Did Dogs Really Eat Slaves, Like in 'Django'?
100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Plus, whether slaves rode horses or had Mandingo death matches.
(slaveryimages.org; original source unidentified)
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.
It's one thing to defend an artist's right to spin a historical event in a postmodern way, but even postmodernists have to get their dates right. The title sequence of Django Unchained says that 1858 is two years before the Civil War. The Civil War began in 1861, and I would hope that this is corrected for the film's DVD.
Whether you like Django's post-modern take on slavery or not, one of its most salutary effects is that it has generated a greater conversation about the enslavement of our ancestors than any that I have witnessed perhaps since Roots. Because our society has long been in denial about African American slavery--America's original sin--since well-before its abolition, I would hope we all might agree that this is a very good thing, a necessary discussion that is long overdue.
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.