Becerrillo: The Terrifying War Dog of the Spanish Conquistadors

Becerrillo: The Terrifying War Dog of the Spanish Conquistadors
By Joanna Gillan - August, 24 2019

Dogs have been used as powerful weapons of war for at least the last 3,000 years. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Sarmatians, Britons, and Romans are all known to have used dogs in combat, or for scouts, sentries, trackers, or executioners. But the Spanish conquistadors employed war dogs on a scale that had rarely been seen before, and with devastating effect.

Christopher Columbus was the first to use dogs as weapons in the New World. He released them upon the indigenous people of Hispaniola in 1493 and to disperse groups that came to stop his landing in Jamaica in 1494. Subsequently, hundreds and then thousands more dogs were brought over.But it was Juan Ponce de León, a top military official in the colonial government of Hispaniola, who unleashed the fiercest warrior of them all – Becerrillo.

Becerrillo, the ‘Bull’ That Was Trained to Kill

Becerrillo, a name meaning ‘Little Bull’, was a brown-eyed, red pelted mastiff owned by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León but often entrusted to the care of conquistadors Captain Diego Guilarte de Salazar and Sancho de Aragón. 

Becerrillo’s origins are uncertain, but it is believed he was born in the Americas in the kennels of Ponce de León. His earliest records date to 1511, but by then he was already described as sporting battle scars.

Ponce de León was the conqueror of Puerto Rico.  He trained his prized possession, Becerrillo, to become a powerful weapon. The dog was taught to distinguish between the Spanish and the natives, to search out and cut down runaway captives, and to kill in battle.  

Becerrillo: The Terrifying War Dog of the Spanish Conquistadors

The Dogue de Bordeaux dogs, or Mastiffs, similar to the reported Becerillo. (otsphoto/AdobeStock)

Becerrillo Shows Mercy

While Becerrillo had been trained to kill, one historical account tells a tale of mercy. The conquistadors were camped outside the settlement of Caparra in Puerto Rico, waiting for the arrival of the Spanish governor. Looking for something to amuse themselves, Salazar gave a folded piece of paper to an old woman, telling her to deliver it to the governor. As the woman began on her way, Salazar released Becerrillo, commanding him to kill her. As the dog raced towards her, the woman dropped to her knees and was reported to have called out "Please, my Lord Dog. I am on my way to take this letter to Christians. I beg you, my Lord Dog, please do not hurt me."

Becerrillo sniffed the woman and then, disobeying his master’s orders, turned and walked away. When the governor was told what had occurred, he released the old woman and forbade any further terrorizing of the locals, declaring “I will not allow the compassion and clemency of a dog to overshadow those of a real Christian”.

Death

The campaign of terror committed through Becerrillo came to an end one morning in 1514 when indigenous Caribs from the island of Vieques captured Sancho de Aragón. According to chronicles, the dog pursued the attackers who had taken off in dugout canoes, but making his way through the water, Becerrillo became an easy target and was hit by a volley of arrows and died. He was given a secret burial and was mourned more than their fallen comrades.  Like every soldier and every dog loyal to his master, Becerrillo was dutiful and allegiant until the very end. He may have taken many lives, but it was his masters who were the true killers.

Top image: Dogs were a terrible weapon used against the native populations in the new world. (Public Domain)

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