Forced Labor in Colonial Spanish America

33 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2021

See all articles by Leticia Arroyo Abad

Leticia Arroyo Abad

CUNY - Queens College

Noel Maurer

George Washington University

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: August 15, 2021


The Spanish colonial empire initially faced a trilemma in the New World. First, they needed to incentivize quasi-private Spanish expeditions to subdue, settle, and secure new territories. Second, they needed labor to develop the new territories and provide a stream of rents for the imperial government. Third, they needed to ensure that the Spanish colonists did not grow powerful enough to challenge imperial authority. We show how the Spanish solved this trilemma in three ways, all involving forced labor: (1) transplanting Iberian institutions; (2) repurposing existing pre-Columbian institutions; (3) importing African slaves. We present evidence that over time forced labor in Spanish America underwent an endogenous process of decay as power slowly shifted from the Spanish-American colonial elite to indigenous labor. The end result was the increasing dominance of wage labor on the American mainland, leaving most forced labor arrangement either moribund or in decay by the time the empire collapsed. The commodity boom around the circum-Caribbean combined with geographic factors explains why this process was slower there (and short-circuited entirely in the case of Cuba).

Keywords: Institutions, Labor coercion, Latin America

JEL Classification: J47, N36, O43

Suggested Citation

Arroyo Abad, Leticia and Maurer, Noel, Forced Labor in Colonial Spanish America (August 15, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Leticia Arroyo Abad (Contact Author)

CUNY - Queens College ( email )

65-30 Kissena Blvd
Flushing, NY 11367-1597
United States

Noel Maurer

George Washington University ( email )

2121 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
United States

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