Encomienda in the Philippines

Encomienda Drawing by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala

An encomienda was a system adopted in all the Spanish colonies based upon the practice of exacting tribute from Muslims and Jews during the Reconquista (Reconquest) of Muslim Spain. As legally defined in 1503, encomiendas (the term comes from Spanish encomendar, “to entrust”) were used to reward the long, loyal, or hazardous service to the Crown by military men who had participated in the conquest, mostly soldiers with Sargento mayor rank or above. It was also used to recognize and perpetuate Spanish class distinction in Asia. The receiver of the reward, the encomendero, was charged with a number of “Indios” living within a specific geographic area he was supposed to instruct in the Catholic faith and the Spanish language. The law limited the number of natives in an area to not more than 300, and the land value was limited to not more than ₽2000. It was not a land grant.

Natives living within the encomienda were deemed subject to Spanish sovereignty, with the encomendero taking on the role of a petty king. He had the power to collect tribute, basically a tax, and expect unpaid labor, or corvée, from the inhabitants of the encomienda. The tribute furnished the revenue for such expenses of the missionaries imparting Christian doctrine and running the encomienda. It provided the encomendero and his family with their means of livelihood. The encomendero regulated the movement of the natives to ensure a steady supply of labor and the systematic and prompt collection of the tribute.

At first, an encomienda could be held for three generations, about ninety years. This was later reduced to two generations. But because of the complaints from encomenderos, the king decided to return the encomienda tenure to three generations in 1635. After the limit had been reached, the land, or more accurately, control over it, reverted to the Crown. While the encomienda encompassed native settlements, it was not to be confused with a hacienda like Hacienda Luisita of the Cojuangco family (Cora Aquino’s family). The latter meant that land ownership resided with an individual, and those working the land were his tenants. He could dispose of the land freely, and his family inherited the land. In contrast, ownership of land within an encomienda remained with individuals and their families. However, upon the death of a landowner, rights to the land passed on to his or her heirs. In the absence of heirs, ownership of the land passed to the barangay or town, which could then utilize that property to help pay for the town’s tributes.

Encomienda was the earliest and, for half a century, the most important tool in the Spanish colonization rewarding those who served the Spanish throne well. Encomiendas were, in most islands outside of Luzon, an important source both of crown revenues and information concerning the native peoples. Due to the frontier nature of the colony, successive Spanish kings allowed encomiendas to survive as a cheap and valuable means of expanding the Spanish rule.

The first formal grants of encomienda in the Philippines were introduced by Adelandato Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1570 in compliance with the decree issued by King Philip II in 1558 to distribute lands in Cebu to loyal Spanish subjects. Such was the case with Miguel de Loarca, an early chronicler of the Spanish conquest and member of the Legazpi expedition, given an encomienda on Panay Island. These men had helped conquer the Philippines. Legazpi was empowered at that time to recommend all the islands in encomienda to meritorious grantees – mainly military officers – reserving one-third of all grants to the Crown. In 1573, Adelantados were given the right to choose an encomienda near each Spanish settlement. This was a right never enjoyed by Legazpi, who died in 1572. However, subsequent Governors-General commonly abused their rights.

The encomendero was charged with ensuring the well-being of the Filipinos, a duty that included a good Christina education. Unfortunately, the battle-tested encomenderos treated the natives more like delinquent military units than a community of human beings, abusing them by exacting both tribute and labor. The encomienda system also gave the encomenderos a pretext for seizing land from barangay inhabitants. The system was finally abolished in 1720, though in the mid-nineteenth century, there still existed eleven encomiendas.

The encomenderos enjoyed their privileges fully but barely fulfilled their obligations. To them, Filipinos were little more than a resource to be exploited. Far from the administrative reach of Spain and Mexico, and with the colonial state apparatus stretched thinly, an encomendero was and usually did act like a petty tyrant. He invariably demanded that the Indios in his encomienda serve him and, if he didn’t get what he wanted, would punish them.

At first, the natives paid eight reales as tribute. This amount was increased to ten reales in 1589 by order of King Philip II. The total amount of tributes intended for the king helped fund the country’s defense expenses. This fund was called the situado.

Tribute was exacted from males between the ages of nineteen and sixty and caused considerable hardship on the native population. Payment of tribute from slaves owned by the native nobility was also required, though later, they were forbidden to acquire slaves. If the slave was a sagigilid (those living in the master’s household), then his or her master paid the tribute. On the other hand, a namamahay (those who had their own house and tended their own field), living apart from the master, had to shoulder the tribute. The encomendero kept a quarter of the tribute. Another quarter went to the friars and the balance to the colonial government. In turn, the encomendero maintained peace and order, helped the missionaries in their apostolic work, and ensured the encomienda’s readiness to come to the colony’s defense, should this be required.In addition, the local population was obliged to render a certain amount of personal service to the Spaniards, whether to the encomendero, the gobernadorcillo (“the little governor” essentially the town mayor), or the parish priest. Men between the ages of sixteen and sixty were expected to donate their labor, known as polos y servicios, for forty days each year to so-called community projects. These services ranged from servant work and the supply of foodstuffs to shipbuilding and military service, which in turn could be anything from crewing on a warship to working in artillery units. The exaction of forced labor – especially in the felling of trees and the building of ships – that continually disrupted livelihoods (such as working on one’s land) would be a constant irritant to the subject populace and perpetual incitement to rebellion.

By the time of Legaspi’s death of a heart attack in 1572, he had assigned 143 encomiendas to his men. Guido de Lavezares, his successor, not only assigned new encomiendas but reassigned those that fell vacant, thus disregarding explicit orders that such vacancies revert to the Crown. Once an encomienda fell under the Crown’s jurisdiction, it was looked after by an alcalde mayor, who collected the tributes and answered only to Manila.

Due to the abuse and cruelty imposed by the encomenderos, and later from the various government officials who would take over their functions, the local populations wound up impoverished and degraded. They now had to endure these conditions regularly and so very different from the lives they had led before Spanish rule. In many instances, the conditions approached those of slavery, leading friars to complain – though, as the friars themselves grew to be very much a part of the colonial establishment, these diminished as their abusive behavior increased. By the mid-seventeenth century, as the civil government took over more and more administrative positions, the number of private encomiendas dwindled with the corresponding increase in Crown lands. The abusive treatment of the native tribute payers, neglect of religious instruction by encomenderos, and frequent withholding of revenues from the Crown led to the system’s decline by the end of the 17th century.


A History of the Philippines by Luis H. Francia

Encyclopaedia Britannica




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