02 January 2014

The Dog and the Shark

A constant pleasure of history are the little stories that pop out while reading primary sources. Often distracting from the purpose that led to the text in the first place, these episodes entertain and add texture. They also offer unexpected connections to other stories.

As I prepare to teach Atlantic history in the fall, I am perusing texts concerned with the development of the sugar industry in the West Indies. Matthew Parker, The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire, and War in the West Indies (2011) has filled time-spaces between the social activities of New Year's celebrations the past few days. Parker draws heavily upon Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes (1657). Inasmuch as the 1673 edition of Ligon's text is readily available via Internet Archive, I have delved into that text. Ligon offers three compelling paragraphs concerning "a Fish called a Shark" (5).

Several sharks were taken on board the Achilles, the ship on which Ligon made passage from England to the West Indies in 1647. Once the shark had been landed on board, however, the adventure began. Most of the passengers were afraid to approach it. Only the fearless sailors and a very large dog had the courage.
We had aboard divers mastive [mastiff] Dogs, and amongst them, one so large and fierce, as I have seldom seen any like him; this Dog flew to [the shark] with the greatest Courage that might be, but could take no hold of him, by reason of his large roundness and sliminess; but if by chance he got hold of one of his Fins, the Shark would throw him from side to side of the Ship, as if he had been nothing; and doubtless if he had encountered him in his own Element, the Sea, he would have made quick work with him.
Ligon, True and Exact History, 5.
Reading of the flopping shark's ability to fling this large mastiff across the ship's deck, I am reminded of the fate of the Aztecs who faced such animals in battle.

It is often assumed by those with superficial understanding of history that Europeans prevailed in the New World because they had superior armaments (see "Superior European Technology"). On the contrary, the most important weapon the Europeans possessed was infectious disease. The Aztecs were weakened by disease prior to their conquest in 1521. Their repression of neighboring peoples also helped the Spanish, who were able to recruit allies among enemies of the Aztecs. In battle, guns were insignificant except where cannon were useful. But the Spanish had two terribly powerful weapons of use in close combat--their swords--Toledo steel--and their dogs--mastiffs bred for war.

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