SYSTEMS OF FORCED LABOR IN THE AMERICAS

Jan 15, 2013 by Rosarie Salerno

In 1492 Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of Espanola, located among the islands of the Bahamas; he realized he would need the help of the native Indian population in order for him and his men to survive in this new land. He began employing a system of enslavement, referred to as encomienda; forcing them to work to provide food and shelter for them. The Islanders eventually revolted in 1494, from the harsh, cruel and abusive treatment from the Spaniards. The Crown needed the Indians to work the fields and the silver and gold mines. By 1510 Dominican missionaries who were sent to Espanola reported to the Spanish courts arguing for better treatment of the Natives.

A committee appointed by King Ferdinand designed laws to regulate the encomienda system. The Laws of Burgos of 1513 restricted the use of Indian forced labor; how much time they could spend on certain kinds of work and requiring specific times of rest. Indian villages were required to have tribal members over 15 years of age to serve only one month of each year, but the labor was enough to kill or seriously injure the strongest of men. Women 16 weeks or more who were pregnant were not required to work. The natives were also required to be trained in the Catholic religion. They were to be paid a wage that was thought “just”. The Indian villages were to be located near the mines, a church and hospital. They would be given better food and clothing and woman were restricted form heavy work. The Indians were slaves without being owned; rather they were to be considered as vassals of the Crown. The Indians were to pay tribute to the Crown, as vassals were expected to do, out of their meager wages; keeping them at a starvation level. Basically, this was a way that would keep the Indians content enough not to revolt and continue working for the Crown. There were 35 rulings in all. The committee also proposed the importation of African slaves to do the harshest work at the mines and in the fields, thereby developing still another industry for the Crown. The Dominican friars diligently continued their efforts for more reforms to protect the Indios.

By the time Hernan Cortez entered the city of Tenochtitlan, in central Mexico, in the year 1520, he was fully aware of the atrocities committed in Espanola and initially did not want the encomienda system employed in Mexico. Unfortunately, his soldiers were becoming unruly and liable to revolt, because they expected their tract of land and the allotted amount of Indian laborers to work the fields. This endowment was the way the Crown paid men in return for their service of going to the Americas on the King’s behalf. In fact, the Crown didn’t want the encomienda system in Mexico at all. However, Cortez refused to obey the King’s decree.  Cortez convinced the Crown that it was necessary to keep his men in control the Indians and maintain security of the newly discovered lands. Cortez told the King he would not let his men mistreat the Indians, would not send them to the mines or plantations for hard labor. Cortez also explained how the natives were not able to pay tribute to the Crown. But the mistreatment of the Amerindians continued and spread into Mexico.

The New Laws of 1542 established the repartimiento system that was supposed to replace the failed Laws of Burgos. The New Laws ensured payment of a salary to the Indians for their labor and for them to pay tribute only if they worked.  The Indians were to be considered free persons and not slaves. They could not be forced into labor and it prohibited having the indigenous people work in the mines, unless it was absolutely necessary. The law also provided for the eventual abolishment of the encomienda system. Even though The New Laws of 1542 were not as successful as one could hope, it did liberate thousands of indigenous natives from enslavement.

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