When historian James Lockhart published his renown article “Encomienda and Hacienda” in 1969, the modern historiography on haciendas was already more than forty-years-old. Yet even after decades, scholars were only beginning to understand these New World estates in terms of their origins and functions as colonial institutions. Early twentieth century scholars debated the extent of legal and cultural connections between early encomienda grants and later commercial haciendas. By the late 1970s and 1980s, historians were asking more structural questions about the material conditions of hacienda life and the stratification of social groups who lived there. How was power built and projected?
One of Lockhart’s central goals in “Encomienda and Hacienda” was to show how haciendas were integral to the growth of Spanish colonial society. At the time he was writing, historians had focused on these sites as isolated, rural subjects, outside of their political, economic, and social connections to the wider colonial world. Challenging this disconnect, Lockhart argued that haciendas were actually key mediators in a larger system that included what he called the Spanish city and Indian Village.(Lockhart 1969:429) In this system, haciendas represented a “vital center” whose function “was to mediate between city and country, to carry back and forth supplies, people, and ideas that were vital to the growth of Spanish American civilization.”
For Lockhart, earlier historians’ inability to see these larger connections stemmed from confusion about the shared origins of haciendas and encomiendas in the great estates of Iberian Spanish culture (411). In the early twentieth century, historians had assumed encomiendas gradually gave rise to haciendas as labor grants became confused with land rights. Then in the post-War period, historians using legislative and political sources demonstrated that encomiendas were legally separate entities that did not confer property rights on encomenderos.
This shifted the debate and the separation between the two institutions was the accepted explanation until scholars like Lockhart began to expand their sources to include notarial records and new types of documents from local archives. In this respect, Lockhart was a pioneer. Citing key figures in this movement, including Silvio Zavala’s work on Guatemala, Jean Borde and Mario Góngora’s work on Chile, and his work on Spanish Peru, he claimed encomenderos often requested and received land grants [mercedes] in areas near their tributary communities (413–414).
While Lockhart notes that more evidence is needed before drawing further conclusions, he argues that encomiendas and haciendas served the same social and economic roles of mediators between Spanish and Indian societies. They functioned as commercial units operated by elites for personal profit and prestige. And both institutions shared similar labor systems and power distributions in their daily operations.
Interestingly, Lockhart says that by viewing the two institutions together, new explanations for the decline of the encomienda can also be seen (428). Instead of focusing on the Crown or Church as the prime movers in the collapse of the encomiendas, Lockhart argues that the rapid decline of indigenous populations and the greater market needs of the growing Spanish populace doomed a system that was based on extracting tribute from dying indigenous communities. In its wake, the hacienda system, geared toward the production of soft commodities for local and regional markets, gradually replaced the encomienda as the great mediator between Spanish and indigenous societies in the colonial world.
By N. H. Gill
Chapel Hill, 2018