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The Iberian Pig in Spain and the Americas at the time of Columbus

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Chapter II: Pigs in the Indies


And this little piggy went to the New World

As the explorers arrived in the Indies, they naturally compared the islands to home and Castile. They marveled at the exotic plant life, the naked “savage” Indians that populated the islands, the traces of gold, but perhaps what struck the Spaniards most was what they did not find. On October 16, 1492, just five days after first sighting land, Christopher Columbus reports:

Bestias en tierra no vide ninguna de ninguna manera, salvo papagayos y lagartos. Un mozo me dijo que vido una grande culebra. Ovejas ni cabras ni otra ninguna bestia vide; aunque yo he estado aquí muy poco, que es medio día: mas si las hobiese no pudiera errar de ver alguna.”[1]

Columbus had noticed a significant fact about livestock in the Americas— there were practically none.[2] This fact was all the more salient because the ship had just come from the Canary Islands, an archipelago along roughly the same latitude as where he was now, but which— logically— raised animals like pigs and sheep in abundance. Even after four voyages, Columbus would never find the large animals or domesticates that he had taken for granted in Europe. “Había perros que jamás ladraron; había avecitas salvajes mansas por sus casas....”[3] Small dogs that did not bark, and little birds, but certainly no pigs, sheep, or cattle.

The fact of the matter was that the Americas, separated from the remainder of the world for thousands of years, had few large animals that could be domesticated. Notable exceptions include the llama and the alpaca, camelids of the Andes mountains in South America, used by the natives of that region for food, wool, and as pack animals. Another was the bison of the North American plains, but it was never domesticated on any large scale. The Indians had at their disposal only a small species of dog that did not bark, the guinea pig, and fowl, including the muscovy duck and the large turkeys of North America.[4]

Recall Bernal Díaz’s description of maize-cakes, and we can understand how the lack of large, familiar animals in the New World was akin to telling the Spaniards that there was no food available in this new land. Some historians have been baffled by how the Europeans— arriving in a fertile, abundant landscape that sustained millions of Indians for thousands of years— looked around and saw nothing edible.[5] But it was without hesitation that Columbus writes once again:

Era cosa de maravilla ver aquellos valles y los ríos buenas aguas, y las tierras para pan, para ganados de todas suertes, y de que ellos no tienen alguna, para huertas y para todas las cosas del mundo que el hombre sepa pedir.[6]

With suggestive rapidity, the Admiral perceived that the future of the Indies under Spanish control necessitated the agro-pastoral economy and way of life that they were accustomed to. Bernabé Cobo notes that Columbus “advirtió la falta tan grande que en ella había ... mayormente de los ganados de Europa necesarios para el sustento y servicio de los hombres.”[7] The Admiral insisted on this point through repeated communications with the Catholic Majesties after his return to Spain and for the following decade.[8]

On his second voyage to the Indies, Columbus was sure to bring domesticated animals with him. According to Bartolomé de las Casas, the Admiral makes an important stop in the Canary Islands where numerous livestock are purchased:

...el sábado siguiente, a 5 de octubre, tomó la isla de la Gomera, donde estuvo dos días, en los cuales se proveyó a mucha prisa de algunos ganados, que él y los que acá venían compraban y metían, como becerras y cabras y ovejas. Y entre otros, ciertos de los que venían allí compraron ocho puercas, a 70 maravedís la pieza. Destas ocho puercas se han multiplicado todos los puercos que hasta hoy ha habido en todas estas Indias, que han sido y son infinitos.[9]

From this day forward, the Canaries would become a requisite stop for all voyages heading to the Indies, supplying outbound ships with food, plants, seeds, and livestock. Why not bring the animals directly from Spain? Firstly because they were cheaper on the islands, but probably more importantly, to reduce the amount of time they remained onboard. The trip was lengthy, and many animals did not survive the passage. Added to that, while alive pigs and other livestock were unwelcome traveling companions. They were dirty and demanding animals aboard any vessel, the stench alone making them disagreeable any longer than necessary.[10]

By 1500, all the most important domesticated species from Europe would arrive.[11] These animals were not only meant to sustain the crew, but for the more significant purpose of breeding them in the New World. Such supplies would be necessary for settlers and expeditions deeper into the Americas, and nothing of the sort could be found in the Indies. As sixteenth-century observer José de Acosta notes, “las islas de todos [animales] carecen, si no son los que han embarcado españoles.”[12]

After the conquest— and often in conjunction with it— took place the colonization of the acquired territory by the newly arriving Spaniards. Many Spaniards desired the opportunity to acquire property and livestock that had, in Spain, reached a finite limit of owners.[13] Right from the start Columbus begins this drive. Bernabé Cobo explains:

En el segundo viaje que hizo el almirante D. Cristóbal Colón á esta tierra el año siguiente de 1493, con gente española para poblarla, trujo consigo de todos los ganados que cría España buen número de cabezas de cada especie, para que acá se multiplicasen y perpetuasen...[14]

Conquistadors used settlements to legitimize their claims before their monarch, and on an international level, the Spanish Crown endeavored to keep other European nations from its “justly acquired” land grab.

Livestock was such a necessary part of this colonization that animals were not killed even in times of hunger. Pedro de Mendoza, leader of the first unsuccessful colony in Buenos Aires, was put on trial in 1536 for keeping back livestock from his starving companions.[15] This may seem incredible, especially when the conquering expeditions would invariably complain of hunger while droves of hogs followed behind them. Yet the logic was practical, especially when dealing with pigs, because their fecundity assured that in a short time they could reproduce abundantly; it would thus be imprudent to slaughter them all. In the New World this practice has its basis at least as far back as Columbus:

Dijeron que yo había tomado el ganado a la gente que lo trajo acá, y no trajo nada nadie dello, salvo yo ocho puercas, que eran de muchos; y porque éstos eran personas que se querían volver luego a Castilla y las mataban, yo se lo defendí porque multiplicasen...[16]

Columbus’ defensive attitude for his eight pigs demonstrates a logic that would prevail in successful expeditions throughout the New World. And the proof of its success is the rapid and incredible multiplication of European livestock in the Americas.

Hog wild: The proliferation of pig in the Indies

If the eight pigs sailing across the ocean on Columbus’ second voyage were expecting the acorns from their homeland, they were sadly mistaken. Acorns aside, the pigs found health, shade, and new, delicious foods in such wild abundance that their numbers soon grew out of control. Indeed, pigs made themselves right at home in the Indies.

If we can believe Bartolomé de las Casas, from Columbus’ first eight pigs all the “infinite” numbers of pigs in the Indies have descended.[17] More than likely, Casas lifted this observation from the Admiral’s own account. Writes Columbus: ve ahora que hay acá dellos [puercos] sin cuento, que todos salieron desta casta, y las cuales yo traje en los navios y les hice la costa, salvo el primer gasto, que fue 70 maravedis la pieza en la isla Gomera.[18]

It is curious that both Casas and Columbus refer to the eight pigs in the feminine plural: puercas. Surely, we cannot believe that eight sows reproduced without the aid of a male hog, but it seems that in the chronicles puercas and puercos are sometimes used interchangeably. In any case, if the Spaniards intended to breed the animals, it makes perfect sense that they would bring more females than males.

While there is no doubt that these first eight played a vital role, other accounts make it evident that the many ships leaving Spain, and stopping over in the Canary Islands, brought with them a number of pigs as well. Bernabé Cobo confirms that:

...en todas las entradas y descubrimientos de nuevas provincias que los españoles hacen en estas indias, acostumbran llevar consigo el mayor número que pueden de animales mansos y plantas semillas, así para bastimentos en las tales jornadas, como para perpetuarlas en las nuevas tierras que van á poblar.[19]

There remains some debate over the type of pig that Columbus first brought from the Canary Islands, but it is generally agreed that it was an Iberian pig, Sus mediterraneus, the species common to medieval Europe. Compared to the modern pig, this Iberian derivative is smaller leaner, and tusked, weighing between 50 to 150 kilograms. It has a straight back, and a long narrow snout; it does not even have the “curly” pigtail we associate with the animal today. They are alert animals, rugged, and resourceful. Although the pigs vary in color, they are most often black or pink, with small bristles or hairs. In the Andes of South America, their descendents have survived until today and are considered criollo, or native, by local inhabitants, a tribute to their successful adaptation.[20]

Disagreement persists, however, because the pigs were brought on board from the island of La Gomera, which was home to its own variety of sturdy pig adapted to life on the islands since men first colonized the Canaries thousands of years prior. Canarian scholar Antonio Tejera Gaspar reasons that it was more likely cerdo paleocanario that traveled with Columbus. This species is smaller than the Iberian pig, with thicker black hairs, and pronounced curved tusks. Both are descended from the same lineage of wild pig, Sus scrofa. Whichever species came first, it is certain that the pigs brought on subsequent voyages were of both kinds, and that they interbred in the Americas with great success.[21]

Of all the livestock introduced by the Spaniards, the pig adapted most quickly to its new environment.[22] With hindsight, this fact comes as no surprise because in the Indies the pigs found a veritable hog paradise. And if we are to believe that the first pigs were of a native species from La Gomera, then they were already pre-adapted to an island lifestyle of similar climate. The pigs encountered a largely uncontested niche in the Antillean forests, although certainly their growth crowded out many small, indigenous mammals that competed for food.[23] There was plenty of shade, abundant food, no natural predators, and no European infections to curtail their growth. Omnivorous pigs were willing to eat literally anything— except grassy pastures, which became the domain of cattle and horses.

Their favorite food, however, undoubtedly seems to have been the jobo (Spondias mombim Lin., sometimes called mirobálano or hovos), a tree particular to the American tropics. Its plum-shaped fruit is black, red, or yellow and is used today for medicine and dyes. Pedro Mártir de Anglería swore that pigs, unlike other imported livestock, tasted even better in the New World than they had in Spain due to their new diet:

Este árbol es tan peculiar de la Española, que los cerdos se ceban con su fruto; y cuando madura, los porquerizos no los pueden retener ni gobernar, sin que se les escapen y se vayan desparramados a las selvas que crían esos árboles; así es que gran muchedumbre de cerdos se han hecho silvestres. Por eso dicen que en la Española la carne de cerdo es más sabrosa y saludable que la de carnero, pues nadie duda que las varias clases de alimentos dan a la carne que se come varia virtud y gusto muy diferente.[24]

Another account by Galeotto Cey confirms the pigs’ affection for the fruit:

Pero quien se dedica a estos ganados necesita tener gran vigilancia, máxime durante mayo, junio y julio, que dura la fruta de un árbol llamado “jobo” que hay mucho, y entonces escapan a los bosques al olor de ésta fruta, y una vez que huyen al bosque no se les vuelve a ver, a ninguno de ellos.[25]

Oviedo y Valdés also speaks of a different plant native to Hispaniola, which he says the natives called y, that had a similar effect on the pigs: “Esta es muy gran pasto y bueno para los puercos, e los engorda mucho, y es a su propósito tanto e más que en España la bellota....”[26] Clearly one reason for the pig’s resounding success here was the rich abundance of nutritious and delicious foods— more delectable than even Spain’s acorn. Truth be told, the pigs apparently ate anything— even snakes. In Panama and Ecuador, locals reported that wild pigs had considerably depleted the number of serpents in the forests.[27]

Pigs adapted well to environments that other Spanish livestock found unsuitable. The coastal lands of Brazil, for example, provided pastures too poor for cattle, but adequate for pigs. Thus in the early colonial periods of Río de Janeiro and São Paulo pork became a major component of the diet. An unnamed visitor to Brazil in 1601 remarked that: “Swine doe like very well heere and they beginne to have great multitudes, and heere it is the best flesh of all.”[28] The key to the hog’s overwhelming acceptance was its ability to efficiently transform whatever organic matter into pork chops and hams fit for human consumption.[29] Pork became a dominant form of sustenance for the Spanish and their slaves. Cobo tells us: “Háse extendido tanto por toda la América este ganado, que no hay población de españoles é indios donde no se críe copiosamente.”[30]

The numbers, if we can believe them, speak for themselves. We have already considered Columbus’ claim that there were “sin cuento,” and a doctor, Beltrán, in a report about Hispaniola in 1512 counts the number of pigs as “sin número.”[31] Anglería insists that, besides pigs, “en los macelos no cortan otra cosa.[32] Francisco de Garay reported from Jamaica in 1519 that on the Crown’s hacienda alone there were over one thousand pigs.[33] In 1514 Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar wrote to the king that on Cuba there were thirty thousand pigs. Alfred W. Crosby translates his remarks as “more pigs than I ever saw before in my life.”[34] Geographer Carl Sauer notes that this number appears excessive, but is plausible given that many of Velázquez’s men reportedly brought swine to Cuba, and cattle did not arrive until some years later.[35]

The pig’s growing numbers were so alarming that they no doubt contributed to the extinction of certain plants and animals (as well as Indian mortality).[36] Casas, for example, speaks of at least two:

Había en aquella isla una especie de caza harto provechosa y abundante, que los indios nombraban guaminiquinajes, la penúltima luenga; ésos eran tan grandes como perillos de halda; tenían muy sabrosa carne, y, como dije, había dellos grande abundancia....Después que hubo puercos de los nuestros los acabaron todos, como en esta isla las hutías, que era otra especie de caza.[37]

Voracious and disruptive omnivores, the swine often depleted the populations of native species, devoured their food supply, or irrevocably damaged their habitat. In many respects, pigs were not unlike their human masters.

In short order, the geometrically increasing pig population was too large to corral; they escaped and reverted to wild forms. We know this from a myriad of sources. Cobo tells us, “Hanse multiplicado los Puercos con tanto exceso en muchas partes, que se han hecho cimarrones y andan en grandes manadas por los campos y desiertos, sin dueño.[38] Anglería echoes: “Ha crecido la multitud de puercos, y los que se escaparon de los porquerizos se han hecho silvestres.”[39] José de Acosta warns us that, “En partes se han hecho montaraces y crueles; y se va a caza de ellos, como de jabalíes, como en la Española y otras islas, donde se ha alzado al monte este ganado.” Oviedo y Valdés reports that “Puercos monteses se han hecho muchos en las islas que están pobladas de cristianos....”[40] He also explains that at least part of the problem stemmed directly from the haciendas which later abandoned hog raising for the profitable sugar trade:

De los puercos ha habido grandes hatos en esta isla, e después que se dieron los pobladores a la granjería de los azúcares, por ser dañosos los puercos para las haciendas del campo, muchos se dejaron de tales ganados; pero todavía hay muchos, e los campos están llenos de salvajinas...[41]

Pigs were also lost by their Spanish (or more often, Indian) caretakers, or escaped from their corrals.[42] And as Anglería explained, the lush forest, and especially the jobo was enough to drive the pigs wild on their own.

Like most of the imported breeds of livestock, the American descendents of the pig grew larger.[43] Anglería remarked that “[l]as crías de todos animales, por la exuberancia de la hierba, se hacen mayores que sus padres....”[44] Pigs changed in other ways, too, resembling if nothing else a wild boar. López de Gómara noticed that “Los puercos que llevaron se han diferenciado, ca les crecen un jeme las uñas hacia arriba, que los afea.”[45] It is possible that many of these morphological changes resulted also from the mixing of the Iberian and the Canarian breeds of hogs.[46]

Eventually, it would be another domesticated animal gone wild that depredated the pigs to more manageable numbers: the European dog, which unlike its American cousin, did bark— and bite. Already by 1505 the Spanish Crown had issued an official proclamation to reduce the numbers of wild pigs,[47] and again in 1508 responded with the following proclamation:

Asymismo los dichos Procuradores me suplicaron les mandase que las monterías de puercos que ay en la Isabela vieja, e en otras partes de la dicha Ysla, fueran comunes a todos los vecinos della, e que no se guardase ny vedase, porque dello venía bien a la dicha Ysla. E yo, por hacer bien y merced a los pobladores desa dicha Ysla, e porque tengan provechos e algún pasatiempo para su recreación, helo habido por bien.[48]

Galeotto Cey further tells us “Los mestizos salen a cazarlos con perros, por los bosques, y esta es su manera de vivir, ya que la carne de aquellos es excelente.”[49] The dogs, too, were lost and went wild as López de Velasco reports: “los perros... se han vuelto cimarrones, son tantos ya, que son más perjudiciales para el ganado menor que lobos en otras partes.”[50] It appears that the numbers of wild pigs and dogs oscillated, as did the demand for their meat obtained by hunting. While the Crown issues licenses to hunt as early as 1508, Fray Antonio de Remesal grievously reports in 1532 that untethered dogs were depleting pig stocks on their own:

porque los perros bravos que servían en la guerra y habían sido sepultura de muchos reyes y caciques, faltándoles este alimento, comían los hatos enteros de ovejas y puercos con notable sentimiento de la ciudad; hasta que se remedió este daño por orden del cabildo mandando, so penas graves, que cada uno tuviese atados sus perros en casa.[51]

At the same time that pigs and dogs were proliferating in great numbers, other European livestock had also arrived on Columbus’ second voyage.[52] The Spaniards, especially those from Extremadura, were principally familiar pigs and sheep,[53] and it has already been suggested that this intimacy made certain that particularly these animals would arrive early in the Indies. So how did the sheep do? One scholar has called the first attempts at raising sheep in the Indies “auténticos fracasos.”[54] We can attribute this phenomenon mostly to the climate of the Antilles where sheep first arrived; no doubt they found the tropics too humid for their comfort.[55] Bernabe Cobo explains:

Es el ganado que menos extendido está en estas Indias de cuantos se han traído de España; no porque sea poco en número el que hay, sino porque no se cría en las tierras yuncas, por no serle á propósito el temple...[56]

Beyond this was the fact that sheep, as well as goats who suffered equally in the Indies, do not reproduce in stressful environments. These animals were essentially sterile for up to a year after being transported to the tropical environment. Other scholars have pointed to the fact that sheep, as well as European chickens, had more difficulty struggling against native pests and predators, especially on the mainland. The pig’s thick skin defended it against snake bites, but the sheep were vulnerable.[57]

It is also interesting to note that while vast numbers of pigs, cattle, dogs, and horses at some time escaped and reverted to wild forms in the Indies, the same is not true for sheep. Cobo attributes this peculiarity “sin duda, por ser la Oveja animal tan flaco y cobarde, que no pueda vivir sin la defensa y amparo del hombre.”[58] To be sure, sheep were a more particular animal than pigs, suffering in the humid tropics, but achieving notable success in more agreeable climates.

Cattle, on the other hand, did exceptionally well in the Americas. It was the bovine biology, though— specifically the cow’s rate of reproduction— that precluded cattle’s immediate use on a grand scale until later in the sixteenth century. The pig, by contrast, was pre-adapted to the Antilles just as the cow, but proliferated much more quickly. Swine scholar David E. Vassberg explains:

[Pigs] reach maturity at about one year, they breed throughout the year, have a gestation period of only 16 weeks, typically give birth to between 8 and 12 piglets, and they can easily live 25 years. Thus a single sow could theoretically produce seven million descendants within her lifetime.[59]

While no actual pig is likely to approach such numbers, the relative biological advantage is apparent. Principally for this reason, the pig was of most significance during the first half-century after Columbus’ arrival, and particularly wherever land was conquered and first colonized.

All told, the pig’s arrival in America and its subsequent growth was nothing less than astounding. By contrast, sheep and cattle were not as successful or useful to the Spaniards in the very beginnings as pigs were in the conquest and early colonization of the Americas. But this would only be a matter of time. We must attribute the pig’s head start, at least in part, to the influence of the Extremadurans who imported, propagated and promoted their use in the New World. But it was the meteoric growth of pig populations, derived from its natural adaptation to the Indies’ lush, forested environment, that explains the pig’s incredible success.[60]

Pig of the litter: The versatile uses of pigs in the Americas

Alfred W. Crosby has suggested that, in all appearances, it certainly looked as though Spain’s mission from 1492 to 1550 was to replace people (that is, the Indians) with cows, dogs, and pigs.[61] Because of its easy ecological transition to the Indies and astounding reproductive rate, the pig was able to provide a diverse number of uses to the Spanish colonizers. These came in the form of meat, lard, soap, fuel, and medicine. Nearly all expeditions brought supplies of preserved salt-pork, and also afforded themselves live pigs for mobile sustenance. Later, the pig would be used as a form of tribute from the Indians, and integrate itself into the New World’s agrarian economy.

For the early part of the colonization, there seems to have been little else grown on farms besides hogs and native agriculture. Casas informs us:

Las granjerías de entonces no eran otras sino de criar puercos y hacer labranzas del pan cazabí y las otras raíces comestibles, que son los ajes y batatas.[62]

Even if there was no other sign of Spanish civilization, there was surely a porquero to be found. Casas goes on to relate, “En aquel puerto no había más de un vecino de la villa de Santiago, que tenía una granja, que llamaban estancia, donde criaba puercos y gallinas....”[63] Hog ranches, called corrales or estancias in the colonies, sprang up wherever pigs were introduced, and their impressive fertility ensured high production.[64] They scattered throughout the forested regions of the Antilles and into the mainland of America. Any concentration of Spanish immigrants resulted in ranches to supply the precious meat.[65]

In short order, pork played a significant role in the New World diet. By 1600, meat was one of the cheapest foods in the Americas.[66] Eating hams and salt pork provided far more calories than cassava bread. At the same time, gold-hungry Spaniards found raising pigs more economically viable than growing crops because it required less manpower, which could then be diverted to other pursuits like mining. On the encomiendas, some Indians tended to the pigs while others worked in the mines; in truth, some of the richest Spaniards, including Francisco de Garay, made money more reliably in pigs than in gold. Pork also became an indispensable part of the Taino and Arawak diets.[67]

On ranches, pigs might be allowed to feed in adjacent forests, but when fed on site, were generally given native plants like manioc (yucca) and maize. Recall that in Spain pigs had been fed nearly exclusively on acorns from oak trees, but no comparable species grew naturally in the Indies.[68] Yet it was no matter of contention for these undemanding hogs; in the Antilles they appear to have taken to manioc as rapaciously as they had acorns in Spain. The flour of this tropical plant has equal or more metabolic energy than wheat, barley, or corn. It is no coincidence that wherever the production of manioc was successful, so too was the raising of pigs. As ranches spread to the mainland and beyond, pigs were primarily fed corn— as is still true today[69]— and in the tropics seasonal fruits like the guava, caulote, guarango and algarrobo.[70]

The pig’s diet purportedly gave it a different, more sophisticated flavor than the pork of Spain. Fernán Pérez de Oliva notes that while beef and lamb lost flavor in the New World, pork somehow benefited:

Vacas y carneros perdieron su sabor, aunque cuanto más tarde nacían, tanto eran mayores. Puercos es la más preciosa carne que hay en la isla, la cual se mudó casi en otra natura con pastos diversos que allá tienen.[71]

Galeotto Cey, who explained to us the pig’s affinity for the jobo fruit of the Antilles, tells us that “muchas veces si no fuese por el cuero no se sabría si es cerdo o cordero.”[72] And Acosta confirms: “En muchas partes se come carne fresca de ellos, y la tienen por tan sana y buena como si fuera carnero, como en Cartagena.[73] It is interesting to note the inherent comparison between the meat of sheep and pigs, and it appears that for these observers, and perhaps more generally in Spain, the taste of carnero was preferred over puerco, all else being equal. If the sheep were a more sturdy and adaptable animal, perhaps its history would have been different in the Indies, as it was in the highlands of Mesoamerica and Columbia.

Whatever the reason for the pork’s remarkable taste, raising pigs proved lucrative because the Spanish craved its meat. Just as in Spain, it was an especially common food for feasting. Casas reports that upon striking gold Francisco de Garay and Miguel Díaz “[h]icerion fiesta, y asando un lechón o cochino, lo cortaron y comieron en él....”[74] Garcilaso de la Vega, in his Comentarios relates a rather incredible story about Sebastián de Benalcázar’s expedition: for a banquet the adelantados purchased a single pig at the ridiculous price of 1,600 pesos. Perceptively, the Inca reproves this characteristically Spanish excess:

Estos excesos y otros semejantes han hecho los españoles con el amor de su patria en el nuevo mundo, en sus principios. Que como fuesen cosas llevadas de España no paraban en el precio para comprarlas y criarlas, que les parecía que no podían vivir sin ellas.[75]

From all accounts, it seems that the Europeans only grudgingly ate cassava, maize, and other native American staples; but given the option, they would have taken a fattened pig any day of the week.

Any day of the week is perhaps an all too accurate description. Vega further informs us that pig fat was in such high demand “porque los españoles a falta de aceite, por no poderlo sacar, guisan de comer con ella los viernes y la cuaresma.”[76] The need for cooking oil appears to have suspended any obligation to Catholic religious fasting, which precluded meat on Fridays and during Lent. Cobo says: “El precio que tiene la manteca es muy grande respecto de las demás cosas, é increíble el consumo que hay délla, por gastarse en todas las Indias en los guisados cuaresmales en lugar de aceite, y en otros muchos usos.”[77] As early as 1541 the Spanish Crown petitioned the Pope to exempt the colonists from refraining from meat given their circumstances, and in 1562, they gratefully received a Papal dispensation from the fasting requirement.[78]

What may seem trivial to us today was in fact an intolerable inconvenience for the Spanish migrants of the time. In Spain, cooking was done with olive oil, but try as they might, olives did not succeed well in the humid tropics of the Americas; the restless Spaniards even tried extracting oil from avocado pits. The Casa de Contratación sent two hundred and fifty olive seedlings to the New World as early as 1520,[79] but it would appear that the Spanish government had conflicting rules and interests regarding its production. They viewed olive oil as a Spanish manufacture which should be sold to the colonies, not produced there. In Mexico City, officials received complaints about shortages and the great expense of olive oil, but apparently could do little to reduce the prices charged by Spanish merchants. Where olive trees could be cultivated, notably in the coastal valleys of Peru and Chile, the industry did thrive, but because viceroyalties traded directly with Spain, it did not reduce the cost of olive oil elsewhere in the Americas. The end result was that lard became essential to most colonists. It served as an inexpensive and sometimes singular replacement for olive oil, which along with meat, wheat, and wine, were cornerstones of the Spanish diet.[80]

Lard had a number of other uses as well, and it will surprise modern readers to realize just how many considering our current disuse of the animal. In the kitchen, lard was used to make candies, cakes, and deserts, as well as pastry dough. Bernabé Cobo relates: “Suele hacerse manteca todo el Cebón sin sacar más que los perniles y la demás carne magra, de que se hacen longanizas y otros adobos de regalo, de que carecían antes los indios.”[81] What in English we call lard is denoted in Spanish into at least three qualities: manteca, unto, and sebo. The latter was of the lowest quality, but still served the purpose of providing fuel for illumination.[82] Pig fat, and later the beef tallow that replaced it, was used in oil lamps to illuminate the homes and churches of the New World. Garcilaso de la Vega reports that members of Soto’s Florida expedition used lard combined with the resin from trees to pitch the brigantines for their return journey.[83] Lard could be manufactured into candles, and was also the main ingredient in soap. By the end of the sixteenth century, the tiny village of Saña received more than one-hundred-thousand pigs for the use in tenerías, where they would be manufactured into these diverse products.[84]

Perhaps most strangely to the modern reader, lard had therapeutic purposes as well, a tradition that no doubt had its antecedents in the Iberian peninsula. As Gabriel Alonso de Herrera explained in 1513: “El unto o tocino gordo en su lugar es bueno para madurar muchas hinchazones y apostemas; y aun si uno tiene muchos piojos o liendres, y con ello se friega la cabeza, los matará todos.”[85] Padre Cobo tells us that pork, too, was considered medicinal: “En algunas tierras calientes se tiene por tan sana la carne de Puerco fresca, que la dan á los enfermos juntamente con las aves; y así, se matan cada día en los hospitales los Puercos que son necesarios....”[86] Galeotto Cey readily agrees that the tasty pig is also surprisingly healthy: “su carne es hoy buena y sana, más que la del cordero, y además la recomiendan los médicos....”[87]

Lard was especially important in curing an animal disease as well. Mange (called carache or sarna by the Indians), was an external parasite that afflicted the llamas and alpacas of Peru. Vega purports that two-thirds of the flocks died to this ailment until a mix of lard with sulfur was discovered to protect the camelids from infection. He further noted that “[p]or este beneficio que hallan en la manteca tienen precio los puercos que, según lo mucho que multiplican, valdrían de balde.” The price of pig in Lima, which Vega puts at only 10 pesos, was thus much higher than it would have been given the demand for its meat alone.[88] Lard was valuable, and in fact the hunting of wild pigs that took place in the Antilles was often done in pursuit of the fat, not the meat, which was otherwise amply available.[89]

From a Spanish point of view, the invention of the pig, with its myriad of uses and appetizing flavor, was worth more than gold. It is no doubt with this in mind that in 1652 Bernabé Cobo compares the mineral wealth that the Indies gave the Spaniards (gold, silver, etc.) to the plants and animals that Spain returned in exchange:

no hay duda sino que es tanto mayor la que ella [las Indias] ha recibido, que la que le ha remitido en las flotas, cuanto va de riquezas naturales tan necesarias á la vida humana, como son los animales y plantas de que los españoles la han proveído.[90]

Cobo’s assuming comments might face some cynics today, but any European of his time would no doubt agree, if only to soothe his own conscience.


Continued >> Chapter 3: Pigs in the Exploration of the Americas


[1] Cristóbal Colón, Los cuatro viajes del almirante y su testamento,11 Dec 2003 <;>, 16 Oct 1492.

[2] Justo L. del Río Moreno and Lorenzo E. López y Sebastián, “Hombres y ganados en la tierra del oro: comienzos de la ganadería en Indias,” Revista Complutense de Historia de América 24 (1998): p. 16.

[3] Colón, 29 Oct 1492, internet.

[4] Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 74.

[5] Laguna Sanz, p. 57.

[6] Cólon, 16 Dec 1492, internet.

[7] Cobo, book X, chap. I, vol. 2, p. 342–3.

[8] Laguna Sanz, p. 55.

[9] Casas, book I, chap. LXXXIII, p. 366.

[10] Analola Borges, “La región canaria en los orígenes americanos” Anuario de Estudios Atlánticos 18 (1972): p. 224; Laguna Sanz, p. 97; Tejera Gaspar, p. 108.

[11] Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 108.

[12] José de Acosta, Historia natural y moral de las Indias, 11 Dec 2003 <>, book I, chap. XXI, internet.

[13] Laguna Sanz, 96.

[14] Cobo, book X, chap. I, vol. 2, p. 344.

[15] Bennett and Hoffmann, p. 102.

[16] Casas, book I, chap. CLXII, p. 640.

[17] Casas, book I, chap. LXXXIII, p. 366.

[18] Casas, book I, chap. CLXII, p. 640.

[19] Cobo, book X, chap. I, vol. 2, p. 345.

[20] Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. “Metamorphosis of the Americas,” in Seeds of Change, eds. Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), p. 80; Daniel W. Gade, “The Iberian Pig in the Central Andes,” Journal of Cultural Geography 7:2 (Spring/Summer 1987): p. 36.

[21] Tejera Gaspar, p. 117–8; Julio Cuenca Sanabria, and Guillermo Rivero, “El cerdo, animal-totem de las poblaciones bereberes del archipielago canario,” El Museo Canario 46 (Sep-Dec 1984): p. 12.

[22] Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 76.

[23] Jordan, p. 70.

[24] Pedro Mártir de Anglería, Décadas del nuevo mundo (Buenos Aires: Editorial Bajel, 1944), década II, book IX, chap. I, p. 182.

[25] Galeotto Cey, Viaje y descripción de las Indias, 1549–1553, ed. José Rafael Lovera (Caracas: Fundación Banco Venezolano de Crédito, 1994), p. 29.

[26] Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Historia general y natural de la Indias (Madrid: Ediciones Atlas, 1959), book XI, chap. III, vol. 2, p. 18.

[27] Victor Manuel Patiño, Plantas cultivadas y animales domésticos en América equinoccial, Vol. 5: Animales domésticos introducidos (Cali: Imprenta Departamental, 1970), p. 308 & 310.

[28] Quoted in Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 79.

[29] Gade, p. 46.

[30] Cobo, book X, chap. V, vol. 2, p. 363.

[31] Luis Torres de Mendoza, Colección de documentos inéditos, relativos al descubrimiento, conquista y organización de las antiguas posesiones españoles de América y Oceanía, sacados de los archivos del reino, y muy especialmente del de Indias, Vol. 34 (Madrid: 1880), p. 141.

[32] Anglería, década I, book X, chap. II, p. 107.

[33] Francisco Morales Padrón, Jamaica española (Sevilla: Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, 1952), p. 96.

[34] Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 76.

[35] Carl O. Sauer, The Early Spanish Main (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 189.

[36] Jordan, p. 70; Crosby, “Metamorphosis,” p. 80.

[37] Casas, book 3, chap. XXII, p. 88.

[38] Cobo, book X, chap. V, vol. 2, p. 364

[39] Anglería, década I, book X, chap. II, p. 107–8.

[40] Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Sumario de la natural historia de las Indias (Santafé de Bogotá: Instituto Caro y Cuervo, 1995), chap. XIX, p. 65.

[41] Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Historia, book XII, chap. IX, vol. 2, p. 38.

[42] Río Moreno and López y Sebastián, p. 33.

[43] Rodero and others, p. 391. He is referring to Pérez de Oliva’s claim that animals “se engrandecen y entorpecen cuanto más tarde nacen allá....” Fernán Pérez de Oliva, Historia de la invención de las Yndias, 11 Dec 2003 <>. Crosby in “Metamorphosis” claims that modern archaeology confirms this observation (p. 80). However, Daniel W. Gade claims that the Iberian pig in the Andes is actually smaller than its Spanish counterpart, the latter traditionally mated to wild boars; Gade, p. 38.

[44] Anglería, década I, book X, chap. II, p. 108.

[45] Francisco López de Gómara, Historia general de las Indias, 11 Dec 2003 <>, chap. LXXVIII.

[46] Tejera Gaspar, p. 119–120.

[47] Patiño, p. 295.

[48] Quoted in Laguna Sanz, p. 191–2.

[49] Cey, p. 29.

[50] Juan López de Velasco, Geografía y descripción universal de las Indias (Madrid: Establecimiento Tipográfico de Fortanet, 1894), p. 20–21.

[51] Antonio de Remesal, Historia general de las Indias occidentales y particular de la gobernación de Chiapa y Guatemala (Madrid: Real Academia Española, 1966), book IV, chap. V, vol. 1, p. 271.

[52] Casas, book I, chap. LXXXIII, p. 366.

[53] This discussion obviously leaves out Spain’s overall most beloved domesticated animal, the horse. Comparing pigs to horses is a case of apples and oranges, and is not the goal here. Rather the attempt is to contrast pigs with other Castilian livestock used primarily for food.

[54] Río Moreno and López y Sebastián, p. 18.

[55] Jordan, p. 70.

[56] Cobo, book X, chap. VI, vol. 2, p. 365.

[57] José Tudela de la Orden, Historia de la ganadaría Hispanoamericana (Madrid: Ediciones de Cultura Hispánica, 1993), p. 138; Tejera Gaspar, p. 115–6.

[58] Cobo, book X, chap. VI, vol. 2, p. 365.

[59] David E. Vassberg, “The Spanish Pig in the Discovery and Conquest of the New World,” speech to SSPHS conference (Madrid, July 2003).

[60] Jordan, p. 74.

[61] Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 75.

[62] Casas, book II, chap. VI, p. 28.

[63] Casas, book II, chap. VII, p. 32.

[64] Rodero and others, p. 391.

[65] Gade, p. 38.

[66] Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 108.

[67] Río Moreno, and López y Sebastián, p. 28, 31–2.

[68] Gade, p. 40.

[69] For an interesting discussion of maize and pigs then and now see Patiño, p. 310 and Laguna Sanz, p. 199.

[70] Laguna Sanz, p. 195–6; Patiño, p. 308-9.

[71] Fernán Pérez de Oliva, internet.

[72] Cey, p. 29.

[73] Acosta, book IV, chap. XXXVIII, internet.

[74] Casas, book II, chap. IV, p. 17.

[75] Garcilaso de la Vega, Comentarios Reales de los Incas (Lima: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1991), book IX, chap. XIX, p. 605.

[76] Vega, book IX, chap. XIX, p. 605.

[77] Cobo, book X, chap. V, vol. 2, p. 364.

[78] Archivo General de Indias (further abbreviated AGI), “Real Cédula,” Santo Domingo, 869, L.2, F. 2-11v (11 Jan 1541); Jeffrey M Pilcher, ¡Que Vivan los Tamales! (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1998), p. 31.

[79] Judith M. Taylor, The Olive in California (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2000), p. 11–19.

[80] Sophie D. Coe, America’s First Cuisines (Austin: University of Texas, 1994), p. 45; Pilcher, p. 31; Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 72–3.

[81] Cobo, book X, chap. V, vol. 2, p. 364.

[82] Justo L. del Río Moreno, “El Cerdo: Historia de un elemento esencial de la cultura castellana en la conquista y colonización de América (siglo XVI),” Anuario de Estudios Americanos 53:1 (1996), p. 35.

[83] Garcilaso de la Vega, La Florida del Inca (Madrid: Fundación Universitaria Española, 1982), book V: part 2, chap. XV, p. 498.

[84] Laguna Sanz, p. 195.

[85] Herrera, vol. 3, p. 525.

[86] Cobo, book X, chap. V, vol. 2, p. 365.

[87] Cey, p. 29.

[88] Vega, Comentarios, book VIII, p. 530-1; book IX, chap: XIX, p. 605.

[89] Patiño, p. 315.

[90] Cobo, book X, chap. I, vol. 2, p. 344.

© 2005 by b.z.