The Political, Encomienda System, and Social Processes of Empire Building in the Spanish Empire

Categories: Sociology

The time period of 1450-1800 proved to be a time of great reform in Europe, which mainly had to do with the enlargement of developing empires. Russia had just been liberated from Tartar control under Ivan III, and Spain had just begun its development as a maritime empire by discovering and colonizing the New World. Major changes were going on in the two countries, and it was as if they were starting from scratch Both empires had a centralized government; however, Russia focused on expansion over land while the Spanish Empire focused on colonizing overseas.

Also, this time period gave rise to serfdom in Russia, while the Spanish had established the encomienda system in the New World Although the two labor systems had different interest when it came to production, the way that they both worked was very similar.

It is important to remember that although both empires were constantly expanding in this time period, Russia‘s main focus was on Westernization, while the Spanish crown was more concerned with colonization.

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In both Russia and Spain, they had a government system with one person who was in control. Russia‘s liberator from Mongol control, lvan III began the practice of calling this leader the tsar. Although the tsar had a great deal of power, serfdom in Russia gave the nobles a lot of control as well. As time went on the czars continued to support serfdom, giving the lords even more control over their serfs. However, in Spain, they had a specific bureaucratic system.

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The king ruled with a great deal of help from the Council of the Indies. There was a very distinct chain of command that was appointed by the king/queen, such as viceroyalties and audiencias who helped upkeep the vast empire.

The reason for the organization in the Spanish bureaucracy was that they needed an effective government system that would thrive even though it was miles away from the actual heart of the empire The Russian serfdom wasn’t as complicated because their form of government was just enough for them to have a functioning society. The lack of a merchant/middle class due to the serfdom system resulted in a less organized government, The Russian serfdom might have been an effective way of ruling the empire, but nevertheless, it was still an outdated and abandoned system from Western Europe. The two economies of these two empires differed mainly because of the geography and the systems of labor. Spain had installed the encomienda system in the New World, which gave grants of indigenous peoples to the Spaniards. Similarly, the Russian serfdom also included grants being given out to the nobility, however they received grants of land instead of grants of people.

The reason for this difference is because in the Americas there was a great deal of unclaimed land, but they needed the labor in order to work the land. In Russia however, many peasants had huge amounts of debt, so they had no choice but to turn to serfdom. Both economies also had similar focuses, which were agriculture and mining, However, one important difference to note was that the Spanish colonies were only allowed to send their goods to Spain, but the Russian empire was involved in active trade with Western Europe. Russia started off with a weaker role in the world economy than Spain because of how long they were under Mongol rule, but with time their economy was strengthened.

In the Russian and Spanish empires, the social structures were very alike when it came to the upper classes, but the lower classes were completely different. For the Russian empire the tsar was on top and for the Spanish empire the monarch was in charge, followed by the bureaucrats, priests, nobles and peasants. In Russia the urban poor and the serfs were at the bottom of the pyramid, but the Spanish had an entirely separate social pyramidr Because Spain had expanded to the Americas, race and place of birth played a crucial role known as the sociedad de castas. In this system, the whites and Europeans born in Spain, also known as peninsulares, were ranked highest in society. Then came the creoles that were the people of Spanish decent who were born in the Americas. Next were the mestizos (European mixed with Native American) and the mulattos (European mixed with black), and both peoples were considered on the same level.

Equally sharing the bottom position were the slaves and the Native Americans, This social structure that was established in the Americas was very confusing and had a lot of flexibility. The people of mixed descent were called the castas, and they were able to strive as shopkeepers and small farmers. In Russia the situation was different because they had no middle class and they mostly had to deal with their own people. The lack of a middle class due to the serfdom system resulted in a situation where social mobility was very difficult. There were even laws passed that made it illegal for someone born into serfdom to change their social class. Although Spain tried to place restrictions in the colonies, social mobility was very easy due the large amount of mixed peoples.

The upper classes were similar in both empires however, once you take into account the forced labor systems, the social pyramids change drastically. Expansion, whether it was land or maritime based, greatly changed the Russian and Spanish Empires. It is easy to acquire new lands, but creating an effective government and a substantial economy is crucial to success. An interesting characteristic of the Russian serfdom was that as time passed, the status of serfs in Russian society was slowly downgraded to a point where they could be considered slaves because the lords kept becoming more and more powerful.

This is strange in the aspect that it was as if the Russians were enslaving their own people. In the Americas however, the encomienda system was abolished because of ethical issues concerning the treatment of Native Americans. Not only did the priests sympathize with them, but also the Spanish crown was afraid of the increasing power that the grants of people were giving to the nobles This is what led to growing interest in the slave trade in the Spanish colonies. The Spanish and Russian empires weren’t perfect; nevertheless, their similarities and differences in the building of their empires is what gave them both the ability to become worldly power.

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The Political, Encomienda System, and Social Processes of Empire Building in the Spanish Empire. (2023, May 08). Retrieved from

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