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Were the conquistadores a bunch of pigs? Well… sorta

15 April 2022

It’s not the stuff of epic painting, nor of our movie versions of the Conquest, but when those Spaniards came swashing and buckling though the continent, they were followed by (and depended upon) one animal more than anything else. Not the ferocious war dogs and not the horses… but their pigs.

Columbus’ second voyage (in 1493) introduced eight pigs to the Americas. It doesn’t sound like a lot of pork, but they weren’t brought over as dinner on the hoof (er… trotter). Pigs had been an integral part of Iberian cuisine since before the Romans (and some scholars claim the Iberian pig introduced the Romans to the “other white meat”) and Porky and Petunia and their six companions were prized for their ability to survive, and even thrive, on sea voyages (they’ll eat anything), breed quickly, and generally fend for themselves. These weren’t, after all, the pampered pigs of modern agro-business, but the tough Iberian pig (Sus mediterrenous), the ancestral breed , the medieval thug the porcine world.

And, this is a cute one…

The pigs Colombus brought with him to Cuba fared much better than the Spanish colonists, with an estimated 30,000 (probably an exaggerated estimate, but so it was said) by the time Las Casas (who’d been on that second voyage) was writing his Relaciones, both in captivity, and going over the wall. If anything, the feral pigs, were doing especially well, tearing up the landscape, feasting on the variety of tropical fruits on the island (and driving some to near extinction), free to roam a landscape without any natural predators… except whatever people had managed to elude the Conquistadores and weren’t eating the occasional ration of their more domestically inclined brethren.

Or… perhaps the pigs were preying on the remaining natives… pigs and humans, having been together (especially in Iberia) for millennia, were subject to many of the same diseases as humans… or humans to pig diseases (Swine Flu, anyone)? Las Casas laid the decimation of the native peoples in New Spain on the Spanish themselves. And, indirectly, it was… although the pigs may have been a more important vector than we realize.

While several of the contemporary accounts of the Conquest(s) and explorations of the “new world” mention pigs (and Pizarro was routinely described in his, and sometimes in our, time as a former swine-herder), modern accounts overlook how important they were: herds of pigs following every conquest, both as a source of fresh food, and as a breeding stock for any future settlement. But, other than De Soto’s ill-fated expedition (De Soto refused to allow his pigs to be eaten, which led to near mutiny), you scarcely find any mention of them. In Fernando Cervantes’ “Conquistadores: A New History of the Spanish Discovery and Conquest“… the latest major work on the subject (Viking Press, 2021), there are only four pages … all references to De Soto… mentioned in the index. And it’s for “piglets” not pigs.

Perhaps, as Benjamin Joseph Zadik, in the only English language work to delve into the subject at length (an MA thesis from 2000) suggests in his “The Iberian Pig in Spain and the Americas at the Time of Columbus” (Pomona College, 2000), the Conquistadores and early Iberian “settlers” (as if they were two different things) just took it for granted that they would bring pigs along, and wrote more about horses and cattle because they were status animals… and a Hell of a lot more trouble to import than pigs. And… I might add… historians have always been more likely to write about generals than quartermasters… the battles are much more colorful affairs to write about than it is to deal with mundane things like the supply train.

But, it was ham that sustained Cortés, pig fat that greased his war machine and served as ointment (“oink-ment”?) for wounds, and hog bristles that painted the heroic pictures. And spread the diseases further and further into the countryside as feral pigs roamed throughout the Americas.

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