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

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Pigs in the History Books

The single fact that the history books all seem to agree upon is that the Spaniards brought the pigs. Often this is the full extent they tell us about the introduction of the Iberian hog into the Americas. Without doubt the Spaniards owed much of their victory to their bravery, their greed, and their Indian allies. Yet as this effort has tried to illustrate, the important place of swine in Spanish culture, as well as the diverse and essential uses of the pig during the first half-century of conquest in the Americas, deserves more than just a footnote.

Some of the first colonizers in the New World, and among the most notable, were not people at all. European livestock— pigs, along with cattle, sheep, dogs, and horses— just as their Iberian masters, perhaps even more voraciously than they, sought to colonize this new land. Without natural predators, and with a raw abundance of available food, the pig in particular thrived and multiplied more rapidly than any other livestock.[1] They were present seemingly wherever the Spaniards went, and propagated so quickly that they settled places the Europeans had yet to reach.

Today the Spanish still praise the utility of pig just as enthusiastically as they did in the days of Ferdinand and Isabella. In the introduction to a recent book entitled Elogio y reivindicación del cerdo, Gallego López remarks: “Que un animal doméstico tan aprovechado y aprovechable sea protagonista de un libro, no debe extrañar en esta tierra, donde el cerdo forma parte del paisaje, del sabor y del olor.”[2] Says Ana Castañer: “En el cerdo todo es bueno, todo es útil y todo es agradable, y como si su cuerpo no proporcionase bastantes beneficios a la humanidad, el instinto del animal le hace descubrir la trufa....”[3] Every part of the pig is consumed or used in this land, evidenced in the popular Spanish saying, del cerdo hasta los andares. Pork is integral to the gastronomy of Spain, as well as many parts of Latin America. More than five hundred years past 1492, the future of the pig in Spain appears assured.

The same is not so in the Americas. Most historians here do not talk about these pigs. We know this is true even while they pontificate about cows, dogs, and their favorite animal, the horse. But as Spanish historian Carlos Pereyra has argued, “Pero si el caballo significó mucho en la conquista, el cerdo fué de mayor importancia, y contribuyó en un grado del que no podrá hacerse ponderación excesiva.[4] Of course historians cannot be admonished too severely because, as we have seen, contemporary New World chroniclers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were not always talking about pigs either. These explorers focused on the new and unique features of the lands they were conquering; probably it did not even occur to them to mention the rather typical droves of hogs bringing up the rear of an expedition. Indeed, although perhaps thousands of pigs followed Francisco Pizarro into Peru during his conquest of the Incas, there is only one tangential reference to pigs in the first-hand accounts of the journey.[5]

When the pig is mentioned, it is certainly nothing special or out of the ordinary for the Spaniards. Taking the pig for granted contrasts most notably with the chroniclers’ account of horses, of which there were far fewer, but receive the bulk of their attention. How can we explain that even these contemporary eyewitnesses for the most part seem to have passed over the pig? Perhaps the things we use most in our daily lives are so common, so everyday, that there is little use discussing or recording their effect upon us. Imagine if you were to write a diary today: Would it not be silly and pointless to mention each day that what you breathe is air, that you walk along a cement sidewalk and not in the middle of the road, and that the food you eat comes from a large supermarket located two miles from home? While it is clear that the Spanish explorers relied heavily on their pigs in the first stage of the conquest, perhaps it was a fact so obvious that it would not have occurred to them to emphasize it. Pigs, of course, did not take part in battles as the horses did.[6]

Nonetheless, for roughly fifty years the Iberian hog provided the Spaniards with an invaluable means of conquest. Although the brave horses that carried the Spanish richly deserve the credit lauded on them for aiding in battle, the pig has been forgotten in large part because it contributed to the less glamorous battle against hunger; while its utility is less obvious, it was no less essential. Hogs were the only animals available in the New World at the time that could breed fast enough to supply the Spanish expeditions with salt pork for the voyages. Moreover, no other animal could then be herded along the rigorous journeys, finding its own food, and still reproduce at a pace that might provide a mobile meat supply. A battle in which the horses took part might be won or lost in a matter of hours, but the long-term goal of survival for any expedition relied more heavily on supplies of meat and nutrition afforded by the pigs. After all, a famished soldier is hardly more useful than a dead one.

We understand that under such circumstances the pig has until now been relegated to an unwarranted level of historical insignificance in the Americas. Of course it is not the argument here that the conquest was literally accomplished by valiant hogs that brought up the rear of the Spanish expeditions. However, I am hoping to challenge the assumption that the conquistador was merely a soldier-figure, greedy, and impelled by God. He was more importantly an entrepreneur and an agriculturist who relied on good planning and steady, efficient supplies as much as he did on his sword. After all, more Spaniards in the sixteenth century made their money in trade, especially in agriculture and livestock, than by plundering cities of gold and silver. It would have been far more difficult, if not impossible, for the continual offensives by the Spanish armies without the backing of a mobile, prolific, and rugged supply train following them through the Americas.[7]

The pig’s moment in the sun was a brief one. From 1493 when Columbus brought the first eight pigs until the mid-sixteenth century, the pig was an invaluable tool for Spanish explorers and early colonizers. When the number of cows in the Antilles or later in Mexico City grew to sufficient numbers, the importance of pigs declined. Cows seem to have been more useful to the colonists in the settled areas because, besides meat, they provided a host of other products like milk, tallow, and extremely profitable hides. Cattle were also more suited than hogs to the grassy plains of central Mexico and the pampas of Argentina, and successfully converted grass— inedible for human consumption— into delicious steaks. Sheep and goats, too, found their place in the cooler climates of the highlands, providing not only meat but wool and dairy products. Eventually the pigs receded into the shade of history.[8]

To this day pigs have not received the same level of acceptance as other Old World livestock like cows, sheep, and chickens. Though by and large still raised and highly-valued, they are compelled to share their place with the other European livestock, animals which had taken a bit more time to get adjusted to the Americas, but suited the new colonial economy well. Even so, the pig is still not as well liked in the Americas as it is in its Iberian homeland. Considered a disagreeable animal by many, unclean by others, there are laws to ban its presence in cities. In Spain, pork is a staple in many people’s diets, and certain pig products are a delicacy. In the United States, on the other hand, despite consistently ranking as one of the top three pork exporters in the world, domestic per capita pork consumption is not even in the top ten.[9] Making a profit from pigs clearly does not guarantee its local acceptance.

Where do hogs belong in the history books? I believe the pig should rightly be seen as one of the first of many colonizers to arrive from Spain. Its prolific growth and expansion into the American territories, its acceptance and rejection by the natives, its utility to the Spaniards: all these aspects have invaluable lessons for understanding the history of the Americas since the time of Columbus. The study of swine helps us to understand the culture that traveled to the New World, and the subsequent mixing of traditions that produced Latin America as we know it today. The pig, more fervently even than its Spanish master, implanted itself into the American landscape. As historian Francisco Morales Padrón stated quite poetically, the pigs “ponían su nota puerca, gruñona, roja, negra y blanca en el solar indiano que le ofreció el gustoso maíz.”[10] But that nota puerca is a subtle one, a gesture that has been overlooked for too long.

Alfred W. Crosby asked, “It is possible to imagine the conquistador without his pig, but who can imagine him without his horse?”[11] It is my hope that after reading this study, Crosby’s remark will ring false, and it will be impossible to imagine a sixteenth-century Spanish exploration without a drove of pigs following behind. Without extolling the virtues of this animal too much, I believe we should acknowledge the pig’s place in the history of the Americas. And while the figure of the “conquistador cerdo” may have been overshadowed in history, perhaps in the future it can remind us that the things most commonplace in life, though sometimes going unnoticed, are significant to understanding how we arrived where we are today.

Continued >> Bibliography


[1] Rodero and others, p. 387.

[2] José Herranz Martínez, Elogio y revindicación del cerdo (Lorca: SEPOR, 1992), p. 7.

[3] Castañer and Fuertes, p. 34.

[4] Pereyra, p. 121.

[5] Trujillo, p. 87.

[6] Río Moreno, “Cerdo”, p. 15.

[7] Pereyra, p. 120 & 125.

[8] Crosby, Ecological Imperialism, p. 174 & 177.

[9] Missouri Agricultural Statistics Service, internet.

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

[11] Crosby, Columbian Exchange, p. 79.

© 2005 by b.z.