The Capitulations of Santa Fe of April 17, 1492, granted Christopher Columbus one tenth of all that was discovered or gained in his ocean crossings with the remaining nine tenths to go to the Catholic royalty. It is no surprise, therefore, that one of the main motivations for the colonization of the Americas was the enrichment of the Catholic royalty and all of those involved in the conquest. Exploiting natural and human resources became the priority in the Caribbean islands and was put to the test mainly in the recently discovered territories of Hispaniola, Cuba and Puerto Rico.

On the island that Columbus named Hispaniola, the first Spanish settlement in the Caribbean and the Americas was founded: La Isabela. The working conditions, poor food and the distribution of labor at La Isabela soon became the source of controversy and dissent among the residents of the recently conquered territory. In 1494 and 1495, Columbus put down various uprisings by the Spanish and the Indians who were unhappy with their impoverished conditions. In 1496, despite the misfortunes that arose during these first years, Columbus left to return to Spain in search of new sponsors and men appropriate for the job of colonization. He left poverty and desperation in his wake among the Spaniards and indigenous people. The unrest was so extreme that Francisco Roldán led a revolt against Christopher Columbus’ brothers, Bartolomé and Diego, who were in charge of the territory in Columbus’ absence. La Isabela was suddenly left uninhabited after the Spanish and the rebel Indians settled near the indigenous populations that could provide them with food for their survival.

Roldán’s uprising on Hispaniola and the disagreements with the management by Columbus and his family led the Crown to dismiss the admiral and transplant to the Americas the old institution of the encomienda — an institution that was very popular during the period of the Reconquest — with the goal of placating the early settlers. In a similar form to the encomiendas that were developed in Spain, the conquered lands were divided among the Christians and, in the case of the Caribbean territories, the indigenous people were included to be used as serfs. The distribution of land and control over the indigenous people constituted the first forms of unofficial slavery in the Caribbean islands. The native populations of the islands of Hispaniola, Cuba and Puerto Rico were submitted from the beginning of colonization to forced labor in search of gold, building public works and agricultural work.

After a short period under the leadership of Francisco de Bobadilla, commander of the Military Order of Calatrava, the Crown put Nicolás de Ovando in charge of organizing the colonial government on the island in 1501. Ovando took on the task and was able to re-establish order in the colony on Hispaniola, but not before meeting the demands of the first men and those who came with him through the distribution of land and with the encomiendas of the indigenous people to work the land. The encomiendas were not legally an institutional form of slavery in the Americas. The legislation about the treatment of indigenous populations weakly tried to control the mistreatment that the Indians faced through measures that specified the responsibilities for providing housing, food, clothing and, above all, indoctrination of the Indians into Christianity. These measures were empty words, however, and were overruled by the Crown’s economic interests. This remained the case under Queen Isabel in 1503 and King Carlos V under the Laws of Burgos in 1512.

Once order was established in the Hispaniola colony, the conquistadors lost no time in using the indigenous workers under their control to begin searching for gold on the banks of the rivers of Hispaniola, San Juan (Puerto Rico) and later on Cuba. The Spaniards had been dazzled by the gold adornments worn by the indigenous chiefs and with the hope of finding abundant gold deposits they began an insatiable search for gold to meet the financial needs of the Crown. The need for constant labor was a pillar of the colonizers’ undertakings. The colonization of Puerto Rico, and Cuba a few years later, sharpened the colonists’ desire for wealth. As early as 1514, the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, told the king, “Here I began to scour the earth and look for where there was gold.” The indigenous labor was insufficient, however, and the Spaniards had to capture Lucayas Indians or the feared and mythologized Caribs of the Lesser Antilles, which were considered slaves beginning in 1503.

The gold found meant huge profits for the Crown. In 1503, according to estimates by Eric Williams, profits from the Caribbean were 8,000 ducados, rising in just five years to 59,000 ducados. By 1518, a year before the beginning of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés, the royal treasury received 120,000 ducados. This initial frenzy soon faded as the Crown realized the insignificant quantities of gold available in the Antilles in comparison to the continental finds in Mexico and Peru. This initial period was fundamental, however, for the political and economic organization of the Crown in the Americas.

The encomienda and its demographic impact on the population of the Antilles

The need for labor was magnified by the decrease in the native population of the territories conquered. The distributions of land and workers in Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1513 and in Hispaniola in 1514 are also evidence of the consolidation of power by the Spanish, first in the Caribbean and then in the rest of the Americas they “discovered.”

The encomienda system, meanwhile, led to the dislocation of the political organization and the social dismemberment of the original indigenous communities in the Caribbean at the time of contact with the Europeans. Under the terms implemented on Hispaniola in 1514, the colonizers divided the indigenous people into indios de servicio and naborías. The former, according to Dominican historian Frank Moya Pons, were the original residents under the direct control of a chief. The naborías, meanwhile, were workers who had provided domestic and agricultural services to the chiefs and religious leaders and therefore worked directly for the Spanish landholders. The Indians whose communities were totally destroyed were called indios allegados. According to research by Moya Pons, in 1514 in Hispaniola there were 26,334 indigenous people distributed among 743 Spaniards, of which 15,098 were indios de servicio and 7,016 were naborías. Some years later, the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, distributed 2,781 Indians to 19 landholders.

The poor working conditions and long hours negatively impacted the indigenous populations on the islands. Friar Bartolomé de las Casas witnessed these conditions in his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias in 1552, saying “the cause for which so many died and so many Christian souls have been destroyed is only for the goal of gold and stuffing oneself with riches in a few days.” The correlation between the loss of indigenous lives and the mining activities are obvious in the case of Hispaniola. The distribution of Indians in 1514 was concentrated mainly in the mining towns of Concepción, Santiago, Buenaventura and Santo Domingo, which were given 15,074 of the 26,334 indigenous people distributed.

Moya Pons estimated that there were about 400 people in Hispaniola in 1492. In 1519, 11,000 Indians were distributed, a number that is significantly different from the distribution of 1514. These figures show the disappearance of the indigenous communities during the early years of colonization as a result of the atrocities they suffered from mining, and epidemics such as the one unleashed in December of 1518 were also responsible for the decline in the native population.

The encomiendas constituted forced labor — not slavery, under the Spanish jurisprudence of the era — in which thousands of indigenous people were forced to work, mainly in extracting gold from the rivers of the conquered territories. The sudden enrichment of the Crown and a small, recently formed, elite ended due to the scarcity of gold, the reduction in laborers and the new opportunities for wealth in the continental areas. The limited opportunities for profiting from gold led to other forms of exploitation and to slavery in the Caribbean. The economy moved from gold mining to raising livestock and later to the production of agricultural products for export. The virtual disappearance of the indigenous population, meanwhile, led to one of humanity’s most terrible chapters: black slavery in the Americas.

Author: Hugo R. Viera Vargas, Ph.D.
Published: August 23, 2013.

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