Decline of the Mining Economy

After the death of King Ferdinand in 1516, Cardinal Cisnero became the regent of the Spanish Crown due to princess Joanna's illness, until Charles I's coming of age. The Cardinal sent a mission of the order of the Hieronymites as the new Governors of the Indies, with powers to enforce the Laws of Burgos and resolve the indigenous problem.

The Cardinal's orders would establish three options for the solution:

  1. liberate and unify the indigenous people in their villages, governed by their caciques and required to pay a tribute with which they would repay their encomenderos
  2. form new indigenous settlements, distributing the land by family and dividing the authority between a Spaniard, a priest and a cacique
  3. if the first two options didn't work, the Hieronymites must demand that the indigenous people were treated a good as possible, making the encomenderos abide by the laws of 1513.

Since their arrival, the three religious found a great resistance from the encomenderos to any of the three options; also, the act of canceling the encomiendas right away represented the demise of the colony, provoking a total exodus of Spaniards to richer zones, situation that had been happening since the last distribution of 1514.

The Hieronymites were not able to achieve much; they gave the indigenous people to the encomenderos who kept them under a foreman or miner, then they tried to establish 25 indigenous villages , of which only a few functioned due to the fact that the indigenous people were already dispersed and living in these towns represented an organizational scheme very different from their tribal order, which although plummeting, was what they were desperately trying to cling to. In the middle of these new options, a small pox epidemic ravaged Hispaniola in 1518, reducing the small indigenous population to less than 4,000.

To the Dominicans, specially to Bartholomew de Las Casa, and some colonial functionaries, as well as the Hieronymites, the introduction of another slave labor force could solve a large part of the problem, since the encomenderos demanded the labor force and the situation had reached the limit that Cordoba described, “sino hubiesen muerto, aunque no sacara cada uno en un año sino un castellano, que pudiera sacar en cuatro días para S.A., cuantos mil castellanos de renta tuviera destas partes, que no tiene... e si tuviera mejor poblada la tierra que no hecha desierto, como agora esta, que andan por ella sesenta leguas que no topan una persona a quien saludar”.29

Although occasionally the Jeronimos and later Governors liberated a certain amount of natives, the indigenous encomienda was not abolished until 28 years later, reason why the Antillean indigenous that were left little by little disappeared, whether caused by illness or hunger, due to mixture with whites and blacks, latest ethnic group that had being introduced slowly since Ovando's times and were finally imported in large scale towards the end second decade.

The exploitation of the mines could not continue at the same pace due to the decline of the free labor force, the lack of more sophisticated techniques to open tunnels and exploit the deep deposits, and the consistent need for a layer monetary investment. Many Spaniards continued emigrating to the main land, mainly Mexico and Peru, that, at this time, offered better opportunity for riches.

The Crown and the small colonial elite that remained in the island tried to reorient the economy searching for new exploitable resources other than mining. Many of the gains obtained with the encomiendas system were invested in the construction of sugar mills, whose product sold at excellent prices in Europe. Cañafistola (golden rain tree), which was used in Erurope as a purgative medicine, was planted extensively, and the systematic importation of Negroes begun, labor force vital to the new agriculture – cattle ranching system that was taking over and would constitute a true source of riches in Hispaniola during the following decades.