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While many people are aware that invading tribes and Conquistadors used captured natives as a source of free labor, forms of slavery in Mexico continued even after settlements were established. Not termed as slavery or indentured servitude, land grants known as encomiendas were given to natives as a means of appeasing them during a forced relocation. The land grants were held by an encomendero, or overseer. In fact, once a land grant was given to a Native American, it was not uncommon for the land grant to be taken away and the person to be shuffled from one property to another.
Once given any encomienda, native people were expected to perform free labor for the encomendero. Working long hours and enduring harsh treatment, land grantees were always in debt to the encomendero and were led to suicide, poverty and alcoholism. Spreading the practice across the Caribbean, some workers were so mentally and physically exhausted that whole populations of indigenous people became extinct.
The only “benefit” encomenderos were to give their laborers was a Christian education and help educating them about European ways of life. The goal was to create less of an indigenous workforce but more of a European one using native people. Further adding to the Native Americans’ plight, encomiendas were supposed to be passed down from generation to generation; ensuring land would stay in the family. Before encomiendas could be outlawed, Hernando Cortes and his band of Conquistadors took land away from the native grantees and kept it for themselves. Ensuring he and his comrades would profit from the situation, Cortes encomiendas in Central Mexico “legally” owned millions of natives. He would use this free labor to help build his new world profit. Unlike expeditions where the king would own all royalties, the encomendero was able to keep all profits and control all labor. For this reason, rather than lead a life of servitude, many indigenous people preferred suicide or some other means of ending their inescapable life.
Even after the practice of distributing encomiendas was outlawed, natives were so poor and had lost their lands many were forced into labor due to necessity. For this reason, indigenous people grew even more untrusting of white foreigners and were inspired to revolt. Not familiar with musket operations, these revolts were quickly suppressed and the practice of exploiting labor continued. Mexico Encomiendas: Land Grants with Hidden Agendas!