Towards a renewed legal history of indigenous labour and tribute extraction in the Spanish Empire


There are 40 million slaves in the world. A United Nations report released in 2017 showed that 25 million human beings worked in coerced and abusive conditions while 15 million were forcefully married. National and international studies reveal that human beings are being trafficked globally to be submitted to conditions of labor and sexual abuse labelled as “modern slavery.” Such unabating persistence of modern slavery has forced authorities to legislate against all forms of human exploitation and trafficking. As it stands today, despite the abolition of slavery and servitude throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, illegal human trafficking and human exploitation pervasively endure across the globe.

In confronting such practices, legislators, human rights activists, and scholars face problems of nomenclature and category to classify the multi-edged manifestations of human exploitation. More so because from a historical viewpoint, slavery is predominantly associated with the institution of chattel slavery of Africans and their descendants in the Americas. Is slavery the right word to describe human exploitation in all its forms, or should scholars distinguish more nuanced terms such as servitude, labor and sexual exploitations, slavery-like practices, or forced marriages? Do juridical concepts encompass practices? How does the history of slavery and labor influence such categories? In other words, what can we learn from the juridical historical record and (legal) historiographies in this case? These conundrums are not new. In fact, they are deeply rooted in the history of conquest and colonization of the first global empires in the late medieval and early modern periods.

This Partner Group, under the leadership of Dr. David Rex Galindo, at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez (UAI) in Santiago, Chile, and Prof. Dr. Thomas Duve, director of the Max-PlanckInstitut für Rechtsgeschichte und Rechtstheorie (mpilhlt), seeks to identify, analyze and study the various institutions and forms developed to extract indigenous labor and tribute in frontier territories of the Hispanic world from the late medieval period until 1898, when Spain lost its last American and Asian colonies. Stemming from juridical and ecclesiastical cases and resulting legislation, we take a legal, ecclesiastical, and social approach to the study of exploitation of indigenous peoples in remote regions with weaker colonial institutions. A study of the various systems of labor exploitation and tribute extraction Spaniards established on frontier territories showcases institutional elasticity and the molding power of local agents in shaping the relationships between the invaded and the invaders.

In the Hispanic world, labor relations, the collection of tributes, and human exploitation of indigenous peoples took many-folded forms: slavery, encomienda, mita, repartimiento, servicio personal, asiento de indios, genízaros, and yanaconaje, to cite a few. These distinctive terms, which describe various practices of indigenous labor and tribute collection in Spanish America, reflect the legal and practical malleability of Indigenous-Spanish relations. Scholars agree on the pivotal role these institutions played on the construction of a colonial regime of domination and extraction. We want to show that it was in peripheral territories where tensions between royal and ecclesiastical authorities and local actors regarding indigenous exploitation particularly manifested and endured. In an unexpected way, these systems of abuse, the processes behind their establishment, their adaptabilities to local realities, and the ensuing juridical and moral disputes precede current debates over modern slavery.

The members of the Partner Group, based at the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez in Santiago de Chile, hope to integrate research on the legal and ecclesiastical underpinnings behind the creation and development of Indigenous-Spanish labor relations at the local level with global legal approaches were nuances, differences, and similarities of indigenous exploitation emerge. Our initial goal is to examine laws and royal decrees as well as juridical, ecclesiastical cases related to indigenous labor and tribute extraction in the Spanish empire in order to showcase how local socioeconomic realities drove royal policies to regulate labor relationships between indigenous communities and Hispanics. Beyond local and national (legal) historiographies, we focus on four geographical areas and expand the traditional temporal framework: medieval Spain, Chile, northern New Spain, and the Philippines –all frontier territories where local realities of contact between independent indigenous peoples and European settlers cast colonial institutions. From this broader perspective, we want to point out that there were no uniform policies but rather practical responses that reflected the diversity of the empire and the versatility of legislators and theorists.

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