Dogs of the Conquistadors

The Spaniards began using dogs at least by the 1260s, as King Jaume I of Aragon-Catalonia supplied guard dogs to garrisons of regional castles.

When Christopher Columbus returned to the New World in 1493, Don Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca, in charge of supplying the expedition, included 20 mastiffs and greyhounds as weapons. The Spanish destroyed the Guanches of the Canary Islands by use of war dogs. Later the dogs fought the Moors. The mastiffs, which could weigh as much as 250 pounds and stand three feet high at the shoulder, were brute attackers, while the greyhounds were speedy and made lightning-quick strikes, often trying to disembowel their opponent. In May 1494 the Jamaican natives did not look friendly, so Columbus ordered an attack. One war dog caused absolute terror, so Columbus in his journal wrote that one dog was worth 10 soldiers against Indians. During the Haiti campaign, opposed by a huge native force, all 20 dogs fought at the Battle of Vega Real in March 1495. Alonso de Ojeda, who had fought with them against the Moors, commanded the dogs. He released the dogs shouting, “Tomalos!” (basically, “Sic ’em!”). An observer said that in one hour, each dog had torn apart at least a hundred natives. The island was taken largely by terror of the dogs. Later conquistadores including Ponce de Leon, Balboa, Velasquez, Cortes, De Soto, Toledo, Coronado, and Pizarro all used war dogs.

Some Spaniards started a cruel practice called “la monteria infernal” (“the hellish hunting”) or “dogging,” setting the dogs on the chiefs or other important people in tribes. When their leaders were torn to shreds, the tribes often surrendered. To increase the ferocity of attacks, some conquistadores fed the dogs on the flesh of natives. One Portuguese fellow “had the quarters of Indians hanging on a porch to feed his dogs with.” The dog Amigo helped in the conquest of Mexico. Bruto, belonging to Hernando de Soto, assisted in the conquest of Florida. When Bruto died, the Spaniards kept it secret, because the natives feared him so much.

A dog named Mohama gained a soldier’s share of the booty for fighting courageously at Granada. Perhaps recognizing the Spanish love for war dogs, in 1518, King Henry VIII of England sent 400 war mastiffs “garnished with good yron collers” (spiked collars) to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain. Apparently one of Charles’s foes heard of this acquisition and started collecting war dogs of his own. At the siege of Valencia, the iron-clad mastiffs sent the newly trained French dogs fleeing with their tails between their legs.

The Spanish sent war dogs to their New World campaigns to help conquer much of South and Central America. Just as the invaders’ horses terrified the natives, so did the dogs, because the likes of these creatures had never been seen. The Aztec king, Montezuma, was told that the Spanish dogs were huge, “spotted like ocelots, with ears doubled over, great hanging jowls, blazing yellow eyes, gaunt stomachs, and flanks with ribs showing.” They “went about panting, tongues hanging out. Their barks astounded the Mexicans since, though they had their little dogs, they did not bark; they merely yowled.” A mastiff belonging to Francisco de Lugo barked most of the night, causing the local people to ask if the beast was a lion. They were told that the dogs would kill anyone who annoyed the Spaniards. The dogs often preceded the horsemen in column, panting with “foam dripping from their mouths.”

A German explorer accompanied the Spaniards to Colombia and saw a brigade of mastiffs used to scout out ambushes by the Chibchas Indians. These animals wore quilted armor to protect them from arrows, and they learned to kill the natives by tearing out their throats. The Indians were terrified of these dogs.

An account in 1553 says Pizarro’s dogs were “so fierce that in two bites with their cruel teeth they laid open their victims to the entrails.”

The dogs the Spaniards brought were mostly war dogs. These dogs were strong and ferocious, accompanying their owners in battles. They were usually wearing armor to protect them from enemies and were incredibly valued.

The Spaniards depended so much on their war dogs that they trained them to kill. They often had them fast days before a battle to make them more lethal against their enemies. They were also used as a method of torture against Americans.

The Aztec natives were familiar with certain breeds of dogs, but they were generally small and harmless species, without much fur. The species known by these natives were an antecedent of the modern chihuahua and the Xoloitzcuintle. These dogs were raised as pets and also as food and source of protein.

Unlike these more timid endogenous breeds, European dogs were large and aggressive. The Aztecs had dogs. They were small, hairless, timid creatures, related to the modern Chihuahua, which were reared not as pets but as a food source. Accordingly when the Aztecs first met the Spanish war dogs – wolfhounds, greyhounds, lurchers, pit bulls and gigantic mastiffs similar to modern Rottweilers, they had absolutely no idea what they were dealing with. Indeed they did not think these animals were dogs at all. They thought they might be some species of dragon – an impression compounded by the fact that the Spanish dogs were armored in chainmail and steel plate like their masters and were thus almost invulnerable to stone weapons. Fasted before battle so they were in a state of voracious, slavering hunger, trained to fight and kill with the utmost ferocity, these terrifying animals already relished human flesh having been used repeatedly in acts of genocide against the Indians of Hispaniola and Cuba. Unleashed in snarling, baying packs, their tongues lolling, drool dripping from their fangs and sparks of fire seeming – in the imagination of the victims – to flash from their eyes, they tore into the Aztec front lines with devastating effect, disemboweling men, ripping out their throats, feasting on their soft, unarmored bodies. “They have flat ears and are spotted like ocelots,” reported one Aztec eyewitness of the Spanish war dogs. “They have great dragging jowls and fangs like daggers and blazing eyes of burning yellow that flash fire and shoot off sparks. Their bellies are gaunt, their flanks long and lean with the ribs showing. They are tireless and very powerful. They bound here and there, panting, their tongues dripping venom.”

Clad in metal armor and chains, the natives did not believe that these creatures were dogs and regarded them as beasts. These attack dogs, often wearing their own armor, were the common European shock and awe tactic of the period. The first documented New World use of these canine swat teams occurred in 1495 when Bartholomew Columbus, Chris’s brother, used 20 mastiffs in a battle waged at Santa Maris el Antigua, Darien with his brother employing the same approach a year later.  These dogs were trained to pursue, disembowel and dismember humans and to this purpose, enjoyed a human diet in the Americas. The Spanish reveled in holding human hunts called “la Monteria infernal “where much sport was made of chasing and killing the local men, women and children. The noted Spanish apologist Bartolme de La Casas has left us numerous accounts of the exploits of these hounds from hell and it is easy to understand why these horrific memes still prevail in the cultures of Latin America. The names of many of these dogs so esteemed by the Spaniards still live on and here are but a few:

Bercerruillo the terror of Borinquen, until he was fallen by 50 arrows, received a salary one and a half times that of an archer from his owner Ponce de Leon.

Leoncillo (Little Lion), Bercerruillo’s son, was Balboa’s warrior, earned over 500 gold pesos in booty during his many campaigns, and he was the first Western dog to see the Pacific. When ordered to catch a native he would grab the man’s arm in his mouth. If the man came along quietly, they walked slowly to Balboa. If there was any resistance, the dog ripped him apart.

Bruto, De Soto’s champion, received 20 slaves as spoils before his career ended.

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2 thoughts on “Dogs of the Conquistadors

  1. Pingback: Ghost and Other Dogs of War | History Behind Game of Thrones

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