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

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Chapter V: Colonial Pigs


Pig in the city

The Spanish Crown, unlike the Indians, never wavered on the subject of pigs. From the very start the pig’s rapid breeding and its obvious utility for early colonizers was lauded by the powers in Spain. By the second half of the sixteenth century the Spanish Crown found it convenient to include clauses in the licenses granted to adelantados obligating the transport of pigs. A decree in 1541, for example, insisted that officials “compelan a los maestres y marineros de las naos que vayan a Nueva España a llevar el ganado y plantas.”[1] Depending on the need and the destination ships might be compelled to carry between a dozen and five hundred hogs. The Crown saw this as a basic component of colonization, essential to progress and stability, as well as a potential source of income. The soundness of this policy is seen in the successes of Peru and Panama, and conversely in the disaster of the first settling of Buenos Aires, which lacked such pastoral support.[2]

For this reason it is obvious why early colonies and expeditions were principally supplied with swine. The following royal decree in 1521 provides an example during the colonization of Panama:

Pos las necesidades que me escribisteis, que teneys de batimento e ganado, para con que os podays sostener, entre tanto que haceys labranzas e que crien los dichos ganados, pues en esa tierra hay tan buena disposición para ello, y por vos hacer merced, envío a mandar a Francisco de Garay nuestro capitán de la Ysla de Santiago, que enviando vosotros a la dicha Isla, vos pongan en el puerto o puertos della que quisieredes y vos provea, de cincuenta vacas, e cincuenta becerros, e doscientas ovejas, e mil cabezas de puercos....[3]

It should be no surprise that the number of pigs freely given is greater by a factor of five to twenty times the numbers of other livestock. Firstly because their incredible adaptation to the Indies and high reproductive rate ensured such numbers, and secondly because pigs were ideally suited to the efficient and rapid colonization of new lands. The Spanish Crown granted livestock as an incentive for colonization, offering married workers both a cow and a pig for moving to Panama.[4]

The number of hogs, and later other livestock as well, grew to such an extent that it quickly became no matter at all to procure them; instead the problem became how to exploit their use best. Thus, the specialized estancia in the Indies that raised only pigs would eventually give way to the New World hacienda of the highlands, which afforded larger spaces and an agreeable climate to raise a diversified and more profitable mix of sheep, cattle, pigs, as well as wheat and corn.[5] Pigs grew with the cities as well. Ten years after the conquest of Mexico, pork was still the meat of choice feeding the hungry Spaniards. Indeed, as the Spanish founded new villages, initially pork was often the only European meat available. Rising numbers of livestock ensured the growing accessibility of meat, and New World dwellers were at the time some of the most meat-fed people on earth.[6]

In Mexico City, Veracruz, and Panama during the 1520s, as well as Peru in the 1530s, raising and selling pigs were particularly profitable industries. The price of pigs in Mexico City during this time was maintained by the high demand for both its meat and lard. Hogs were a steady commodity, and were even used as a medium of stable exchange; swine might be transferred to settle debts or to purchase items. Eventually, however, the number of heads available for purchase surpassed demand and the prices fell dramatically. This fact is most clearly demonstrated by the price of meat in Mexico City, which dropped from 334 maravedíes in 1524 to only 20 maravedíes in 1528, and a mere 8 maravedíes in 1541. In large part the arrival of the Segunda Audiencia in 1531was also involved because the new restrictions it imposed on the encomiendas caused a massive sell off of commodities, including pigs.[7]

Added to this was the increasingly available cattle supply, which made it inevitable for the high prices enjoyed by the pork industry to fall. The city of Mexico was not regularly supplied with beef until 1526, but even after that date the supply of meat went through boom and bust cycles that depended on weather, population flux, and new rules decreed by the Spanish Crown and the local Cabildo. Not to be underestimated as well was the demand for meat by other regions of the Americas. Just as Cortés single-handedly depleted the pig supply of Cuba in 1519 when he set out for mainland Mexico, other expeditions to Panama and especially Peru were diverting the livestock supply at sudden and irregular intervals. The colonization of such regions frequently required more livestock than people.[8] The Cabildo endeavored ceaselessly to regulate the price and distribution of meat in Mexico City.[9] They also took a proactive role in petitioning the Crown about grievances relating to the meat supply:

Otra cabsa es el agrabio general que se a hecho y haze en quitar las estancias de ganados...y lo que se ynforma para el quitar es malicia y pasiones yntereses particulares agrabiando notablemente a los dueños de ellas de que demas del daño particular en ser ynjustamente desposeydos rresulta general en faltar como falta por se quitar las estancias proueymiento de carnes en la tierra siendo como ha sido bastantemente abastada della.[10]

Just as in Mexico, the city of Lima was similarly reliant on pork during its first years, the entire process merely delayed by a decade. In 1536, one year after its founding, one pig a day was being slaughtered in Lima. The valleys of Juaja, Cuzco, and Charcas in Peru, as well as Tunja in Columbia, were also well-known for hog raising. The price at that time was an elevated 675 maravedíes, but it fell precipitously to 280 in 1538. No doubt it would have fallen even further, but a number of factors reversed the trend and maintained elevated prices for pigs for several decades during the sixteenth century. The demands of the burgeoning mining industry in Potosí needed an insatiable amount of sustenance to maintain its labor force. As Garcilaso de la Vega informed us, the mange (sarna) epidemic pushed the price of pig up: “Por este tiempo valen a seis y a siete. Y valieran menos si no fuera por la manteca, que la estiman para curar la sarna....”[11] Added to that were the intrusions of the civil wars, in which the porcine necessities of Gonzalo Pizarro himself seemed to maintain the high price of hogs. All these factors together nearly tripled the price of pigs in Lima during the 1540s despite a population of more than 14,000 heads ready for slaughter.[12]

The increasing amount of livestock in the cities, especially pigs, caused innumerable problems of hygiene and endless battles with the local authorities. During the first few years, Mexico City’s central plaza was the place used to sell pigs and other livestock for slaughter. In short order the plaza also became the center of excrement and unbearable odors, much to the dismay of the Cabildo. Because of this, the council ordered the sale of pigs and sheep moved near the slaughterhouse for cows. This attempt failed and again the pigs were moved to the plaza, but only temporarily, and restricted to specific hours. Eventually, as the city grew and the number of transactions increased selling livestock was moved to the outskirts of the city where they would remain.[13]

Part of the difficulty in regulating hogs in the cities seems to come from their adaptability to urban life. More than any other livestock, citizens accepted pigs as natural members of the household. Pens were constructed and attached to homes, and owners encouraged their pigs to rummage through the city streets in search of food, much to the consternation of the city authorities. Not surprisingly, this caused dire complaints of terrible odors, contaminated water supplies, filth and excrement along the roads.[14]

The Mexico City council responded with tireless and seemingly ineffective decrees prohibiting pigs from the streets and, in many cases, from the entire city itself. Hogs found meandering the avenues could be taken or killed without penalty; nonetheless it appears that no amount of prohibition stopped the practice. As early as 1525 and lasting into the nineteenth century, the Actas de Cabildo are littered with such impotent decrees.

Este dia mandaron que se pregone publicamente que todas las personas que tienen puercos en esta Cibdad e en sus terminos los saquen de ella dentro de quinze dias por manera que no anden por la Cibdad so pena del perdimiento del quinto de los dichos puercos...[15]

The period between 1525 and 1534, the first years of Mexico City’s existence recorded in the Actas, were especially insistent, with at least fourteen specific proclamations. Each time this same decree appears again with harsher language and stiffer penalties. Compare this pronouncement just over two years later:

Otrosy los dichos Señores dixeron que por quanto esta ordenado e mandado e pregonado que no anden puercos por esta Cibdad por el mucho daño e ynconviniente que de ello se recrece so cierta pena lo qual no se ha guardo ni complydo...mandaron que ninguna persona sea osado de traer pena que sy fueren tomados los dychos puercos...e desde agora los aplican la tercia parte para las obras publicas de esta Cibdad e la otra tercia parte para el que lo denunciare.[16]

Either these ordinances were impossible to enforce, or the citizens were simply unwilling to part with their pigs.

It would appear that only in the mid-eighteenth century did massive and enforced penalties begin to dissuade citizens from keeping pigpens in the city center. A similar series of events occurred in Panama, Quito, and Lima. It is fascinating that the Actas de Cabildo for Lima repeat this same evolution of decrees, the whole matter simply delayed by one decade. But it was the same story all over Peru, especially in places like Trujillo where the Indians had also taken up pig raising and allowed the animals to roam freely in the streets.[17] There should be no surprise that these same sorts of tribulations existed in early North American cities as well, places like New Haven and Boston where hog raising brought by English colonials was prevalent.[18]

A cada cerdo le llega su San Martín

Although the pig was used as an animal in both the conquering and colonization phase of the Conquest, its importance would eventually diminish as other European livestock adapted to the New World.[19] Perhaps most significant of all was the cow, which although it did not aid in the conquest would, as time progressed, serve the colonists most. Bernabé Cobo wrote that, excepting horses, “se debe á las Vacas el segundo lugar, por cuanto son de no menor utilidad que ellos.”[20] This was certainly true in 1652 when the padre penned these lines.

The proliferation of cattle was extensive, although it took some time for such expansion to occur and for generations to adapt. Cattle arrived in Mexico in 1521, but their slaughter was forbidden until their numbers could grow. This pattern was common; cattle use was slow at first, but eventually their numbers outpaced pigs.[21] Eventually, as the availability of cattle increased, the Spanish came less to rely on pork and more on beef. In Santo Domingo this had occurred by 1520, and in Cuba the turning point probably arrived ten or twenty years later.[22] By 1550, the economic and social importance of cattle was superior in the tropics than that of ganado menor, including pigs, sheep, and goats.[23]

Cows did best on the open grasslands, not just in Mexico but also in places like the pampas of Argentina. These lands were, for the most part, vacant: no competing animals, no diseases or parasites, and no natural predators. The Indians had not utilized this pastureland because, lacking large domesticated animals, had had no way of converting grasses into something fit for human consumption. Herds grew tenfold in just a few years, reproducing as fast as biology would allow. From the pig’s point of view these wide-open spaces were less tolerable because of direct sunlight and heat, although they did do well along riverbanks.[24]

The main difference between pigs and cows, once enough of each was available to compare, was economic. Cows ate grass, and given the ample unused pastures of the Americas, had a free and abundant food source. Domesticated pigs were fed on maize or manioc and therefore competed with humans for food and water. Cattle were also a source for milk and cheese. Even more significantly, cattle provided hides that could be sold in the Americas and exported to Spain at a high profit, and this feature alone considerably encouraged their numbers. Pigs, along with chickens, would always remain the preferred livestock of poorer people who did not own large pastures of land. It also explains their success in cities, where one or two could be incorporated into the urban dwelling.

The effect of cattle on the Indians in the second half of the sixteenth century, and well into the next was far more disastrous than the complications wrought by pigs. Cattle overran Indian lands, destroyed agricultural plots, and in a very real sense displaced the natives. Where villages might once have been, pastureland for cattle became the norm. This is especially true in Mexico, where Spain’s first viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, abolished cattle ranches in some parts of Oaxaca. He wrote to his successor: “May your Lordship realize that if cattle are allowed the Indians will be destroyed.”[25] While both he and Luis de Velasco who followed him did pronounce edicts limiting cattle ranching in the valley, it is evident that by the 1560’s such prohibitions were no longer being enforced.[26]

Sheep were far less destructive than either pigs or cattle, and became the most important Spanish livestock in the higher elevations, along with goats, in part because they could utilize pastureland that was damaged by cattle. Unlike valuable cowhides, however, sheep’s wool was not as profitable on the international market; there was still plenty coming from Spain.[27]

Writing in the year 1652, looking back on 150 years of Spanish influence in the Americas, Bernabé Cobo draws an insightful parallel between sheep and their Spanish masters:

Y ha mostrado la experiencia en este Nuevo Mundo, que toda tierra que no es aparejada para el Ganado ovejuno, es malsana para los españoles, y por el consiguiente está poco poblada déllos.[28]

They especially thrived in the cooler, drier regions of the Americas, notably in the highlands of Central Mexico and in the Andes of South America. This climate was reminiscent of the Meseta of Spain, and in these areas it should be no surprise that sheep succeeded.[29] Pigs proliferated here as well, but usually in areas that had at least some forest or shade. Hogs were kept in sties surrounded by rock walls, of the same type that could be found in Extremadura during that time.[30]

In summary, each livestock had its advantages and disadvantages, and the Spaniards were shrewd in their proper exploitation of each. Arguably, cattle would prove to be the most important livestock in the Mexico and the Río de la Plata region later in the colonial period, and sheep would find their place in the higher elevations of the mainland, spreading through both American continents. Wherever cattle or sheep could not grow, the pig would retain its supremacy.


Pigs on the Plate

The livestock and plants that the Spaniards sent to the New Word were clearly indicative of what they viewed as important and useful in their homeland. Columbus brought a veritable Noah’s ark along with him on his second voyage to be replanted in the Americas. Meanwhile back in Spain a number of plants and animals fell into disuse because of their association with the recently-conquered Moslems. Consider the telling fate of cilantro. The green herb, present since antiquity and even mentioned in the Bible, was common in the Oriental dishes of the Moors. Around the time of Columbus it was available in enough supply that it arrived in the New World and today is an integral part of Mexican and other American cuisines. Yet try as one might, it would be difficult to find cilantro in Spain today, despite the fact that it is incredibly popular in neighboring Portugal. This is because cilantro traveled to the Americas at the same time that back in Reconquest Spain the plant’s use was fading under the taint of its supposed Moorish roots. Parsley, apparently a very Christian herb, inherited its place in Spanish cuisine.[31]

The pig, on the other hand, succeeded and thrived on both sides of the Atlantic. After all, what could be more (Christian) Spanish and less Moorish than the pig? Hogs garnered praise from Spanish explorers, agriculturists, leaders, and writers. Alonso de Herrera raved:

Hay tantas maneras y cosas y particularidades en los puercos que decir, y tantos adobos, que haberlos de decir sería nunca acabar, ni hay animal ninguno de quien tantas golosinas se puedan hacer....”[32]

Even Spain’s most famous writer, Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616) writes in Don Quijote: “Esta Dulcinea del Toboso, tantas veces en esta historia referida, dicen que tuvo la mejor mano para salar puercos que otra mujer de toda la Mancha.”[33] If a woman’s desirability was linked to her abilities to salt pork, surely its place in popular culture was assured.

The pig, along with cheeses and other meats, fused with native ingredients and cooking styles to produce a truly mestizo cuisine that is obvious today in countries like Mexico and Peru. Pork and lard are standard ingredients in numerous dishes, although the preparation has been altered and expanded with American ingredients. The Spanish chorizo, a smoked sausage typical of Extremadura, attained new levels of spice with the addition of New World ancho peppers. Perhaps the first truly mestizo dish was the pork taco, served to Cortés during one of his many banquets. The process continues even now, new ingredients incorporated every day, as is plainly evidenced by the small Indian village of San Juan Chamula, whose famous regional dish is pork loin in Pepsi Cola.[34]

Cooking techniques also combined. While the Spanish learned to smoke meat in barbacoas, indigenous groups found new options in using lard to fry. Indian cooking had usually involved boiling or roasting, never frying, and certainly not in animal fat. Even for the Spanish, cooking with lard was more of a necessity than a choice. Although the idea of using pork fat to cook was common to the French, most Spaniards would have much preferred to fry with the olive oil typical of their homeland. But the precious Spanish fruit was not readily available in the Americas, and very quickly both the Spaniards and eventually the natives found lard indispensable.[35]

Latin Americans today continue to debate what is “authentic” to their cuisine. Regional specialties and local ingredients hold higher esteem than what we in the rest of the world typically think of as “Mexican” food. Renowned chef and restaurateur Alicia Gironella De’Angeli separates her homeland’s food into two distinct categories: one is “the same food we serve at home,” and “[t]he other is the popular Mexican food, the kind with the grease and cheese and everything fried.” Furthermore, she notes rather pointedly, “We did not have the lard and the grease that most people think of as Mexican in our roots. The Spaniards brought the pigs.”[36]

Continued >> Conclusions


[1] AGI, “Licencia al marqués de Valle,” Indiferente, 1963, L.8, F. 1r-1v (6 May1541).

[2] Río Moreno, “Cerdo,” p. 29–30; Peyrera, p. 121.

[3] AGI “Despacho para la ciudad de Panama,” Panama, 233, L.1, F.288v-290r (6 Sep1521); Also quoted in Laguna Sanz, p. 84.

[4] AGI “Franquezes a los labradores de Tiera Firme,” Panama, 233, L.1, F. 247v-248r (5 Jul 1519).

[5] Jordan, p. 100.

[6] Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 79; Tudela de la Orden, p. 152.

[7] Río Moreno, “Cerdo,” p. 19–20; François Chevalier, Land and Society in Colonial Mexico (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1963), p. 85.

[8] Vargas and Castillas, p. 57; Río Moreno, “Cerdo,” p. 22.

[9] Actas de Cabildo, 17 March 1541, book 4, p. 235–6.

[10] Actas de Cabildo, 28 May 1556, book 6, p. 227.

[11] Vega, Comentarios, book IX, chap. XIX, p. 605.

[12] Río Moreno, “Cerdo,” p. 23–4; Tudela de la Orden, p. 151.

[13] Actas de Cabildo, 22 January 1528; Río Moreno, “Cerdo,” p. 28.

[14] Río Moreno, “Cerdo,” p. 27–9.

[15] Actas de Cabildo, 27 October 1525.

[16] Actas de Cabildo, 22 January 1528.

[17]Actas del cabildo de Trujillo 1549–1604 (Lima: Concejo Provincial de Trujillo, 1969); Antonio Santoyo, “De cerdos y de civilidad urbana,” Historia Mexicana 47:1 (July/Sept. 1997): p. 76–7; Coe, p. 229–30.

[18] Anderson, p. 162.

[19] Morales Padrón, Los conquistadores, p. 117.

[20] Cobo, book X, chap. III, vol. 2, p. 357.

[21] Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 87.

[22] Río Moreno, “Cerdo,” p. 32.

[23] Río Moreno and López y Sebastián, p. 37.

[24] Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 108; Crosby, Ecological Imperialism, p. 174; Jordan, p. 70.

[25] Quoted in Chevalier, p. 93–4.

[26] Instrucciones que los Vireyes de Nueva España dejaron a sus sucesores (Mexico: Imprenta de Ignacio Escalante, 1873), vol. 1, p. 37–8; William B. Taylor, Landlord and Peasant in Colonial Oaxaca (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1972), p. 15 & 114.

[27] Super, John C, Food, Conquest, and Colonization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988), p. 26.

[28] Cobo, book X, chap. VI, vol. 2, p. 366.

[29] Río Moreno and López y Sebastián, p. 37.

[30] Jordan, p. 99.

[31] Montse Clavé, El sabor en la ruta de Hernán Cortés (Barcelona: Libros de Allende, 2002), p. 20–1.

[32] Herrera, p. 524.

[33] Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha (Madrid: Editorial Castalia, 1998), p. 153.

[34] Vargas and Castillas, p. 57; Pilcher, p. 32, 135, & 139.

[35] Gade, p. 39–40.

[36] Quoted in Florence Fabricant, “Mexican Chefs Embrace a Lighter Cuisine of Old,” The New York Times, 3 May 1995, sec. C, p. 1.

© 2005 by b.z.