The use of highly trained, strong and aggressive Dog breeds like the bloodhounds and Dogo Cubano aka ‘Negro Dog’ to track, attack, and capture runaway slaves was a common practice in America during the slavery era. These dogs were bred specifically for this purpose, and their viciousness was celebrated by their owners.
Runaway slaves were usually difficult to track and dangerous to approach and capture. As a solution, plantation owners began breeding aggressive dogs specifically for the purpose of tracking, attacking, and capturing runaway slaves.
In some instances, slave owners allowed these dogs to brutally attack captured runaway slaves, intending to teach them and others contemplating escaping a lesson. However, they would quickly intervene to prevent the dog from killing the slave.
One notorious breed was the Dogo Cubano, also known as the Mastin Cubano, Cuban Mastiff, or Mastin de Cuba. It was produced by crossing a Spanish war dog with an English mastiff and a scent hound, resulting in a dog that was sized between a bulldog and a mastiff.
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.”
These Dog 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.
The presence of these dogs transformed the slave-catching trade in the region where they were introduced, as their popularity and reputation grew rapidly, leading to the professionalization of specialized dog handlers, as had occurred in Cuba. slave hunters advertised in newspapers, touting their possession of the “Finest dogs for catching negroes” in their areas.
The training of “Negro attack dogs” entailed imparting them with the scent of a Black person’s shoe or clothing, after which they were trained to track that scent. Once the slave was caught, the dogs were rewarded with meat.
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 of his 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).
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’.
One strategy 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.
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.
The use of Negro dogs continued throughout the Civil War and was used by both the Union and Confederate armies. In the South, Negro dogs were used to track down escaped Union soldiers, as well as runaway slaves who had joined the Union army. In the North, Negro dogs were used to track down Confederate soldiers and spies.
Today, the legacy of these dogs serves as a reminder of the brutality of slavery and the resilience of those who fought against it.