Friday, 3 June 2011

The Encomienda, The Mita, American Labor systems

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Slavery can be defined simply as forced labor, or the ownership and control of people by other people. But since slavery has existed at one point in time in nearly every country in world, the ideologies and implications behind those words can very drastically. What does ownership entail? If society pressures me to labor in a certain perimeter of jobs am I a slave to society? If I am forced to work but compensated, am I a slave or an employee? Too ridge a definition of slavery would ignore systems that were much more than forced labor, and too soft a definition would include systems with significant differences in treatment and ideology. So where does one draw the line? Well, it seems that the purpose, treatment, and perception of a slave plays an important role in how a slave system is organized. Therefore any valid definition of slavery must acknowledge those factors but, distinguish between forced labor and true slavery. An examination of the mita system, the encomienda system, and North American labor systems will provide the material to differentiate between the two.

The earliest system of the three was the encomienda system. It began in 150 when the Spanish government sought to utilize the Arawak natives in Hispanola for labor. The natives were periodically gathered and forced to give labor or pay tribute to their Spanish leaders. The purpose of the labor varied from agriculture to domestic service, which is one of the reasons the treatment of the natives was not as severe as systems installed strictly for hard labor. However, the primary reason the natives were treated more humanely was because the Spanish saw them as people rather than beast. In fact, the Spanish encomenderos were held responsible for the material and spiritual welfare of the natives. This concept clearly reflects a Las Casa like philosophy in regards to treating the natives. Las Casa believed the natives were “not ignorant, inhuman, or bestial” and that they were “ very ready to accept, honor, and observe the Christian religion”(H.R.5). The encomienda system strongly reflected this as encomenderos were encouraged to, “treat them[natives] like relatives, instructing and indoctrinating them in the things of our Holy Catholic faith”(H.R.76). The Spanish government even went so far as to command the encomenderos “to have two or three children of ten years or less…in their house…so that they can learn to live as Christians and…return to their homes and teach and instruct their parents, brothers and other relatives…”(H.R.77). But despite the missionary attitude of the Spanish, the natives were still perceived as inferior humans that were to be used, but not taken advantage of, “we prohibit such persons from building houses or clearing fields to sell beyond those they need to live in and support themselves”(H.R.77). The ecomienda contracts were often full of legislation protecting the natives from labor abuse but the reality of the system is that those rules were often bent or broken. Although the labor was forced, it was only periodically, and the treatment, perception, and purpose of the encomienda system would leave one to believe this system was “slave-like” but not slavery.

Another system the Spanish monarchs favored for labor was the mita system. The mita system began in the 1500’s a little later than the encomienda system. They were very similar because natives in the mita system were also forced to provide labor at fixed intervals to Spanish leaders. The purpose of the largest and most notorious mita systems were for mining. Because the nature of the work, natives of the mita system were exposed to much harsher treatment than those in the encomienda system. An observer of the system commented that the natives were, “working away hard with picks and hammers, breaking up flint and ore and when they have filled their little sacks, the poor fellows...climb up those ladders or rigging… so trying and distressing that a man empty- handed could hardly get up them”(H.R.80) The observer further commented that the columns used to hold up the mines were often pillaged by “heartless” workers and superintendents so that, “ a great section is apt to fall in and kill all the Indians, and sometimes the unscrupulous and grasping superintendents themselves” (H.R.81). The blatant disregard for the safety of the natives is very consistent with the Sepulveda philosophy regarding native labor. Sepulveda believed that, “those who are superior and who excel in nature, customs, and laws [should] rule over their inferiors(H.R.1)”. Furthermore, the Spanish could “scarcely find any remnants of humanity(H.R.)”so they were justified (by Sepulveda’s philosophy) in demanding harsh labor with poor treatment as would one would treat a beast of burden. However, the lowly perception of the mita workers did not stop the Spaniards from compensating the natives. This fact is significant because paying workers (no matter how poorly) implies a sense of employment rather than slavery. Like the encomienda system, the mita system can only be seen as slave-like but not slavery.

The last system to be evaluated is the North American labor system, which often generically refereed to as slavery. This would seem appropriate because the North American system is slavery by definition, purpose, treatment, and perception. Slavery in America began around the 1500’s and lasted until the mid 1800’s for the express purpose creating free labor for economic profit. Since the purpose of the labor was for an individual or group to make a profit, there was little consideration for treatment of the slave beyond this end. African slaves en route to the Americas were often transported like animals and encountered countless atrocities. A former slave named Olaudah Equiano described his experience on the slave ship, “the closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us”(H.R.0). The terrible treatment Equiano endured was a result of the perception that many Europeans adopted around 1510. The change from African or servant like slavery to ,chattel slavery, meant that a slave was not considered a human, but an object; thus they were treated as objects or assets and thought of only in economic terms.

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Rules known as the Black Code were often developed to regulate the treatment, trade, punishment etc. of slaves, but were usually so lenient or contrary as to allow masters pretty much complete freedom over their slaves. One provision allowed for masters “to have their slaves bound in chains and beaten with rods or whips when they believe their slaves merit it” (H.R.17). The rule does not factor in the possibility that a master could say his slave merits a beaten anytime he wants, regardless of the slave’s behavior. Another law forbids cruel treatment “we prohibits the use of torture and mutilation on the pain of confiscation (H.R.17)” but allows for “whipping”, “branding”,“tongue slitting”, and “death” as valid forms of punishment. An additional rule noted that, “slaves may own nothing which does not belong to their master (H.R.17)”, this included everything from gifts from other people to ones own children. This particular law clearly shows the callous and objectified perception Europeans had for slaves.

To conclude, purpose, treatment and perception play important roles in expanding the forced labor or ownership definition of slavery. Although the ecomienda and the mita systems were excellent examples of forced labor, the substantial differences in purpose, treatment, and perception plainly differentiate them from American slavery. The fact that the people of the mita and encomienda were not owned and only forced to work periodically, in addition to the fact that they were paid in some cases, draws one to the conclusion that they were forced labor or slave-like systems rather than true slavery. While, on the other hand, the American labor system unmistakably exemplifies all the characteristics of true slavery.

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