Did Dogs Really Eat Slaves, Like in 'Django'?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Plus, whether slaves rode horses or had Mandingo death matches.

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Slaves also rode horses professionally: As Lisa K. Winkler writes in Smithsonian Magazine, slaves served as jockeys from Colonial times, long before black men dominated the first decades of the Kentucky Derby (in the first Derby in 1875, 13 of 15 jockeys were black): "…when President Andrew Jackson moved in the White House in 1829, he brought along his best Thoroughbreds and his black jockeys. Because racing was tremendously popular in the South, it is not surprising that the first black jockeys were slaves. They cleaned the stables and handled the grooming and training of some of the country's most valuable horseflesh," they "were allowed to travel the racing circuit" and "they competed alongside whites." So, for as effective as the trope is used in Django to distinguish a free Negro from a slave, this is not historically accurate.

It Was a Dog-Eat-Slave World

Professional slave catchers used dogs to chase and capture fugitive slaves. As David Doddington writes in "Slavery and Dogs in the Antebellum South" for the website Sniffing the Past, "it was the use of trained dogs that appears to have most concerned" the slaves. "Former slaves claimed that masters, patrollers, or professional slave catchers would use 'savage dogs, trained to hunt and follow the track of the poor colored fugitive,' " according to the 1857 slave narrative of William J. Anderson

But tracking slaves is one thing; devouring them, as happens in Django, is quite another. Did this happen -- could this have happened -- given the fact that the ultimate goal of a master was to exploit his human chattel for maximum profit, and destroying property would not be perhaps the best business decision?

Apparently, it sometimes did happen. Doddington quotes a slaveholder from Louisiana named Bennett H. Barrow, "who kept a detailed dairy and frequently mentioned the importance of dogs in capturing runaways, as well as the terrible violence they could inflict: 'hunting Ruffins Boy Henry, came across Williams runaway caught him dogs nearly et his legs off, near killing him.' "    

But the most horrendous -- and systematic -- use of man-eating dogs occurred not in the United States, but during the Haitian Revolution, in the former slaves' war with Napoleon's army on Saint Domingue (the French name for the colony that became the nation of Haiti). As the historian Philippe Girard notes in The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon, "France's use of man-hunting dogs during the Haitian Revolution was the most disturbing crime in this singularly cruel conflict and is still vividly remembered in Haiti today." Girard goes on to say that these dogs not only hunted but ate their captives, and the use of dogs, he continues, as agents of "execution regularly took place … in front of the government house in Cap [Le Cap, Saint-Domingue, an important city now known as Cap-Haïtien], much to the annoyance of local residents who complained about the noise." 

One of the most disturbing parts of Django, at least for me, was the sound of bloodhounds devouring a black man who wanted to retire from Mandingo fighting. I thought at the time that it was an exaggeration, but I was, unfortunately, wrong.

Everybody Was Not Mandingo Fighting                    

Which brings us to Mandingo fighting. As Aisha Harris writes for Slate, the pitting of two slaves in the arena fighting to the death only happened in Hollywood films such as Mandingo and Drum. Aside from the immorality of it, slaves were too valuable as investments to kill capriciously in this way. Destroying one's property was not the smartest business strategy.

But, as Harris also notes, "Battles Royale" (boxing contests, during which young black men beat each other senseless for the pleasure of drunken white gawkers, who sometimes paid for admission) as depicted in Ralph Ellison's classic novel Invisible Man were a less savage and final version of the fighting matches depicted in these feature films.

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