Every Jamaican should know what this phrase means: somebody at your gate is indicating that they have arrived so you need to put up your dogs. If you have a yard with a lot of dogs like mine then you must have heard hol’ dawg being shouted at your gate at one point or other.
(FYI: my family now has eight dogs in total: seven outside dogs (Rottweiler/German Shepherd mixes) and one that shares the indoors with the humans, a small dog called Livvy with too much attitude and is the loudest of the lot! Yeah yeah, I know: this is too much! But we were on a roll. This is a good number though…at one point there were about 22 adult dogs and puppies combined! We were going crazy!)
So why would every Jamaican know what this phrase means? Because the majority of Jamaican households – uptown, downtown, all-around-town households – have at least one dog in dem yard. From the large pure breeds – and now, much to my dismay, there are many pure-bred Pit Bulls around too – to mean Rottweilers, friendly-yet-dangerous German Shepherds, Japanese Akitas, Mastiffs, and the infamous handbag dogs, like Livvy, among many other breeds.
But, the most popular dog around town is (drum rolls please!) the Jamaican mongrel. The majority of Jamaican yards have at least one, which acts like a constant look-out for children (dogs and children, especially male children, are like oil and water!), general passers-by and anybody who dares to want to pass dem place with their yards. And trust me, dem bark nuff and earn dem keep!
Remember M16 from the “Insecurity Guard” episode of Titus in Town? Not all are like M16 but, for many of us, once you say mongrel our memories of M16 in Titus in Town come easily to mind.
On the whole, though, Jamaicans have an ambivalent relationship with dogs: from our folklore, proverbs and everyday interactions with this animal described as man’s best friend. Why is that? Our history, of course!
The Role of Dog’s in the Spanish Conquest of Jamaica
According to Olive Senior (2003, p. 154): “The dog was introduced into the Antilles by Columbus whose fleet on his second voyage to the New World was equipped with ‘a pack of twenty purebred mastiffs and greyhounds’. Their main purpose was to subdue the native peoples.” In fact, authors of the book, Dogs of the Conquest (1983), assert that: “Historians have agreed that the Spanish conquest of the Indies was accomplished by men, horses and dogs, in that order” (Senior 2003, p. 153).
So, in the conquest of Jamaica, the Spanish used dogs to frighten the Tainos into submission. Think about it: you as a Taino seeing these huge growling and barking animals, which you’ve never seen before, bounding towards you…I would be terrified! And that was what happened to the Tainos. Historians have found that, when Columbus landed at Discovery Bay on May 6, 1494, he and his crew were met with opposing Tainos, who set out from the shore in their canoes “making hostile gestures” (Senior 2003, p. 153). Columbus responded by ordering his crossbowmen to kill and wound many of them. He also released a huge dog as they landed that attacked and bit several of the Tainos.
Does this mean the Tainos did not own dogs? No. In fact, the Tainos did have a type of dog that was a hairless, barkless animal, which served as both pet and food. These dogs did learn to bark after coming into contact with the European varieties and eventually interbred with the latter.
Dogs and the British Conquest and Colonization of Jamaica
The British continued the practice of using dogs as weapons to subdue opposition from the enslaved and Maroon populations after they captured the country from the Spanish in 1655. For instance, in response to the Spanish ex-slaves who put up quite a resistance to the British presence, Senior (2003 p. 154) notes “an English soldier wrote home requesting ‘a couple of whelps of the bloodhound strain, for I can think of no better way to clear the black rogues from this place’.” The most feared dogs, and the ones used quite often in these particular campaigns by the English, were the Spanish bloodhounds imported from Cuba. Senior (2003, p. 155) makes reference to a remark made in 1862, way after Emancipation, to use “a brace of Spanish dogs to be let loose on the next Obeah gathering.”
These Cuban bloodhounds were so effective in what they were trained to do – to track down and savage runaway slaves and Maroons – and very feared, that they were employed by the British to subdue the Trelawny Maroons during the second Maroon war in 1796. A total of 100 Cuban bloodhounds were brought into the island, along with their 40 handlers, to “hunt out and destroy the enemy” (The Parliamentary History of England 1818, p. 923). This measure had the desired effect: the Trelawny Maroons agreed to a truce once they heard about the dogs. It also had a secondary effect, as provided by an account of the decision to import the 100 Cuban bloodhounds in The Parliamentary History of England (1818 p. 923):
We had severe duty during Christmas holidays, in keeping guard in and about this town, that being the critical juncture to observe the disposition of the slaves, but I am happy to say, they are universally well affected, and I never saw a quieter Christmas; there is very little to be dreaded from them.
The Maroons also domesticated wild dogs and used them to hunt wild pigs.
I can now understand why Jamaicans have such a love/hate relationship with dogs. Dogs were used as weapons of terror back in those days, or what Senior describes as “an extension of the ugly side of ‘Massa’.”
While we have now moved beyond those days and have domesticated dogs throughout our history as a country, our cultural development of the relationship between dog and Jamaican is definitely one of ambivalence, nurtured by the days of Spanish and British slavery. Mind you, I have seen some Jamaicans on the verge of being silly in their devotion to their dogs; but the general consensus on the type of relationship between Jamaican and dog can be aptly expressed by this proverb: “Sarry fe mawga dawg, mawga dawg tun roun bite yuh.”
Until next time…
Aarons, G.A. (1983) “Sevilla la Nueva: Microcosm of Spain in Jamaica Part 1: The Historical Background.” In Jamaica Journal, 16: 4, pp. 37-46
Dallas, R.C. (1803) The History of the Maroons (Vol. II). London.
Senior, Olive (2003), Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, Vol. 32 (1818). London: T. C. Hansard.