Friday, October 28, 2022

From the Battle of Vega Real to Birmingham: The Lasting Legacy of the Dogs of Columbus

John J. Ensminger (2022). From hunters to hell hounds: the dogs of Columbus and transformations of the human-canine relationship in the early Spanish Caribbean.  Colonial Latin American Review, vol.31(3), 354-380. [open access]

The use of dogs against Indigenous Americans began with Columbus, a technology of repression that was refined by subsequent conquistadors in the Caribbean and on the Spanish main. The French and English bought dogs from Spanish breeders in the Caribbean to control Indigenous and slave populations and Benjamin Franklin suggested that “the Spanish Method” of deploying dogs would be useful in the French and Indian War (Franklin correspondence, November 2, 1755). Franklin later recommended the use of dogs against “our Savage Enemies” who were attacking troops and settlements in Pennsylvania (June 4, 1764).

Thirty-three “bloodhounds” were imported from Cuba, accompanied by “six Spaniards, their trainers and keepers,” for use in the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). These dogs, though generally referred to as “bloodhounds,” clearly did not conform to the modern breed standard:

In their build, and general make of body, they resemble the greyhound, being deep in the chest, rather gaunt, high in the couplo, with well-turned quarters, and beautiful limbs and fine sinews—showing by their general contour, much agility. The neck is not as slender as that of the greyhound—the head is like a cross of the mastiff and cur—tall slim and handsome—hair close and short. The ear is small and sets up, with the tips falling down. Their action is fine, and altogether their appearance rather proud and fierce. (Army and Navy Chronicle, p. 173, 1840)

It is to be noted that three and a half centuries after Columbus brought dogs to the New World, dogs purchased from Spanish breeders in Cuba continued to be described as having some characteristics of greyhounds. Cuban dogs also pursued runaway slaves before and during the Civil War in the Confederacy (Childs 2006). Emancipation ended slavery but it did not end the use of dogs as instruments of racial repression, as evidenced by events in Selma and Birmingham in 1963, a practice that has continued into the twenty-first century (Spruill 2016).

Can This Vicious Canine History Be Laid at the Feet of Columbus? 

Did Columbus bring dogs to the New World in 1493 with repression of the Tainos in mind?  John and Jeannette Varner, in Dogs of the Conquest (1983) preferred to lay the blame for repressive use Columbus made of the dogs he brought on the second voyage not upon Columbus himself but rather on Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, the cleric given the responsibility of provisioning the voyage: 

In the Indies, Columbus had found a kind of Eden whose natives seemed to bend willingly to Spanish domination. Thus he, in all probability, did not contemplate bringing dogs with him even on his second voyage. The supplies and equipment of the fleet, however, were left by the sovereigns to the discretion of their personal chaplain, the shrewd archdeacon of Seville, Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca. This prelate's perception of the true purpose of the venture and his knowledge of the Spanish character made him keenly aware that the Renaissance crusaders would find dogs indispensable in a pagan world.

… Such profits as the Crown expected, [Fonseca] knew, would have to be obtained eventually by means of enforced labor and human bondage; he surmised that, though the Indians might be as pacific as Columbus had described them, they would not adjust to manual labor without coercion. In consequence, he made certain that when Columbus’s splendid fleet sailed in September,1493, it was adequately equipped with men, arms, and a pack of twenty purebred mastiffs and greyhounds. (Varners, p. 4)

The Varners thus suggest that Fonseca realized that Columbus was wrong about the passivity of the Tainos he had encountered and that “in all probability” they would inevitably become bellicose, at least if they were compelled to do anything against their will. As a result, he provisioned the ships with mastiffs and greyhounds (p. 4). Later, in describing the Battle of Vega Real, the Varners state (p. 8) that “twenty mastiffs” were released upon the Tainos. Thus, Fonseca’s foresight allowed Columbus to suppress a revolt that began during his second voyage. Columbus should thank his stars that he had the brilliant cleric looking out for him.

There are difficulties with the arguments of the Varners about why, how many, and what kind of dogs were brought to Hispaniola in 1493. The documentation of the voyage does not include detailed provisioning lists, though subsequent voyages to the Caribbean often do. There is correspondence regarding certain items carried on the ships, which mentions animals, including horses (some of which were mares), mules, pigs, calves, goats, cows, and sheep, all of which could be bred on Hispaniola.

As Antonio Tejera Gaspar (2000, p. 122) has argued, the absence of provisioning lists and correspondence mentioning dogs means that one must work backwards from accounts of the Battle of Vega Real to make suppositions about what dogs and how many were brought on the voyage. Since the descriptions of the battle say that there were twenty dogs at Vega Real, the Varners suppose that there were twenty dogs on the ships (though as noted they describe the ships as carrying twenty mastiffs and greyhounds and the battle as involving twenty mastiffs).  

What about breeding the dogs in Hispaniola?  The voyage left Spain in September 1493 and the Battle of Vega Real took place in March 1495.  That is conceivably sufficient time for dogs bred on the island to be available for the battle, though they would have been young.  Also, just because twenty dogs were used at the battle, it does not mean that this must be the number of dogs on the ships as the Varners and others assume.  Dogs could have been brought to guard livestock that would have had nothing to do with the dogs that were used militarily by Columbus.

Most of the early accounts also describe the dogs Columbus deployed at Vega Real as lebreles, greyhounds, or swift hounds. No early accounts designate them as mastines, mastiffs. Yet because the Varners believed the purpose of bringing the dogs was to coerce unwilling Tainos, they have opted to alter the historical evidence, based significantly on images made much later of dogs in the early Spanish conquest which seem to depict mastiffs, and thus assert that either many or all of the dogs at Vega Real were mastiffs. They dismiss the explicit designation of the dogs as lebreles by Bartolomé de las Casas, whose description of the dogs at Vega Real is the most detailed we have. Herrera y Tordesillas described the dogs as lebreles de presa

Figure 1. Lebrel attacking Moor during Reconquista, Tower of Hercules, Segovia (Courtesy Dr. Gómez de Caso Estrada).

The Varners get around explicit designations of the dogs being lebreles by arguing that references to breeds by writers of the early Spanish period in the New World were often imprecise. Yet there is considerable evidence to the contrary, that many of those writers were both precise and accurate in their references to specific breeds both in the time of Columbus and afterwards.  It is also to be noted that the variation in appearance had a wider range five hundred years ago than it does under modern breed standards for the greyhound.  The massive dog depicted in the famous “dogging” manuscript, which shows a very large dog executing an Aztec, has been labeled as a lebrel by Carlos Carrillo Rodríguez (thesis, p. 482), and he may be correct.

An Alternative Theory

I believe that the Varners are inaccurate both as to the reason dogs were brought on the second voyage and as to the type of dogs that were on the voyage and used at Vega Real. The central argument of my paper, which I will only briefly summarize here, is that the dogs that Columbus brought on the second voyage were primarily or exclusively large greyhounds, lebreles, and that the main reason they were brought was to hunt game.

On his first voyage, Columbus had seen the large rodents called hutias that were a principal source of meat for the Tainos and for which the Spanish would need to develop a taste if they were to allow herds brought from Spain on the second voyage to become self-sustaining.  The dogs were, however, generalists that could also help guard the Spaniards and, like many hunting dogs in late medieval Spain, could be used against men if necessary. As Gervase Phillips (2021) argues, most dogs associated with medieval armies were dogs in war, not dogs of war, and that was likely true here. There is no reason why such dogs had to be mastiffs, as the Varners assume, as the moving and slashing skills of large greyhounds were extremely effective in fighting men as well as in bringing down game.

By April 1495, Fonseca had realized the importance of additional military diversity in the dogs being sent to the Caribbean, and mastiffs and alanos, alaunts, were included in the provisioning orders of a relief expedition that departed Spain in April 1495, a month after Vega Real. The provisioning orders for this expedition cannot be used to explain what types of dogs were sent two years earlier in 1493.

Critics of the Varners

The widespread acceptance of the Varners’ description of the dogs of Vega Real is something of a surprise, given that reviewers of Dogs of the Conquest following its publication in 1983 were often at pains to urge caution in taking the book at face value. John Fisher of the University of Liverpool, in the Journal of Latin American Studies (May 1985, vol. 17(1), 262-63), described the Varners as employing an “uncritical, anecdotal approach” that gave the impression of being a “work of enthusiastic amateurs rather than professional historians….”  W. George Lovell, of Queens University, Ontario, reviewing the book in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers (June 1985, vol. 75(2), 287-88), acknowledged that the Varners’ bibliography is “certainly substantive,” but then notes that some references, specifically mentioning Bartolomé de las Casas, “are used uncritically.” Donald Chipman of North Texas State University, reviewing the book for Arizona and the West (Summer 1984, vol. 26(2), 184-85) wondered if the publisher had sent the manuscript to outside reviewers.  

Harwood P. Hinton of the University of Arizona, in The Historian (August 1986, vol. 48(4), 620), was more positive in stating that scholars “may depreciate the work, but they cannot ignore it.” That has certainly been true, and it continues to be cited, often to the exclusion of such footnotes as subsequent scholarship concerning periods, battles, and individuals, might provide. Amy Turner Bushnell, writing in the Florida Historical Quarterly (July 1984, vol. 63(1), 99-101), notes that the book “contains virtually nothing about the breeding of the animals [or] their training,” and that a “balanced book on the dogs of the conquest is still to be written.” 

Elizabeth Reitz of the University of Georgia in American Antiquity (July 1985, vol. 50(3), 710-711) says the Varners “accepted as accurate all of the Spanish accounts.” With this I disagree. In their description of the Battle of Vega Real, as argued above and in more detail in my paper, the Varners dismissed significant aspects of the descriptions of the battle by Bartolomé de las Casas, who arrived in Hispaniola in 1502 and had spoken to men and probably seen some of the dogs who had been at Vega Real.

Where Did Columbus Find the Dogs?

My paper is not concerned solely with criticizing the perspectives of the Varners on the types of dogs Columbus brought. There is the question of where the dogs came from in Europe. The Varners seem to prefer a connection to the use of dogs against the Moors during the Reconquista, and they may be right. There are, however, relatively few accounts that mention use of dogs against the Moors.  When I began researching the dogs of Columbus, I sent emails to eminent historians of the Reconquista asking where I could find mention of dogs being used against the Moors (which most of them did not mention at all in their works beyond a few footnote references). The responses I got were all to the effect that if dogs were used, there were only a few times this was recorded, which probably involved individual soldiers who traveled with their own dogs, not entire an entire unit as happened at Vega Real.  

Figure 2. La Venerie de Iaques du Fouilloux (1562), imagining the Trojans arriving in Italy with their hunting dogs after the destruction of Troy, but likely showing sixteenth century transport of dogs. Some dogs are leashed.

At least two other possible sources for the dogs must receive mention, the Canaries and Corsica.  The Varners refer to Pedro de Vera using dogs in subjugating the Guanches (Dogs of the Conquest, p. xv). Dogs, particularly lebreles, may have been on the islands for a long time and there may have been breeding operations there. Antonio Tejera Gaspar (2000) considers this the most likely place from which dogs were brought aboard the ships, and he also may be right. It would explain why dogs are not described in provisioning correspondence but did arrive in Hispaniola.  Finally, there is the possibility that the dogs and handlers could have been Corsican. Although not mentioned by the Varners, this possibility was rather popular at the end of the nineteenth century and cannot be summarily dismissed. 

A Map of Where Columbus Recorded Native Dogs and Used European Dogs Militarily 

Columbus and participants in his voyages left many accounts of the dogs living with the Indigenous groups they encountered. These locations are marked by the yellow hexagons on the map. Nor was Vega Real the only encounter with the Indigenous where Columbus used dogs militarily against Tainos and other Indigenous populations.  Other instances are marked by stars, one on the fourth voyage in 1503 when Columbus sailed the coast of Central America. Another incident in 1503, which is mentioned in my paper, occurred on the island of Saona, off the southern coast of Hispaniola, but did not involve Columbus.  

Figure 3. Dogs in the voyages of Columbus from 1492 to 1504. © John Ensminger

Changes in the Behavior of Dogs and Men

The article I had originally submitted to the Colonial Latin American Review focused largely on the narrow question of what types of dogs were used at Vega Real, and why the arguments of the Varners were flawed. The anonymous reviewers and Kris Lane, editor of the journal at the time of the review and acceptance, wisely pushed me to extend my perspective to consider how both the dogs and their handlers changed as the dogs evolved from being hunters to being war dogs, and from being war dogs to being executioners by dogging, aperreamiento. The latter transition may have begun under Columbus but certainly describes the use of dogs in executions under Cortes in Mexico.

In any case, it was not long before the dogs that were being bred for the occupying Spanish became so aggressive that most hunters would not consider employing them just to catch game. The advantage to be obtained for increasing the aggression of imported dogs was, however, turned upon the Spanish themselves as feral populations of primarily European dogs began attacking the Spanish, who could no longer travel on some islands except in groups with weapons and armor. Professional hunters were soon receiving bounties for capturing and eradicating these dangerous animals.

Unfortunately, this evolution of canine aggression was passed from the Spanish to the French and English and then to the Americans. The laboratory that early Spanish America provided for the increase in aggression among dogs and men became a foundation for racial repression in the United States, with vestiges continuing to this day. While Columbus played a part in this social and behavioral evolution, he did not initially sail to the new world with the intention of controlling the Tainos by creating a Spanish terror imposed by dogs.


Carrillo Rodríguez, Carlos Alfredo (2010). Chichitlalhuiliztli: estudio, análisis y catalogación del manuscritodel aperreamiento, escritura mesoamericana náhuatl. Doctoral dissertation, National School of Anthropology and History, Mexico City. 

Childs, Matt D. (2006). The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cubaand the Struggle Against Atlantic Slavery. University of North Carolina Press.   

Homans, B. (ed.) (1839). Army and Navy Chronicle, vol. 9.

Phillips, Gervase. 2021. The employment of war dogs in themedieval and early modern West. British Journal for Military History, 7(1), 2-20.

Spruill, Larry H. (2016). Slave Patrols, ‘Packs of NegroDogs’ and Policing Black Communities. Phylon, 53(1), 42-66.

Tejera Gaspar, Antonio. 2000. Los cuatro viajes de Colón y las Islas Canarias, 1492–1502. Gomera [Canary Islands]: Cabildo de La Gomera.

Varner, John G., and Jeannette J. Varner. 1983. Dogs of the Conquest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.    

Thanks to L.E. Papet for comments and suggestions.