During the time period of the Atlantic trade, Latin America was the main destination of millions of slaves that were transported from Africa. It is estimated that 85% of African slaves arrived and were sold in Central and Latin America. After the gradual emancipation of most African slaves, slavery continued along the Pacific coast of South America throughout the 19th century, as Peruvian slave traders kidnapped Polynesians, primarily from the Marquesas Islands and Easter Island and forced them to perform physical labour in mines and in the guano industry of Peru and Chile.
Encomienda was a labor system developed by the Spaniard empire. It rewarded conquerors with labor from certain groups of people. This labor system was first established by the Spanish, in Spain, during the Roman period, but also used following the conquest of Muslim territories by Christians. It was implemented on a much larger scale during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the Philippines. Conquered individuals were considered “vassals”, a person or country in a subordinate position to another, of the Spanish monarch. The crown awarded an encomienda as a grant to a certain individual. In the conquest era of the 16th century, the grants were considered to be a monopoly on the labor of particular groups of Native Americans called the “encomendero” and all of his descendants.
With the dismissal of known explorer Christopher Columbus, the Spanish crown sent Fray Nicolás de Ovando, a royal governor, who established the encomienda system. In many cases natives were forced to do hard labor and subjected to extreme punishment and death if they resisted. However, Queen Isabella of Castile forbade Indian slavery and deemed the indigenous to be “free vassals of the crown”. Various versions of the “Leyes de Indias” or “Laws of the Indies” from 1512 onwards attempted to regulate the interactions between the settlers and natives. Both natives and Spaniards appealed to the Real Audiencias for relief under the encomienda system.
The encomienda system brought many indigenous Taíno to work in the fields and mines in exchange for Spanish protection, education, and a seasonal salary. Under the pretense of searching for gold and other materials, many Spaniards took advantage of the regions now under control of the anaborios and Spanish encomenderos to exploit the native population by seizing their land and wealth. It would take some time before the Taíno revolted against their oppressors and many military campaigns before Emperor Charles V eradicated the encomienda system as a form of slavery. Raphael Lemkin considers Spain’s abuses of the Native population of the Americas to constitute cultural and even outright genocide including the abuses of the Encomienda system. He described slavery as “cultural genocide par excellence” noting “it is the most effective and thorough method of destroying culture, of desocializing human beings.” He considers colonist guilty due to failing to halt the abuses of the system despite royal orders. Recent research suggests that the spread of old-world disease appears to have been aggravated by the extreme climatic conditions of the time and by the poor living conditions and harsh treatment of the native people under the encomienda system of new Spain.
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