were African, products of the African slave trade (which the Spanish crown had a big stake in!).
But again, in the more rural areas, slavery was less common, because it was overshadowed by the encomienda. The encomienda was originally set aside for the most-wealthy elites arriving in Mexico (or for actual conquistadors).
As a result of the Laws of Burgos which regulated the behaviour of Spaniards towards indigenous people (especially encomenderos), the ways in which the encomienda functioned was different than it had been in its earliest days.
(Encomendero: Spaniard in charge of the natives)
It is easy to misunderstand what an encomienda is, especially if you read about indigenous experiences while being bound to one. You might get it confused with a hacienda, a large plot of land where people work– raise cattle and farm. However, an encomienda is nothing more than a grant of authority over a group of Indians.
That authority has a price, though– on both sides. For the Spaniard, he must try to Christianise the Indians under his authority, and generally look out for their welfare.
For the Indians, they had to pay taxes, or “tribute” to the encomendero. Failing that– if the Indian could not get together money for the tax, he or she had to work for it. So, essentially, what we are looking at is a very uneven relationship that can, very easily, end up looking a lot like slavery. And in practice, that is often how it would go.
The encomienda was supposed to be an effective way for Spaniards to harness the existing labour mechanisms of indigenous cultures and make money from it.
However, as the memes above imply, it usually turned into slavery, or some other form of economic bondage, and the responsibilities of the indigenous people would often change depending on the whims of the encomendero. As your reading states, the work might shift from agricultural to urban, or from farming to mining.
In sum, whatever the native person could not pay in taxes, he or she was responsible for working it off– even if it meant that an Indian’s encomendero rents him to another Spaniard!
The Mit’a System
Europe didn’t have silver of its own. Whatever they would get usually came from Asia, until they discovered silver (and gold) in Latin America.
To be clear, the gold and silver had already been discovered long before the arrival of the Europeans, but when the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they were quite excited by how much of these precious metals there were throughout the entire region (but particularly in South America). In Peru, or Potosí, or throughout these regions, there was a lot of gold and silver.
Silver especially. In fact, there was more silver in Peru than existed in all of Europe at the time. Plus, there was even more in Potosí, a city just southeast of modern-day Peru, in what we call Bolivia today.
Potosí became a central place for much of the silver mining that occurred in South America. However, with so much silver, how do you get a labour force to mine it?
Instead of using the encomienda system to get labourers (encomiendas put too much responsibility on the encomendero), the Spaniards in Peru used the mit’a system.
The mit’a was an indigenous creation that existed for quite a long time before the arrival of the Spaniards. Basically, the mit’a was a labor obligation that was based on the hierarchy of Incan society, kind of like paying tribute to your leader, or government, through the obligation of work.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the mit’a was kind of like community service. Communities under the rule of the Inka would send some people from their community who would be obligated to work– making roads, clearing areas for construction, or even general construction.
There was not an onerous number of workers taken from a given village to do this work; the village itself still had to function, of course. In a sense, then, this was a humane way to serve the larger kingdom– a way for a community to contribute to the construction of infrastructure, or maintenance of the kingdom more generally.
The Spanish recognised this system as a means to get people to work for them, without calling it slavery, and more than likely without having the Spanish crown get involved through the granting of an encomienda.
Instead, much like Pizarro did with Atahualpa, the Incan king, they simply took over the mit’a system from the top (kept it intact), and used it for their own ends. In this case– in colonial Peru– that meant working in the mines.
However, as you might expect, they abused this system. Here are five ways in which the mit’a system was more onerous/difficult than it was under the Inka:
1) The Spanish demanded more workers per community
2) The Spanish did not adjust for shrinking communities– the numbers stayed the same, even if communities experienced many deaths due to disease. This, of course, put more pressure on the communities giving up workers.
3) Reoriented their labour away from the improvement of the kingdom, and towards mining. Many people were working in the mines, no matter where they were from– so instead of working on projects that were closer by (in service of the Incan kingdom), everyone was sent to the same mines, to bulk up the workforce and increase production.
4) The natives from these communities were not even doing anything related to their own communities, or the communities of others– they were simply working for the Spaniards, mining for silver that would then be taken to Spain.
5) racism began to develop, and that deeply affected the ways in which the indigenous workers were treated, as well as the conditions under which they were being forced to work.
Thus, after the arrival of the Spanish, a labour system that was designed to improve the larger kingdom and individual communities was turned into a money-making enterprise, where only the Spanish profited.
The work in the mines was gruelling and dangerous. The Indian labourers would work continuous shifts, two weeks on, two weeks off. Over time, the mines became too deep, and would often collapse.
The heat in the mines was intense, and many reported having trouble breathing in the mines, due to the lack of oxygen, especially the deeper they went into the mine.
Much like the picture above, in the colonial era (without the helmet, without the lamp) you could usually not stand in the mines; most of the work was done laying down, crouching, or otherwise contorted.
Obviously, there were a lot of accidents in the mines, though for the Spanish, the price was usually only the life of an Indian, which sadly, was not very high in the colonial period, especially given the large supply of Indians available throughout Peru.
Interestingly, as silver increased in value, the Spanish crown did let some of the silver get smuggled out by native workers– not a lot– but they just let it slide.
Question: why do you think that is? Why would they let that happen, knowing what we know about the way the Spanish abused the mit’a system? (You can answer in the forum, if you even see this question! Ha!)
I’ll give you some points if you have a really good idea or explanation. I would suggest you think about the working conditions, and what you would do if you had to constantly work under these conditions. What would you do if you couldn’t get away with stealing a little of it? Give it some thought!
When you think of Latin America, you don’t hear much about slavery. Usually, you might hear about different abuses of the labor systems (the mit’a and encomienda systems), but not as much about slavery.
However, as your reading points out, even the Church never stepped forward to oppose slavery in the colonial period, in fact, some churches even owned slaves themselves! Slavery was prevalent in Colonial Latin America, but it often depended on the location, as your reading points out.
Also, slavery was a huge industry for the Spanish crown– sure, they picked up a lot of gold and silver initially, and certainly made a lot of money from the silver (“the royal fifth”, which means that the crown automatically gets one fifth of all the money made), but for a while, the real money was in the slave trade.
The appropriation of the mit’a system, the promotion of slavery throughout Colonial Latin America, and the development of the encomienda system all point to some serious questions about the colonial period, the role and identity of natives in the eyes of the Spanish, and perhaps a larger question about when the conquest actually ends.