Spanish Colonial Rule

Spanish Colonial Rule


According to Spanish law, Ecuador and the rest of Spain’s colonies were the personal property of the monarch. Thus, every law and deed in the colonies was carried out in the name of the king. In Spain, on the king’s behalf, the Council of the Indies conceived all the laws that regulated life in the colonies and the House of Trade governed all trade and commerce between Spain and the colonies. In the colonies, the viceroyalty, audiencias and municipal councils administered law and trade.

Ecuador was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru from 1544 until 1720, when it joined the newly created Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. In 1563, however, Quito became a royal audiencia of Spain, thus, permitting it to deal directly with Madrid on certain matters instead of going through the Viceroyalty in Lima. The name Quito Audencia is misleading because it gives one the idea that the territory under the jurisdiction of Quito was comparable to the limits of the city of Quito today. In truth, the territory of the Quito Audencia greatly exceeded that of present-day Ecuador, encompassing the north of present-day Peru, the city of Cali in the south of present-day Colombia, and much of the Amazon River Basin east of present-day Ecuador. Quito also served as the most important municipal council within the area comprising modern-day Ecuador and as such was responsible for, among other things, the maintenance of public order.

Disease and Suffering

The mere arrival of the Spaniards spelled death for much of Ecuador’s Indian population, as European diseases imported by the conquistadors ravaged the Inca and indigenous populace. In addition to being decimated by foreign diseases, throughout the sixteenth century the Inca and indigenous tribes endured the constant looting and pillaging of the foreign invaders. The Indigenous that survived the initial onslaught of disease and violence brought by the Conquistadors, were later subjected to christianization and the introduction of unfamiliar Spanish colonial law.

Forced Labor

Along with the new system of law came a system of forced labor called the encomienda . Under the encomienda system, Spanish settlers were granted tracks of land and anything, including inhabitants and resources that the land contained. In exchange for the land, the settler took responsibility for defending the territory, collecting taxes from and christianizing its Indian population.

A number of well-intentioned laws, the first of which was the New Law proclaimed in 1542, theoretically abrogated encomiendas. However, despite this and the many other laws and decrees that would follow, forced labor continued throughout most of the Spanish Colonial Era. It is estimated that about half of the total Ecuadorian population lived and worked on encomiendas while the Spanish ruled Ecuador.

Though less common, in addition to the encomiendas, Indian labor was exploited through the mita, a practice that required all Indians to spend one year laboring for a “Spanish concern”, such as constructing churches and public buildings, or working in mills. Employers paid mitayos for their labor, though the amount was minuscule and frequently amounted to less than the debts the workers accumulated through purchases they made from their employers. A mitayo had to continue working after his assigned period of service if his debts were not paid off. In this way, the mita system disintegrated into a form of slavery.

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