Caribbean Canines & Legacies of the British Empire


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Sniffing the Past is delighted to welcome a guest blog from Chaz Yingling, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Louisville.

What role did canines play in British colonization in the Caribbean, the British abolitionist era, and, despite earlier disavowals of dog attacks, the suppression of dissent in the twentieth-century empire? Here I consider continuities and conundrums specific to the rise and fall of the British Empire, using somewhat different evidence than in my co-authored Past & Present article that demonstrates the centrality of dogs to slavery in the Americas (a topic David Doddington once explored on this same website).[1]

Jamaica, the site of tons of sugar and coffee produced by millions of enslaved peoples and their descendants for British economic expansion, originally witnessed the devastation of indigenous Taíno by Spanish disease, mistreatment, malnutrition, and most dramatically, dog attacks.[2]  Prominently, in the sixteenth century Spanish priest Bartolomé de las Casas’ described dogs that “hunt after men…like deer into the thick of the forests” and that Spaniards gave “in infants to be devoured by their dogs.”[3] His writings also suggested the importation of African labourers to the vast swaths of fertile land in the region, while his widely circulated condemnations imprinted the idea that the Spanish colonial methods were uniquely immoral.[4]

A mere four years after the English captured Jamaica from Spain in the 1650s, their planters there “procured some blood-hounds, and hunted…blacks like wild-beasts.” This “hunting” of resistant runaway slaves clearly copied Spanish precedents.[5] Nevertheless, English-language sources continued presenting dog violence as uniquely Spanish. Although regular use of attack dogs in Jamaica and Barbados factually contradicted moralizing nationalist pretensions, later British popular discourse projected the immorality of slaveholding and its implements onto rivals.

Though slave hounds existed throughout the Caribbean, by the late eighteenth century Cuba had the best-developed system of breeding and training dogs that were “very large with a greyhound head, but a mastiff body.” In 1795 when Jamaican Maroons revolted against oppressions during larger liberation conflicts of the Age of Revolutions, they purchased Cuban dogs to attack them.[6] Panicked British officials, whose forces were already engaged in the nearby Haitian Revolution, begged Spanish officials for Cuban dogs to forestall a similar general revolution in Jamaica.[7] Caribbean colonists knew that Spanish officials in Cuba had recently deployed bloodhounds to hunt runaways and attack the Miskito people of Central America. Though the dogs were known for their ferocity, British proponents opportunistically reasoned that the hounds were morally equivalent to watchdogs that deterred trespassers.[8]

When the dogs arrived, they destroyed people, cows, and chewed through solid wood.[9] Their intensity so impressed the governor of Jamaica that he planned to breed them locally.[10]  Contemporaries described these terrifying, agile animals as “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.”[11] Although the Jamaican Maroons were initially confident, the deployment of the dogs expedited the cessation of hostilities with Maroons.[12]

This event prompted high-profile scrutiny, including from the King and Parliament. Defenders again attempted to blame Spain for the original sin of hunting humans with hounds, though the British had similarly used dogs in the 1760s and even 1730s.[13] Newspaper coverage garnered attack dogs widespread fame, such that a squire whose family held property in the Caribbean apparently smuggled slave tracking dogs to his estate in Ireland and tested their effectiveness by chasing an Irish peasant.[14]

Indeed, the Jamaican episode scandalised many Britons, leading Prime Minister Pitt to condemn this use of dogs.[15]  William Wilberforce later included this case prominently in a book on antislavery.  Wilberforce, in explaining the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade, noted that captives often had only just over three square feet of space below deck, and sometimes ships “had on board fierce dogs of the blood-hound species…trained to sit watching over the hatches during the night.” As Wilberforce also recounted, part of the founding African diasporic population of British Nova Scotia came from Maroons who, as part of their surrender under duress from dogs, had to leave Jamaica. Hating the climate, many departed later for Sierra Leone.[16] Thus the consequences of canine attacks multiplied across the British Empire.

Hound attacks motivated British antislavery groups into the nineteenth century, enlivening their vociferous depictions of slave dogs as an ignominy for the entire nation. Over the next decades, this theme became a flashpoint for abolitionist sympathies broadly across the Americas and Europe, helping to achieve British abolition in the 1830s. As explained in detail here, abolition suddenly made British domains in Canada a safe haven for tens of thousands of refugees from slavery in the United States, thousands of whom fled northward with hounds at their heels. One fugitive who survived the dogs, Henry Bibb of Kentucky, established the first Black newspaper in Canada and promoted abolitionism under these newfound liberties that shamed his home nation.[17] Bibb’s experiences influenced the image below.

slavery dogs

“Fugitive Slaves and Bloodhounds,” The Suppressed Book About Slavery! (New York, 1864), facing p. 241, accessed at

In this era, new American exiles from slavery praised British clemency and Queen Victoria. They represented an even larger wave of new Black Canadians sent northward by hounds only decades removed from the dog attacks on Jamaican Maroons. Such sanctuary formed one part of a developing British nationalist theme of heroic abolitionist exceptionalism. Though a welcomed policy pivot, it nevertheless elided the centuries in which Britain profiteered from slavery and the slave trade, a reckoning that continues today.[18]

Of course, for many decades after abolition the British Empire continued, and colonized populations persisted in resistance well into the twentieth century. It took only a generation or two to forget the callous use of Caribbean canines that suppressed dissent and enabled British wealth extraction. Just over a century after abolition, Britons distanced themselves mentally and morally from these past imperial iniquities to stalk and harass those working for independence into the mid-twentieth century. Dog deployments that the British Empire partly reprised were not equivalent to the era of enslavement. However, the British again sent dogs to hunt resistors against the empire.

On the anecdotal evidence that British military units with patrol dogs rarely received first fire during the Second World War, the British began training dogs for myriad tracking, guarding, and detecting duties with looming conflicts across the vast and fragile empire. For example, an effective dog training centre in Johore (Johor) supplied dogs to track insurgents in Malaya (Malaysia) in the 1950s. This led to deployments in detection of mines in Cyprus, and re-popularized the use of dogs in the British Empire.

During the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya during the 1950s, the largely Kikuyu resistors to white settlement and labour expectations confronted dozens of canine units from the British Army that tracked them. British soldiers highly esteemed their effectiveness in a conflict that killed well over 10,000 Kenyans. Such imperial utility even endeared “search” dogs to widespread use in tracking suspects and weapons caches in Northern Ireland into the 1970s. Furthermore, postcolonial resonances across the former British Empire are stark. For example, a training school for attack dogs in newly independent South Africa supported not only Apartheid there, but also facilitated white Australians’ tracking of Aboriginal peoples. Such uses inspired exploration of similar dog deployments in the United States, where in the 1960s they notoriously attacked Civil Rights protesters.[19]

Today, some prominent political voices in the English-speaking world sometimes argue that slavery was long ago or not that severe, that struggles for civil rights have been fully resolved, and that present calls for justice are either misplaced or divisive. Into the twentieth century, attacking dogs that built empires melded into tracking dogs. Sometimes, these skilled animals detected explosives intended to harm civilian populations. That ability is a public utility most people reasonably value. However, it is only one part of a longer and more complex story.

Few fully comprehend the acrimonious legacy of canines in the Caribbean, the more expansive British Empire, and well beyond. Amid regular reminders about how unevenly certain developed democracies practice equality before the law, some very recent complaints about excessive force again centre on the use of dogs, this time by police, and sometimes against peaceful protestors. These incidents are distinct to those long ago. However, they remind us of how states have forced canines to enforce their own power. At least in the abolitionist era this topic received widespread scrutiny, though the public has since forgotten.

For those who have patiently read to the end, I prefer to close with an encouragement to further investigate this topic. I also ask a few questions to invite new lines of inquiry as open-ended as the legacies of these aforementioned events. Do these unique eras of dog interventions relate? Who have most of the people in front of the dogs’ teeth been, why were they there, and what did they request? What have those who held the leashes defended or perpetuated? Did dog deployments often offer additional reasons for distrust or dissent? How should ostensibly free and just societies today respect canines’ remarkable biological abilities? Who has the right to decide the legacies these dogs leave, and how should we write the conclusion to this story?

Chaz Yingling is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Louisville. His articles appear in History Workshop Journal, Past & Present, Early American Studies, and Historical Journal. He is finishing his first book on cooperation and conflict shared by Dominicans and Haitians during the Age of Revolutions, and is developing projects on historical intersections of animals and race.


[1] See also Miles Ogborn, ‘A war of words: speech, script and print in the Maroon War of 1795–6,’ Journal of Historical Geography 37, no. 2 (2011): 203-215; Sara Johnson, ‘You Should Give Them Blacks to Eat:  Waging Inter-American Wars of Torture and Terror,’ American Quarterly, 69, no.1 (2009): 65-92.

[2] Médéric-Louis-Elie Moreau De Saint-Méry, Description topographique et politique de la partie espagnole de l’isle de Saint-Domingue, Vol. I (Philadelphia, 1796), 305.

[3] Brevissima relación de la destruycion de las Indias (Sevilla, 1552), 7-27, 42-48, 126, and 189-193; Voltaire, The General History and State of Europe, Part III (London, 1755), 184 and 201.

[4] Lawrence A. Clayton, Bartolomé de Las Casas: A Biography (New York, 2012), 135-40.

[5] Edward Long, History of Jamaica, Vol. I (London, 1774), 279.

[6] Balcarres to Dundas, 29 December 1795, National Archives, War Office 1/92, 239-45.

[7] October-November 1795, Archivo General de Indias, Estado, legajo 5B, nos. 82 and 173.

[8] Dallas, Maroons, Vol. II, 4-18.

[9] Dallas, Maroons, Vol. II, 56-57, 63-67, 71, 101-112, and 128-129; W.J. Gardner, A History of Jamaica from its Discovery by Christopher Columbus to the Year 1872 (London,1873), 231-4.

[10] Balcarres to Dundas, 29 Dec. 1795, NA-PRO, WO 1/92, 239-45.

[11] Dallas, Maroons, Vol. II, 58-9.

[12] John Jaques to William Philp Perrin, 5 January 1796, Derbyshire Record Office, D239/M/E/17178; ‘No. 1′, Balcarres to Dundas, 30 Jan. 1796, NA-PRO, WO 1/92, 279-82; Dallas, Maroons, Vol. II, 149-52; George Wilson Bridges, The Annals of Jamaica, Volume II (1881; New York, 1968), 237-8.

[13] Balcarres to Hardwicke, 1796, British Library (BL), Hardwicke Papers (HP), Additional Manuscripts (AM) 35916, 202-04. Dundas to Balcarres, 21 Feb. 1796, NA-PRO, WO 1/92, 271-7; Balcarres to Hardwicke, 17 July 1796, BL, HP, AM 35916, 207-8.”Dallas’s History of Maroons,” Edinburgh Review 2 (July 1803), 382-383.

[14] Thomas Colley Grattan, Beaten Paths, and Those Who Trod Them, Vol. I (London: Chapman and Hall, 1862), 111-114.  See pages 74-81 and 111-125.

[15] ‘Parliamentary Intelligence’, The Times, Feb. 27, 1796, 1; The Universal Magazine, Mar. 1796, 219; The Monthly Mirror, Apr. 1796, 376.

[16] William Wilberforce, An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies (London, 1823), 31-33 and 49-51.

[17] Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave (New York, 1849), 128–30, 121–6, 28, 51.

[18] “Expert comment – why Black Lives Matter is a UK issue as well as a US one,” Warwick University News & Events, 3 June 2020; “What’s Left Out: Re-Thinking the Abolition of the Slave Trade,” Call and Response: The University of Glasgow and Slavery,

[19] Charles F. Sloane, “Dogs in War, Police Work, and on Patrol,” Journal of Criminal and Criminology 46, no. 3 (1955), 385-395; Kimberly Brice O’Donnell, Doing Their Bit: The British Employment of Military and Civil Defence Dogs in the Second World War (Warwick: Helion, 2018), 193-198 and 210-214; Bénédicte Boisseron, Afro-Dog (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018); Robert B. Edgerton, Mau Mau: An African Crucible (New York: Ballantine, 1991), 87-89.