Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Dogs of the Conquest. By John Grier Varner and Jeanette Johnson Varner. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 238 Pages.
Reviewed by Janet R. Fireman, Curator of Cultural History at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, author of The Spanish Royal Corps of Engineers and other works on Spain in America.
The Dogs of the Conquest may have been their Spanish owners’ best friends; certainly they were the Indians’ worst enemies according to Varner and Varner’s grizzly narrative. Spaniards satisfied their vilest lusts of greed and sadism through the attacks of snarling mastiffs, greyhounds, and other breeds (mostly hounds) trained for the human hunt. Tómalo, or “Sic him,” the attack command, must have been uttered tens of thousands of times during the half-century of the conquest.
In eight chapters, divided by locale, the authors attempt to trace the use of dogs as auxiliaries in the spread of the conquest. From the Caribbean to the mainland, on to Mexico and as far north as Quivira and as far south as Chile, Spaniards employed fighting dogs in standing battles, to punish heretics and sexual sinners, to track fleeing vassals, to threaten those who would withhold tribute payments, and generally as grim and vicious enforcers. Dogs of the Conquest contains every story (and then some) the most ardent advocate of the Black Legend might relish. Dog haters too can find verification of their judgments.
All that Varner and Varner say may very well be true, and it is not just because this reviewer is a Hispanophile and canine fancier that she was left doubting. Scholarship is in shorter supply than would be advantageous to make an absolutely convincing argument. The principal sources, liberally footnoted (albeit often at peculiar points), are the right ones. For the most part, the authors have relied on over sixty sixteenth century chronicles and other accounts of the conquest. But they have failed to use those sources in a critical way. Instead, they seem to have accepted without question, without corroboration, and without further research the words of each and every conqueror and chronicler. Whether Las Casas or Columbus, Sahagún or Cortés, Alvarado, Pizarro, or Cabeza de Vaca, the political and personal axes agrinding have been ignored.
As a result, Dogs of the Conquest is naive and incomplete. One would not wish for more killer dog stories, but a more systematic and careful use of the sources would add greatly to treatment of the subject. Something about the breeding and training of the dogs would fill an obvious gap. Knowing how these part time pets learned to do their evil stuff also would be reassuring: who knows what kind of dog tales might be about to wag in our own back yards?