Although missionaries were present in the Caribbean from the 1490s, early Spanish colonization of this vast island region amounted mostly to a mad dash for gold and slaves. Early Spanish settlers had little interest in working the land themselves, preferring instead to live from the rents and labor provided by native American slaves and tribute payers. As news of massive abuse and alarming death rates among the Taino and captive Caribs reached Spain, Queen Isabella demanded an end to Amerindian slavery. After 1503 only violent rebels and alleged cannibals were to be enslaved.
Compromise on Native American Slavery
Bartolome de Las Casas’s Defense of Native American Rights
Early Global Reconnaissance
Encomienda A feudal-style grant of a native American village to a conquistador or other Spaniard.
Columbian Exchange Historian Alfred Crosby’s term for the movement of American plants, animals, and germs to the rest of the world and vice versa.
Would the Taino then be free in exchange for accepting Catholicism and Spanish protection against the Caribs? No, in large part because their labor was thought necessary to mine gold, which Spain’s monarchs desperately wanted. Compromise came in the form of the encomienda system. Native villages headed by chieftains were entrusted to leading Spanish citizens in a manner resembling medieval European feudalism: village farming folk were to offer labor and surplus produce to their “lord” in exchange for military protection. Chiefs served as middlemen, exempted from tribute and manual work. The Spanish encomenderos who received these fiefdoms were self-styled men-at-arms, and from their ranks would come the conquerors of the mainland.
Indians deemed good and faithful subjects of Crown and Church paid tributes to their encomendero, or “trustee,” as he was called, in farm products, textiles, and other local goods, twice a year. Adult men were also required to lend their labor to the encomendero from time to time, helping him clear farmland, round up livestock, and construct buildings. For his part, the encomendero was to protect his tributaries from outside attack and ensure their conversion to Christianity. However reciprocal in theory, the encomienda system was in fact used mostly to round up workers for the gold mines. It looked like slavery to the few Spanish critics who denounced it, and even more so to the many thousands of native peoples who suffered under it.
“And on the Day of Judgment it shall all be more clear,” thundered Bartolome de Las Casas in a sermon-like tract, “when God has His vengeance for such heinous and abominable insults as are done in the Indies by those who bear the name of Christians.”4 Las Casas was a Hispaniola encomendero’s son turned Dominican priest who emerged as the leading defender of native American rights in early modern times. Some historians have argued that he represented another, more humanitarian side of the Spanish character in the otherwise violently acquisitive era of Columbus and his successors. Through constant pleading at court, and in widely publicized university debates and publications, Las Casas helped to suppress the indigenous slave trade and sharply restrict the encomienda system by the early 1540s. For the Tainos who first met Columbus, the reforms came too late. By 1510 there were only a few hundred encomienda subjects where a decade before there had been hundreds of thousands. By almost any measure, the Columbian era in the Caribbean was a disaster.