Atlantic History Cattle in the Atlantic World
by
Eva Botella Ordinas
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0297

Introduction

There is more flesh in the history of cattle than meets the eye because there is probably more culture and politics than biology in its past. For this reason, the historiography about cattle is exuberant, and, due to the radical socio-ecological impact of European expansion and cattle’s main role in it, Atlantic history should invariably include livestock. The concept “cattle” (in early modern English “chattel,” “catals,” or “capital,” like the French cheptel) was defined as property (livestock), commonly a mobile and personal one, from which Western capitalism’s terms (such as stock) are derived. They frequently referred to “four footed” animals, especially bovines and horses (but not leaving aside other species). The Spanish translation ganado (gained) meant benefit and included bovines, sheep, horses, and pigs, while pecuaria and pecuniario (pecuniary) derive from the proto-Indo-European language (originally meaning the possession or not of cattle). Thus, “cattle” is a complex concept, so crucially linked to capitalism and embedded in the creation of the Atlantic world that their histories could barely be understood without knowing its diverse and changing meanings as well as the practices and uses of the animals covered by it. Paramount commercial activities in the early Atlantic were both agricultural trade (for which cattle trade was crucial) and “chattel slavery,” and thus, the pivotal Atlantic concepts of “cattle” and “livestock” connect the profits from massive human and animal commodification, exploitation, and trade with concepts of property, gender, class, race and species, their social practices, and their devastating global environmental impact. The most innovative studies derive from animal, slavery, and gender studies, due to the close historical relations between cattle, slaves, and women. It is both noticeable and unsurprising that many of the leading scholars in the field share a feminist approach (being many of them females). Legal history, history of science, and history of emotions link cruelty to rights acquisition also through livestock. Recent Marxist analyses are revealing as well by building a history of cattle in which they are agents (in fact, they would have been part of the working class) instead of passive subjects of the narratives about the past. The works quoted here cover both the most conservative and the widest Atlantic historical chronologies and themes because Atlantic economies and cultures were largely created due to the Atlantic cattle, and because the topic is of outmost importance for past and present ethical, political, cultural, and ecological debates. Nowadays, animal studies (cattle being the most important concept and reality studied) are remaking the historical discipline from their postcolonial-decolonial approach.

Theory—Animal Studies

Animal studies, as a postcolonial method for several disciplines to study traditional topics through the lens of human/animal relationships, challenge effectively human-Western-centered research perspectives. From the earliest historical work to the latest compilations, all these studies show a concern about what it means to be human, and thus, the relationship between humanity and animality. Some of these works are focused on French intellectual and social history (such as Boas 1933), which largely shaped Western debates and conceptions of human-animal definitions and relations. Other studies are transdisciplinary compilations and deal with major theoretical problems in Western thought from a Big History perspective, such as Segerdahl 2011 and Fudge 2017. There are some brief works with a contextualized philosophical approach, like Haraway 2003 and Descola 2013 (cited under Ecology), not only defying many disciplinary boundaries when dealing with animal studies but also providing some answers to major theoretical transdisciplinary questions and placing them within an ecological perspective. There are also specific historical studies discussing the new field of “animal history” (Domańska 2017), some of which, like Fudge 2017, are focused on cattle as a paramount category for such an approach. But even when, in general, animals under the narrow meaning of “cattle” are not the main characters of these works, they always play a prominent role in them, given the special and close relationships between them and humans throughout Atlantic history’s past, being the case of Bourke 2011, Manning and Serpell 1994, and Kalof 2007. Likewise, although Atlantic history is not the nucleus of these studies, they cannot avoid taking into consideration the European colonization of Africa and the Americas as a milestone in their narratives due to the tremendous ecological and cultural impact of the Atlantic’s biological and cultural exchange. The current selection includes theoretical works, but always with a contextual ground and historical examples serving as the basis of the new discipline. This is a short selection of the essentials for discussing and researching about Atlantic cattle nowadays.

  • Boas, George. The Happy Beast in French Thought of the Seventeenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1933.

    E-mail Citation »

    A classic work within intellectual history about the debates on the nature of humanity and bestiality during the 17th century, in which all sorts of animals are mentioned as examples. The authors and themes studied are crucial for later debates. Its bibliography and erudition make it unavoidable reading.

  • Bourke, Joanna. What It Means to Be Human: Historical Reflections from the 1800s to the Present. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011.

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    A magnificent research about the political and scientific changing concepts of humanity and animalhood from postcolonial and gender perspectives. Defining humanity and animality depended on circumstances because it involved exclusion or inclusion in political and legal concepts of personhood. Cattle was relevant in arguments, being protected by anti-cruelty laws.

  • Domańska, Ewa. “Animal History.” History and Theory 56 (2017): 267–287.

    DOI: 10.1111/hith.12018E-mail Citation »

    An excellent and original review of the collection of essays The Historical Animal, edited by Susan Nance (2015), in which Domańska not only explains the book but also discusses it around major themes of postcolonial history, such as the animal’s point of view, animal agency, animal’s historical sources, the historicization of animals, and the field of animal history. Its bibliography and methodological reflections are very useful for every historian.

  • Fudge, Erica. “What Was It Like to Be a Cow? History and Animal Studies.” In The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies. Edited by Linda Kalof, 258–278. Oxford Handbooks. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199927142.013.28E-mail Citation »

    This sound chapter claims that the inclusion of animals in the study of the past might change the way in which past and present are understood. Historians studying animals as historical agents (instead of passive postcolonial subjects) and deploying diverse sources challenge the ways in which human-animal encounters were conceived.

  • Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2003.

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    In an accessible work contextualizing animal, post-humanist, postcolonial, and ecofeminist studies, Haraway defines the concept of nature-cultures and rethinks the fluid relationships among companion species (“becoming with”), including cattle, and its mutability as a category. Being “the freedom-hungry offspring of conquest” (p. 2), the entanglement is a consequence of the Atlantic legacy.

  • Kalof, Linda. Looking at Animals in Human History. London: Reaktion, 2007.

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    A comprehensive overview of the cultural representations of animals (especially cattle) in context from a Big History perspective (chapters 4, 5, and 6 covering Atlantic chronology), using a wide range of sources and bibliography to show how animals and humans have been sharing paradigms of gender, class, and race.

  • Kalof, Linda, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies. Oxford Handbooks. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199927142.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    A handbook of “animal studies”: an interdisciplinary postcolonial field studying the diverse historical and cultural commodification and humanification of animals, including its environmental consequences, and intends to rethink human-animal relations in this planet. It includes relevant articles regarding Atlantic cattle, such as the chapters by Chris Pearson, Boria Sax, and Erica Fudge. Available online by subscription.

  • Manning, Audrey, and James Serpell, eds. Animals and Human Society: Changing Perspectives. London: Routledge, 1994.

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    In this work, prominent scholars consider animals (crucially cattle; Schwabe) both across time and cultures, placing major Atlantic topics, like the Four Stages Theory, the standard of civilization and domestication (Ingold), the forging of Western disciplines in the late 19th century, or Maehle on “cruelty” and Western ethics.

  • Segerdahl, Pär. Undisciplined Animals: Invitations to Animal Studies. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2011.

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    This compilation within animal studies defies the Western-anthropocentric approach to the research problems, revealing new paths for old disciplines. In addition, the chapters place the authors’ engagement in their own research. Although the book is not focused on Atlantic cattle, it provides a rich theoretical ground for their study.

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