Encomienda (Spanish pronunciation: [eŋkoˈmjenda]) was a labor system in Spain and its empire. It rewarded conquerors with the labor of particular groups of subject people. It was first established in Spain during the Roman period, but used also following the Christian conquest of Muslim territories. It was applied on a much larger scale during the Spanish colonization of the Americas and the Philippines. Conquered peoples were considered vassals of the Spanish monarch. The Crown awarded an encomienda as a grant to a particular individual. In the conquest era of the sixteenth century, the grants were considered to be a monopoly on the labor of particular groups of Indians, held in perpetuity by the grant holder, called the encomendero, and his descendants.
With the ouster of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish crown sent a royal governor, Fray Nicolás de Ovando, who established the formal 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 — both Indian and Spanish alike — and many military campaigns before Emperor Charles V eradicated the encomienda system as a form of slavery. Raphael Lemkin (coiner of the term genocide) 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.