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America’s First Cowboys

We eat history every time we sit down at the table. As we tuck into that sizzling platter of fajitas or dig in to a succulent estofado de res, we’re enjoying food heritage as given to us by our ancestors. And one of the most significant contributions to Latin American food and culture is that of Africans brought to Latin America as slaves. Here, in honor of Black History Month, is the story of America's first cowboys and the many-pronged African influence on Latin culture and cuisine.

Even though most of us believe that Spanish conquistadores were looking for gold, silver and spices, one of their first enterprises was actually to set up cattle operations. Before the days of plastic, almost all consumer goods were made with animal products such as rawhide, leather, and bone. Buttons, combs, shoes, gloves, clothing, saddles, and upholstery were all high-end consumer goods, and tiny, cramped, highly taxed Europe didn’t have the space to profitably raise all of the cattle needed to meet the demand. Alas, wide open Latin America gave cattle unlimited opportunities to reproduce and eat for free.

There was just one problem: cattle were nonexistent in the Americas. So they were dutifully brought by ship to the New World during Columbus’ second voyage. Canvas slings were hung from the tall masts of the ships and fastened around the belly of a cow, where it would dangle and sway throughout the voyage. The sling prevented the cow from breaking its leg or worse, toppling overboard.

Missionary priests then became the first ranchers charged with turning a profit on the huge swathes of property they had claimed for the Spanish crown. To do so, local indigenous tribesman were conscripted to be cowboys, but as they had never seen cattle before, they had trouble managing the beasts.

There was also a bigger problem: they had never been exposed to smallpox and died by the thousands when the Spanish accidently introduced the disease to the continent. What's more, Queen Isabella, Columbus’ key financial backer, was not pleased about the enslavement of tribesmen, whom she considered to be free subjects of the Spanish crown. With no labor force available, slaves from Africa were imported to do the work.

Next, cattle transforms the Americas... 

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