Introducing “Slave Hounds and Abolition in the Americas”

by Dr. Tyler Parry (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) & Dr. Chaz Yingling (University of Louisville)

In accordance with testimonies from many runaways, ex-slave David Holmes from Mecklenberg County, Virginia detailed his own harrowing escape from slavery, recalling how environmental knowledge aided him in successfully evading the bloodhounds used to track him. British journalist L.A. Chamerovzow, who interviewed Holmes in 1852, recorded that such knowledge was “secret” and not “known generally” to protect strategies from prying slaveowners. He thus omitted the type of substance that Holmes used to confuse the bloodhound’s sensory power, saying that it “must remain an editorial secret” and that he would “not betray it, for the benefit of the planters; but it is at the service of friends.” Such covert archives, transmitted through quiet conversations among the enslaved, enabled many across the Caribbean and North America in escaping bondage.

Though not all slaves were so secretive in interviews and memoirs, the ubiquity of slave hounds in the rise of slavery and fall through abolition has remained obscured. Holmes’ reference does offer useful insights into how slaves curated knowledge and guarded it from masters. Collectively, the primary sources that remain reveal the terror of slave hounds as an enforcer of enslavement, and the deep environmental knowledge and arrays of evasive techniques that slaves possessed across the Americas. A focus upon how slaves used specialized herbal combinations and waterways to subvert the canine’s sensory advantage reveals a new approach for advancing the environmental history of slavery. While the burgeoning approach of animal history has illuminated the centrality of the often-unwitting centrality of nonhuman animals in the expansion of human empires and economic extractions, it has yet to interrogate the canine’s contributions to racial subordination in the Atlantic. Dogs – at once companions, sentinels, and soldiers in preceding contexts – were coerced into becoming particularly effective, sadistic, dehumanizing implements of racial stratification.

The Hunted Slaves by Richard Ansdell 1861

“The Hunted Slaves” by Richard Ansdell (1861), from the Liverpool International Salvery Museum collection

The “bay of the bloodhounds” was a harrowing reminder to escaped slaves that their pursuers were never far behind. The many brave resistance of slaves during escape and epochal slave rebellions demonstrated their own humanity, and the depravity of slaveowners, to prominent anti-slavery activists, offering evidence to politically pressure the cessation of slavery. Slaves could often outrun their human pursuers, but the alarming brutality of quadrapedic foes presented a unique challenge in their relentless stamina and ability to follow wafting scents of fugitives. In the absence of weapons and other materials for self-defense, runaway slaves harnessed products from the earth to evade the bloodhounds. Favored items for “throwing off the scent” often included pungent vegetables or herbal remedies that obfuscated the bloodhound’s scenting abilities. Some waded through water, stripped off their clothes, or even covered themselves in dirt, and fought with tree branches, rocks, or their bare hands if finally pinned by a pursuing hound.

Our article “Slave Hounds and Abolition in the Americas” (open access, Past & Present #246) shows that interspecies violence was central to the foundations of Atlantic racism. In the conclusion we ponder that if dogs were integral to slavery yet remain obscured by anthropocentric frames, might scholarship more broadly benefit from further analytical attention to the entwinement of other nonhuman animals in race and ethnicity? By exploring the intersections of slavery, animal studies, and environmental history, we hope to not only contribute to each field but to more fully realize how modernity and its malaise were made in microcosmic dramas in landscapes of sugar cane, coffee, cotton, and the fugitive terrains at the fringes of plantation societies. Suffused with analysis on cases like those of David Holmes from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries across the Caribbean and North America, we hope this article substantively engages a growing conversation on these salient matters, and perhaps adds new approaches for scholars to consider.

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