The Conquest of Mexico . . . by Pigs???

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By Deborah Van Hoewyk

You can’t say no to the Queen, right?  When the Spanish monarchs Isabella I of Castile and her hubby Ferdinand II of Aragon decided to bankroll Christopher Columbus in 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502, it was Isabella who strongly suggested that Columbus take eight Iberian pigs (Sus mediterraneus) on the 1493 voyage, along with 1,500 men and women to settle the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic).  Other pigs that arrived on Spanish ships were Celtic (Sus celticus) and Asian (Sus vittatus).  Over time, they produced a genotype called the Mexican hairless pig, or sometimes the Creole hairless pig, which is believed to look pretty much like the pigs that arrived with Columbus.  

Old World Pigs Move in with New World Peccaries

Pigs are tough customers, they don’t take up much room on a ship, they eat pretty much anything, they reproduce quickly, and the meat can be salted or smoked for preservation, so others followed Isabella’s lead.  While the Americas did have native peccaries, called javelinas in Mexico (see article elsewhere in this issue), they belong to the family Tayussidae, or “new world pigs”; the “old world pigs” that came with explorers and conquerors are in the Suidae family.  In 1539, Hernando de Soto, sometimes referred to as the “father” of the U.S. pork industry, showed up in Tampa Bay with 13 pigs (there were conservatively 700 by 1546).  Pigs made their way to Jamestown, to Philadelphia, to New York.  Manhattan’s Wall Street truly had a wall – it was a solid barrier meant to keep out the rampaging wild pigs that lived in what is now Chinatown and what’s left of Little Italy.  

Mexico’s pig story started in much the same way, with the arrival of Hernán Cortés Monroy y Pizarro Altimirano, who, after overthrowing the Aztec Empire (1521) with the help of the Nahuatl woman called Malinche, was named the Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca.  Into the Valley of Oaxaca Cortés brought pigs – descendants of the pigs brought by Columbus – from Cuba.  

Cortés had been serving as alcalde (mayor) of what was then the Cuban capital, Santiago de Cuba, and was asked by Diego Velásquez, the Spanish governor of Cuba, to sail to the Mexican mainland and help Juan de Grijalba establish a Spanish colony.  After some political infighting and efforts by Velásquez to replace him with another leader, Cortés set sail for Mexico with 11 ships, 508 soldiers, and about 100 sailors.  

How to feed them all? Pigs, of course.  According to Bernal Díaz, historian of the Cortés voyage, the pigs costs 3 pesos apiece, and were necessary because there were neither cows nor rams in Cuba.  Díaz tells us that the Cortés expedition assembled in the harbor at Trinidad, where there were any number of pig farmers from whom they could buy live pigs.  Apparently those weren’t enough.  Trinidad is on the south side of Cuba; when a ship came around from Havana on the north, laden with “cassava bread and bacon” and bound for the goldmines of Santiago de Cuba at the east end of the island, it stopped over in Trinidad.  Upon landing, the captain, Juan Sedeño, went to kiss the hand of Cortés and was immediately subjected to negotiations and monetary exchange.  Sedeño, his ship, and the bacon accompanied Cortés to Mexico.  In all Cortes left for Mexico with 5,000 sides of bacon and 6,000 cargas (about 50 pounds, so a total of about 150 tons) of corn, yucca, and ají peppers.  Even so, Lopez de Gomara, secretary to Cortés, noted that that was very little to supply the troops, and more, including pigs, had to be ordered from Jamaica.  

Upon landing at Veracruz in the Yucatán, Cortés had ordered the soldier/explorer Diego de Ordáz to start the first pig farm in Mexico; evidently, he wanted to produce food to support the conquest expedition to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán.   When Tenochtitlán surrendered, Cortés decided to throw a banquet.  Just in the nick of time, pigs from Cuba landed at the port of Villa-Rica on the coast of Veracruz, and then were herded the 250 miles (± 400 kilometers) to what is now Coyoacán in Mexico City, only to be turned into dinner.

Cortés originally came from the Extremadura region of Spain, where livestock agriculture was serious business.  With his command of Mexico more or less in hand, he sent for – more pigs!  Lots of pigs, pigs from Cuba, from Hispaniola, Jamaica, Italy, and Spain.  Not only did he get the pigs, he provided instructions on how-to-succeed in livestock, pigs in particular.  He supported pig farmers (porqueros) by safeguarding their animal ownership rights.  He encouraged pig farming in Toluca, where the conditions were favorable for producing hams and sausages.   When Cortés later set off to conquer Honduras, who went walkabout with him?  “A great herd of pigs.”

Pigs – Not a Popular Immigrant

Pigs thus served as a major tool to support the Spaniards in their conquest and colonization of Mexico.  Despite the prevalence of pork on contemporary Mexican menus, the peoples of 16th-century Mexico, for the most part vegetarians, had a more complex relationship with the new protein source.  Many did add pork to their diet and raised their own pigs; lard quickly became an essential ingredient for tamales throughout Latin America.  However, even more Mexicans did not “get with the program” on pork, for a couple of reasons. 

Even though Isabella expressly prohibited slavery in Spain and its colonies, and in 1501 declared the Indians to be Spanish citizens with equal rights, colonizers figured out various ways around that.  The most effective was the encomienda system, in use in Spain since Roman times.  It entitled conquerors to exact as tribute both labor and the use of land from vanquished people.  An encomienda applied to a community, and it specified how many people had to pay tribute with labor, and what the tribute should be, usually agricultural products, especially pigs.  By 1574, there were 4,000 encomiendas throughout New Spain, requiring labor from a million and a half indigenous people.  

In practice, it was slavery, or perhaps indentured servitude.  Herding pigs under duress was not usually popular with the “Indios,” and the dislike of the labor extended to pork itself.  The encomienda system lasted into the 18th century, when a Spanish priest in Sonora had this to say about swineherding:  

To expect a Spaniard to become one would be a sovereign offence.  And no Indian can be induced to do it, not because his pride stands in the way, but because of his inherent, implacable hatred for swine.  The animal is so abhorrent to him that he would suffer the severest hunger rather than eat a piece of domestic pork.  

Natives of Sonora did eat peccaries, and when the priest asked why not pigs, the reply was something to the effect that “The peccary is not a pig, pigs are Spanish.”  Interestingly, there were indigenous groups in northern and central Mexico, e.g., the Otomi, who raised pigs but would not eat pork, instead selling it to mestizos or other non-indigenous people.  Around Mexico City, indigenous farmers complained that Spanish pigs were destroying their crops.  People of Mayan descent had an aversion to fat (anthropological food historian Sophie Coe suggests that their metabolism was genetically averse to fat), while a 16th century native of Michoacán ranked the use of lard right up there with prisons, jails, and bullets as Spanish inventions used against the natives.  

Pigs and Their Barnyard Companions – Killers?

The animals the Spaniards brought into Mexico – besides pigs, there were horses, cows, sheep, and goats – had an outsized impact on the indigenous population, accustomed to a plant-based diet supplemented with protein.  New world conditions – few or no predators, better grazing conditions – caused European animal populations to explode, competing with native peoples and animals for wild food crops and over-running traditional vegetable plots.  Pigs are particularly destructive because they root through large areas, overturning the roots of existing plants and destroying the soil structure.  The net effect was a reduction in the subsistence foods the Aztec peoples needed to survive.

Along with causing the deterioration of the food supply, Spanish animals (and people) brought germs.  Over centuries of European life, pigs had lived in close proximity with humans and had exchanged diseases with their human hosts.  In addition to early strains of swine flu, pigs carried anthrax, brucellosis, leptospirosis, trichinosis, and tuberculosis; they could pass some of these diseases onto native deer and turkeys, animals that were eaten by the local people.  With marginal malnutrition from reduction in their food supply, and no immune system to European diseases, native peoples sickened and died.

There have been wildly varying estimates of how many native peoples were living in Mexico before the conquest, and just as varied ideas of how many natives died in the first century of Spanish rule.   Currently, there’s some agreement on about 25 million people before 1521, and 1.2 million a hundred years later (nearly a 95% drop).  Some died during the wars of the conquest and others from the various diseases carried by European livestock; perhaps 6.5 million died in a smallpox epidemic, probably passed from the Spaniards, in 1519; and some from oppression and mistreatment during the early Colonial period.  

The most recent research, however, estimates that 17 million natives died in two outbreaks of cocoliztli, some type of hemorrhagic fever, in 1545 and 1576, quite some time after the conquest.  Using tree rings from 450-year-old Douglas firs growing in the mountains of Durango (west of Monterrey), epidemiologist Dr. Rodolfo Acuna-Soto from UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), concluded that prolonged droughts preceding the fever years had reduced the population of disease-carrying rats.  When it rained heavily after the droughts, the rats came back with a vengeance.  Despite being responsible for death and destruction earlier in the century, neither the Spaniards nor the pigs were to blame for the cocoliztli.