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What is the Repartimiento System? - Definition & Significance

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

The repartimiento system was a labor policy instituted by Spanish colonists throughout Central and South America. In this lesson, learn what it was and how it influenced life locally and globally.

Colonization and the Repartimiento System

Reflecting on history, one of the most systematically unfair systems is colonization. In colonization, one country takes over land already occupied by a group of people and institutes its own government and culture. Unfair, right? The repartimiento system used by Spanish colonists throughout Central and South America took the unfair practice of colonization a step further by demanding work from the native people living in the areas where the Spanish established their colonies. As you can imagine, this robbed people of their own economic success and took away their freedom. Let's talk about the two repartimiento systems that existed and how they influenced culture locally and globally throughout Central and South America.

The First Repartimiento System

The arrival of Europeans in the Americas marked the beginning of the repartimiento system.

The first repartimiento system started in 1499, shortly after the arrival of the first Spaniards to the Americas. Initially, the repartimiento system was not an established law — rather it was a way to get the labor needed to make the colonies economically successful. In 1575, the system became the official law of the Spanish colonies. In Spanish, repartimiento means ''partition'' or ''division.'' Initially, the repartimiento system was a law that allowed Spanish colonists to take a portion of the native population to use as forced labor.

To qualify to have a repartimiento assigned to work on the land, the Spanish colonists had to justify that the additional labor was necessary to provide food or goods that were essential to survival on the colonies. Though the phrasing initially meant that it was necessary for survival of the colonists, it quickly came to have a much more broad definition. The native people subjected to this system worked on farms or in the mines. At the start of the repartimiento system, approximately five to 10 percent of the native population had to do forced labor three to four times a year for two weeks at a time (six to eight weeks annually). Over time, the repartimiento system became more and more abused by colonists, and a much higher percentage of workers were constantly used for forced labor. This led to the revision of the system in the early 17th century.

The Second Repartimiento System

In 1601 and 1609, the repartimiento system was revised by the Spanish to create a system that was, in theory, more fair to the native population. The major revisions took place in 1601 and were then slightly modified in 1609. Because the two systems are so similar, it is considered the same overall system. Under the new system, 25 percent of the population had to work as free laborers on agricultural land for colonists. The system of short-term, seasonal work was done away with, but the amount of the population subjected to forced labor was limited. Attempting to make the system seem ''fair,'' the Spanish said that laborers could choose who they worked for and the type of work they performed. This system lasted until the end of the colonial period (around 1820).

For the native workers who already worked in the mines, there were no changes to the repartimiento system until much later. The old system continued until owners of the mines purchased and transported enough slaves from Africa to replace the indigenous workers.

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