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Confronting the tribal zone: Toward a critical ethnohistory of colonial state formation in San Juan through the system of encomiendas, 1509–1520

Gabriel De La Luz-Rodriguez, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The present work tackles the problem of colonial state formation and the system of encomiendas in the island of San Juan during the first eleven years of Spanish colonization, mainly from 1509 to 1520. My contention is that the implementation of the system of encomiendas, a colonial set of servile relationships between the Spanish conquistador and the native islanders became a fundamental moment in the development of the colonial state in San Juan. The encomienda was both a form of labor exploitation linked to an intensive gold mining enterprise as well as a disciplinary apparatus designed to inculcate and thus re-educate the indigenous populations of the island according to catholic dogma and a European value system. While this institution has historical precedents in the Iberian Peninsula, it was significantly transformed during its implementation in the Caribbean. The encomienda became a transitory hybrid structure that incorporated aspects of indigenous forms of social stratification in order to function. If the state is defined broadly as more than an administrative bureaucratic apparatus, and is understood instead as a complex set of structured practices, then the encomienda can be considered both chronologically and politically a foundational base upon which the colonial state in the Spanish colonies of the Caribbean unfolded. This process was contingent upon the correlation of forces between colonizers and native polities since conquest was above all expressed through violent territorial expansion, which indigenous peoples in the island of San Juan resisted initially. My work is both a theoretical and cultural-historical reflection on this process. I have drawn my conclusions from a detailed analysis of the pertinent anthropological and historical literature, as well as from both published and unpublished primary 16th century documents.

Subject Area

Cultural anthropology

Recommended Citation

De La Luz-Rodriguez, Gabriel, "Confronting the tribal zone: Toward a critical ethnohistory of colonial state formation in San Juan through the system of encomiendas, 1509–1520" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3152686.