Negro Dogs: How Vicious Dogs Were Used To Track, Attack, And Capture Runaway Slaves

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A very popular slavery approach involved in the control and domination of African slaves was the use of highly trained, strong and aggressive Dog breeds like the bloodhounds and Dogo Cubano aka ‘Negro Dog’ which could tear a man to pieces, to track runaway slaves.

Negro Dogs: How Vicious Dogs Were Used To Track, Attack, And Capture Runaway Slaves
Image © Wikipedia

Runaway slaves were usually difficult to track and dangerous to approach and capture. Plantation owners later found a solution: breeding vicious dogs solely to track, attack, and capture runaway slaves.

Slavers often allowed the dogs to viciously maul captured runaway slaves to teach them and others a lesson. However, they quickly subdued the dog before it killed the slave.

One infamous Negro dog was the Dogo Cubano (aka the Mastin Cubano, Cuban Mastiff, or Mastin de Cuba). The dog was bred by crossing a Spanish war dog with the English mastiff and scent hound.

They were between a bulldog and a mastiff in size. The muzzle was short, broad, and abruptly truncated. The head was broad and flat, and the lips, deeply pendulous. The medium-sized ears, were also partly pendulous, the tail rather short, cylindrical, and turned upwards and forwards towards the tip.

They were described as a “rusty wolf-colour”, with black face , lips, and legs. They were fierce, vicious, and fearsome beasts. If the dogs were not constrained at the end of the chase, they would tear a man to pieces (Franklin, Runaway Slaves, p160).

It is not known when the dog was considered a specific breed, but by 1803 it was described by Robert Dallas as follows:

“The animal is the size of a very large hound, with ears erect, which are usually cropped at the points; the nose more pointed, but widening very much towards the after-part of the jaw. His coat, or skin, is much harder than that of most dogs, and so must be the whole structure of the body, as the severe beatings he undergoes in training would kill any other species of dog.”

The animal was engineered to catch runaway slaves, although it also guarded livestock and engaged in dogfighting.

The Cuban mastiff, was an ideal fighter and property guardian.

Negro Dogs: How Vicious Dogs Were Used To Track, Attack, And Capture Runaway Slaves
Image ©Wikipedia

They were used as slave retrievers by the British during the Second Maroon War, by the French during the Saint-Domingue expedition, as well as the Americans in the Southern States.

The British Governor of Jamaica, Alexander Lindsay, 6th Earl of Balcarres, sent emissaries to Havana in early 1795, to purchase 100 of them, after hearing of their successful use by the Spanish in chasing runaways slaves and indigenous people in Cuba.

The importation of these dogs changed the business of slave catching in the region they were present in, as their deployment and reputation grew rapidly throughout the land and, as in Cuba, specialized dog handlers became professionalized. Newspapers advertised slave hunters who claimed to possess the ‘Finest dogs for catching negroes’ in their areas.

The training of “Negro attack dogs” involved the use of live black slaves. The dogs were locked up and “never allowed to see a negro except while training to catch him.”

Dogs were given the scent of a Black person’s shoe or piece of clothing and taught to follow the scent. Slaves were sent out as trainees. When the dogs caught the slave, the dogs were given meat as a reward.

In one story, Uncle Isom, a very strong runaway slave, caught the leading hound and then beat the rest of the dogs. However, upon being overpowered by the White slave catchers, the dogs were allowed to bite off some the victim’s body parts including his ear. When returned to the plantation, Uncle Isom was given 300 lashes (Till Freedom Cried Out: Memories of Texas Slave Life – edited by T. Lindsay Baker, Julie Philips Baker).

Negro Dogs: How Vicious Dogs Were Used To Hunt Runaway Slaves
Image © Academic.oup.com

A Cuban ex-slave and abolitionist Juan Francisco Manzano also recounted surviving an attack, saying, ‘Scarcely had I run a mile … when two dogs that were following us, fell upon me; one taking hold of the left side of my face pierced it through, and the other lacerated my left thigh and leg … which wounds are open yet’.

Runaways sometimes succeeded by counter-attacking the dogs themselves; in the 1830s an attack on some Cuban slaves resulted in the complete loss of a dog pack.

One strategy Cuban runaways adopted in putting the Dogs off their trails was to strip off all their clothing when the dogs approached so that they would find only the clothes and be unable to track the naked fugitive. Slaves in the American South also used Similar strategies to resist the Dogs.

Other strategies adopted by runaways include, rubbing red pepper on their heels knowing it ‘would go up the dogs’ nose so that they could not track them, rubbing onions on their body, sprinkling ‘tuppentine’ or a particular kind of mud on their feet, water was also a useful element for confusing the hounds’ sensory powers.

Unsurprisingly, the dog went extinct after slavery was abolished in Cuba.

The lash and shackles remain the major symbols of physical degradation fixed in historical memory on slavery. Yet, as recounted by many witnesses, including slaves themselves, the dog was perhaps a more effective tool for managing labour or even inflicting horrific pain or death on those who defied their masters’ commands.

Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora


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