The image above is of “Spot,” one of the two Cuban bloodhounds that was used to guard the POW camp at Andersonville, Georgia, during the Civil War.
Andersonville was a notorious POW camp, where nearly 13,000 Union POW’s died of malnutrition and disease– something like the Confederacy’s gulag. The commandant at that particular POW camp was a German-Swiss failed revolutionary, Heinrich Hartmann (“Henry”) Wirz.
To deal with escapes, Wirz kept a pack of man-hunting dogs. These were largely slave-hunting dogs, which were sometimes called “nigger dogs,” that were often used to track slaves that ran away. Most of these were just mongrel foxhounds, bloodhounds, coonhounds, and curs, but in many parts of the South, another kind of dog was often used.
This dog was the Cuban bloodhound.
Now, let me disabuse you of a common misconception: Cuban bloodhound had very little to do with the heavy scent hounds that were derived from the Medieval lymers, dogs that tracked cold trails on leashes or “lyams.” The lymer bloodhounds were never particularly aggressive dogs.
The Cuban bloodhound was quite different. It was derived from a large bulldog-type that was native to Iberian Peninsula. The Spanish used it throughout the New World, along with other large aggressive dogs, to subjugate Native Americans and to control slaves and those laborers bound to the haciendas.
Cuba was very much a slave society, only abolishing it in 1886, and all slave societies have certain features. Among these is the need for a very strong state (as in Weber’s definition of state). No person wants to be a slave, and if you ever have a situation where there are large numbers of people who are being held in slavery, the region is always in a state of war. Slaves often run off, and they often conspire to form rebellions against those who are holding them in bondage. To keep slave revolts under control, it was always necessary to have well-organized units that were expert at fighting. This is one reason why the Confederacy had much better soldiers during the Civil War. Many of the soldiers who fought had already seen battle against minor slave rebellions.
The Cubans used this type of catching mastiff as part of their arsenal against their slaves, and the Cuban bloodhound would have remained solely in Cuba had the Maroons not revolted in Jamaica. Jamaica was given to England in 1655, and the Spanish slaveholders who lived there freed their slaves as the English took over. Slavery had been very hard to establish in Jamaica, and many Spanish slaveholders had a hard time keeping their slaves under control. Those they brought over from Africa would often run off and join the remaining Taino in the mountains. The Taino were also held as slaves on the island, but as was the case throughout the Caribbean, the native people were not resistant to European diseases and many died while they were being held as slaves. Those Taino who remained hid out in the mountains, often raiding plantations. Many African slaves joined up with the Taino, and they gave the Spanish lots of trouble in Jamaica. When the English took over, the slaves the Spanish colonists freed and those Taino and Africans hiding out in the mountains caused them even more trouble.
There were two wars against the Maroons, and the English were never able to control much of the island’s interior.
Until the colonial government ordered “bloodhounds” from Cuba. In 1736, it was decided that each army post should have a bloodhound to dog Maroons, and by 1737, the First Maroon War, which lasted 52 years, was ended. The dogs were a very effective tool of oppression and war, and when the Maroons rose again in 1795, more bloodhounds were brought over to crush that revolt, which lasted only a month. Much credit has been given to those dogs, but in reality, things were much more complex. The English and British had to make massive concessions to the Maroons just to keep the peace, but the bloodhounds were about the only tool that the Europeans had that gave them any advantage.
But at the time, the Cuban bloodhounds became famous in the English-speaking world for their use against rebellious slaves and Indians.
In 1835, the United States became embroiled in the Second Seminole War. Seminole situation was similar to the British experience in Jamaica. Slaves were escaping from plantations and joining up with hostile Indians, and having heard of the supposed successes that came from these bloodhounds in Jamaica, the Florida Territorial government purchase Cuban bloodhounds to use against the Seminoles. The dogs were credited with catching only two Seminoles, and the Florida territorial government actually charged the US Army $2,500 for their import and upkeep. John Quincy Adams, the former president and outspoken opponent of slavery in the House of Representatives, threw a fit on the house of representatives for this bill. He suggested the dogs be sent to Maine ASAP so they could be used in a possible war with Britain over the border with New Brunswick, and the US government needed to be careful. It might have to pay these bloodhounds a pension!
The dogs then became relatively common throughout the South, even if they were of no use against Native Americans, they were very good at catching slaves. This was the bloodhound that was portrayed as a villain in the abolitionist literature, an unfortunate historical misnomer that would later tarnish the name old lymers that we also call “bloodhound.”
During the Civil War, at least two of the dogs were used to guard Union POW’s. There were probably more of these dogs used for this purpose, but the two at the Andersonville Prison were the best known. When Andersonville was liberated, a photo was taken of Spot. I cannot find a good copy of it online, but it is from that photo that the above image was produced.
Spot was a big dog. He stood three feet at the shoulder and weighed 159 pounds. With that size and disposition, he was quite a dangerous animal.
Having looked at several depictions and descriptions of the Cuban bloodhound, the closest I can get to a modern-day equivalent and possible relative is the Presa Canario. The Presa Canario may be derived from Spanish catch dogs that were brought to the islands. This catch dog could have the common ancestor with the Cuban bloodhound, or it may be that the Cuban bloodhound was derived from the catch dogs from the Canary Islands.
The exact history of the Presa Canario isn’t all that clear, and there is a persistent theory that the Presa Canario is derived from an indigenous mastiff-type dog that was there before the Spanish Conquest. Supposedly, the Canary Islands, which are derived from the Latin word for dog (Canis), are named for this dog.
I am not sure if the Presa Canario is an ancient mastiff from the Canary Islands or is the result of imports from Spain. I don’t think the official history of these dogs has experienced much rigor, so one should rightly be skeptical.
However, I do think it is likely that the Cuban bloodhound was a very close relative of the Presa Canario. It may have even been the same dog. It’s just the Cuban dog was used in the New World and got some ancestry from other New World dogs.
That’s probably why Spot was some form of merle. Merle doesn’t exist widely in the mastiff family, and I doubt that it was widespread in Iberian mastiffs. As you may know, I am skeptical of the theory that the Catahoulas and other merle curs are derived from Spanish mastiffs. I think their merling comes English cur dogs and perhaps– though never proven– the proto-Beauceron that may have been in Louisiana. Crossing bulldogs and mastiff-tupe dogs with curs is old hat in the South, so it would have made sense that Cuban bloodhounds would have been bred to curs to make merle attack dogs.
After slavery was abolished following the Civil War, the need to have these big attack dogs disappeared. There are some theories that these dogs disappeared into the bulldog and “pit bull” types that were much more common, but even if they did, their contribution to these breeds is probably quite trivial. The Southern bulldogs that are now established breeds aren’t like Cuban bloodhounds at all, and the Cuban dogs were much larger and much harder to control than one would have ever wanted in a pit fighting dog.
The Cuban bloodhound was the real dog of war, and after the wars, it became a tool of oppression in slave societies.
This is one breed whose extinction was probably a good thing.