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"You Should Give them Blacks to Eat": Waging Inter-American Wars of Torture and Terror

From: American Quarterly
Volume 61, Number 1, March 2009
pp. 65-92 | 10.1353/aq.0.0068



This article examines the role of the state in sanctioning canine torture within the brutal context of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century plantation societies. While the employment of dogs as a slave-catching strategy was commonplace throughout the Americas, I trace the use of Cuban-bred dogs trained to track down and feed upon black flesh. Spanish, French, British and North American slave-holding powers in the region collaborated in subduing enemy combatants, using canine warfare techniques that dated back to the Spanish Conquest. These techniques were employed during the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803), the Second Maroon War in Jamaica (1795-96), and the Second Seminole War in Territorial Florida (1835-1842), the three largest-scale conflicts pitting the colonial state against African and indigenous populations from the 1790s-1840s. I illustrate that the viciousness of this strategy was a topic of strident debate for contemporary observers and that it left an indelible mark on public memory. This memory has been vividly preserved in the visual record, as well as in historical fiction by African American and Caribbean intellectuals. The use of canine torture and the debate it engendered recurred in the public sphere with the allegations surrounding the American prison at Abu Ghraib, and I close by examining continuities between the Age of Revolution and the contemporary War on Terror. Justified as a question of colonial/national security in each case, torture has proved an indispensable component in the imperial subjugation of non-white peoples.