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Writing from West to East


Writing from West to East
Caroline Dodds Pennock: On Savage Shores

by Tomasz Jablonski

In the popular imagination, European colonialism is a story about the enslavement, conversion and subjugation of Indigenous populations. But Caroline Dodds Pennock’s, On Savage Shores, turns this unidirectional narrative on its head. The book invites us to consider, not only the formative, agentive presence of Indigenous bodies on European shores, but also the myriad ways in which Indigenous knowledges actively shaped and influenced the culture of the coloniser.

The Spanish port of Sanlúcar is a crucial landmark in the history of European colonisation. The port was unavoidable for ships arriving in Europe and departing to the Americas. Countless opportunists and colonisers, including Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus, frequently set sail from Sanlúcar. In that same port, in October 1519, a ship anchored that carried more than just gold and wonders of the ‘New World’. On its deck arrived a delegation of Totonacs that had departed from the shores of Mexico to meet Charles I of Spain (or Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). Learning of his guest’s arrival, the king requested that the Totonacs be supplied with all the necessary provisions for their journey to the court in Toledo. This included the finest clothes made from the most luxurious materials; tailors, stocking makers, servants and mules were sent to take care of the arrivals and a nephew of the treasurer of the Casa the Contratacion (the House of Trade) was tasked with accompanying the delegation and supervising their travels. The king’s dedication to ensure the best reception and the care for his visitors’ wellbeing hints at a different story of the encounter between the Americas and Europe than the one we know. A story that has been either forgotten or purposely avoided and distorted in the service of the grand narrative of the ‘Age of Discovery’. Popular history positions Europeans as the active agents of that narrative which forged the fate of the ‘New World’ and turned Indigenous communities from across the Atlantic into passive recipients of violence and colonisation.

Caroline Dodds Pennock’s book On Savage Shores – How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe writes against this popular narrative even though, as she reminds us, the historical sources of non-European perspectives from the ‘Age of Discovery’ are scarce and filling the gaps requires careful effort. To a large extent, the stories have become speculative, at the same time, they remain greatly informative. The Totonacs delegation’s visit to Spain is clouded in speculation too; the extent of their agency in this voyage is unknown. It is believed that they were highly respected by the country’s court and had sophisticated underlying causes and reasons to visit the king rather than just being ‘objects of curiosity’. The Totonacs had even brought a young interpreter, who learned some Castilian during their voyage, further flipping the narrative of the ‘Age of Discovery’ on its head. While Europeans were learning about and discovering the Americas, Indigenous people from the Americas were discovering Europe. They were frequently crossing the Atlantic back and forth, most of the time against their will but also out of their own choosing, probing the Europeans, learning them and their languages, carefully navigating the encounter between the continents.

By the time the Totonacs reached Sanlúcar, thousands of Indigenous people had reached the shores of Europe before them, blending in with its communities and forever changing and reshaping Europe and its history. Most of the time, their impact is overlooked, despite us still making use of it every day. From language to cuisine, the knowledge and customs of Indigenous communities of the Americas had entered Europe upon their first arrival. Their impact on the European political, material and religious landscape should be remembered. Tracing the histories of Indigenous folk reveals not only different perspectives but also how rich and diverse Europe and the Americas were in the first centuries of colonisation. Different forms of kinship, social relations, law and history that we were taught to be natural and universal are turned upside down in these histories, revealing a different, more accurate story of globalisation and world history.

The history of colonisation is inextricably linked with slavery. In the popular imagination, however, it is remembered mainly as the enslavement of African people who were transported to the Americas in horrendous conditions, fuelling the colonial project and the economy of imperial powers. Although most of the voyagers to the Americas were portrayed as courageous and curious explorers, they were, most of all, enslavers. They realised that the bodies and lives of Indigenous populations could bring them wealth and/or justify and win the court’s and investors’ support for their travels.

In the diary of his first voyage to America, Columbus concluded: “[The people] ought to make good slaves for their quick intelligence […], and I believe that they could very easily become Christians”. This short passage reveals a lot about the chaotic landscape of those first encounters and the various political trajectories that were present at the time. In an environment filled with violence (often brought on by disease), the hardship of oceanic crossings, political instabilities, and of course, slavery, people on both sides of the Atlantic were learning to make sense of each other; with limited knowledge of one another, often with little language proficiency, in a completely new cultural setting, which was clouded in myths, lies and speculations. It is known that the Spanish rulers Isabella I and Ferdinand V of Castille, who jointly ruled over a dynastically unified Spain, opposed the introduction of slavery in the Americas; however, they were preoccupied with spreading and converting people to Christianity to win over papal admiration. Columbus, his followers and his successors, were aware of this and thus tried to portray and sell the conquest of the Americas as a source of material wealth and a potential for political gain. Despite court disapproval of slavery, colonisers and conquistadors embarked on expanding this wicked trade, transporting millions of people across the Atlantic. Indigenous people were swift to recognise their potential positions and started learning and navigating European politics according to their best interests. The Totonacs delegation that arrived in Spain in 1519 was one of many visits of Indigenous nobles and various political actors that influenced and reshaped the course of history for centuries.

While courts were visited, rulers met, plans for conquests discussed, and political rituals performed, the broader wave of change was underway in the streets and in the houses of the common folk. Thousands of Indigenous people – those forced to journey to Europe and those who crossed the Atlantic willingly – were blending in and re-creating the fundamental fabric of social and economic life in the cities across Europe.

Artists like Alejo Fernandez and other now anonymous painters depicted the vibrant and diverse communities in cities that were the hubs of colonisation, such as Lisbon or Seville. The paintings show people of all colours and from various places in the world drink, dance, labour, kiss and live together and alongside each other. Unsurprisingly, there is little or no access to the stories of common folk, as they did not tend to write diaries. But changes in European laws that made it illegal or increasingly harder to enslave people, and made it possible for a vast number of Indigenous people and their representatives to fight for their freedom, and these legal documents and archives now provide glimpses into their stories and lives in Europe. After years often, they would win their cases, appealing to the crown to pay for their passage home, vanishing from the historical records, or deciding to stay and settle in Europe for the rest of their lives. As much as the story of the colonisation of the Americas is the story of utmost violence, disease, death and suffering, it is also a story of Indigenous folk fighting for or exercising their agency over their lives and fate, reshaping the communities of European cities, their customs, laws and kinship networks.

Over the centuries, the people and cultures of Europe and America mixed, and Indigenous people started appearing in cities, courts and families. It led to the emergence of a crucial space between the continents where various actors intermediated the fate of peoples and history. Most of the time, this in-between space was occupied by Indigenous people who played important roles as mothers, lovers, sons, daughters, artists, producers, traders, translators, interpreters or political and religious allies or adversaries.

When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortes was travelling and pillaging through Maya’s land, among the many things he acquired and the people he enslaved, a chief supposedly ‘gave’ him a group of enslaved women as tribute. One of the women was Malintzin, also known as Dona Marina, La Malinche or La Lengua. She played a vital role in Cortes’s conquest of the Maya and later in his personal life. Like many other go-betweeners, she translated for Cortes from the region’s languages and provided necessary knowledge of cultures and customs. Malintzin rose to the role of primary translator for Cortes, was at the heart of the events, and stayed throughout several of Cortes’s campaigns. Interestingly, Malintzin never crossed the Atlantic; however, she gave birth to Cortes’s son Martin. One of the first mestizo children, he travelled to Spain and found his home there. Like many other Indigenous travellers, he became part of the European society and, due to his heritage, its nobility. Martin became an important figure at the Spanish court and possibly one of the first Indigenous knights that fought on European soil for the Spanish crown in France, Germany, Italy and Algeria.

The go-betweeners fundamentally shaped the fabric on which the encounter of the continents took place. Behind every cartographer, explorer and conquistador stood a group of Indigenous people without whom their work would not have been possible. Despite that, in mainstream narrative they have been overlooked or erased. Instead of saying that Europeans were learning about the Americas, it would be more accurate to state that Indigenous people taught them about the Americas.

Pennock shows us that we can learn a lot about this history through ‘stuff’. The Eurocentric reading of the history of exchange between the Americas and Europe reduced ‘stuff’ to commodities, each with a set monetary price that was transported and introduced to Europe, thus stripping away the role that Indigenous people played in teaching Europeans about these things and showing them their non-monetary worth. Most Indigenous communities had a much more complex system of value, which rested on an intricate relation with land and each other. Having said that, we need to be careful with acute generalisations of both Indigenous and European cultures. Systems of values among Indigenous communities varied significantly, and not all Europeans were greedy capitalists. Derived from reciprocity, these systems have always been an essential part of cultures around the globe and their relations with land and people.

There are archaeological findings in North America showing that smoking tobacco was common 2000 years before Columbus made his first voyage to America. Tobacco was not just a commodity. In 1518, the conquistador Juan de Grijalva was invited to a ceremony, where its leaves were smoked, followed by the exchange of gifts and signs of friendship. This event is an example of how, through ‘stuff’, Europeans were invited to learn and communicate in the diverse cultural systems of value of the native communities of the Americas. The ceremony was designed to establish friendship and alliance between the communities of the Yucatan peninsula and the conquistadors and might be one of the first well-documented instances of diplomacy between Indigenous people and Europeans.

By the 1570s, consuming tobacco was well-established in Europe. There are stories of sailors smoking it in Bristol, and it was presented to Charles IX of France in Paris by Jean Nicot, who gave nicotine its name. Physicians from various countries started researching it for medical purposes and describing how different European communities smoked it. There was no single way through which tobacco was introduced to Europe, but with so many Indigenous people travelling through or settling in on the continent, it is obvious that they brought their customs with them and exposed Europeans to them. Tobacco was principally supplied by Indigenous people; however, they also provided Europeans with their knowledge about America’s plants and information about the adequate use of them. From 1536, the Collage of Santa Cruz at Tlatelolco in Mexico City taught many Indigenous people how to write in Spanish, Latin and Nahuatl. This resulted in establishing a network in which well-educated local scholars collaborated with Europeans to share knowledge and information and to produce works such as the Florentine Codex or Libellys de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbs (The Book of Medicinal Herbs of the Indies). Even though Indigenous people were crucial in the production of those publications by providing the necessary knowledge and insight, their names did not appear in textbooks and were not cited by academics. A habit that, sadly, still continues today in much of the research that takes place with Indigenous collaborators and their lands.

Alongside tobacco, other plants were introduced to Europeans, one of which we are more likely to admit craving than tobacco, namely chocolate. Cacao was a luxury and expensive product. Its association with wealth and importance was reflected in Mesoamerican traditions; for instance, when a couple agreed to be married, cacao and other precious goods were shared and exchanged. The habit of drinking chocolate was enthusiastically adopted in Europe. Again, it is nearly impossible to trace how and when exactly it was introduced. Properly preparing chocolate was an expert skill usually performed by women. We can only speculate and imagine how Indigenous women in cities across Europe prepared the drink in different homes, whether as servants, slaves, wives, or to welcome guests in their own houses. The introduction and consumption of cocoa is a good example of the fundamental roles Indigenous people played in the cultural and material exchange between the continents, whether at home or in royal courts.

The word for chocolate most likely comes from the Mayan chocol (hot) and the Nahuatl alt, meaning liquid. We often do not pay attention to these linguistic artefacts, but they provide insight into how Indigenous knowledge influenced Europe. Other examples are the popular summer activity barbecue – from the Caribbean Arawak languages – , alongside hammock and hurricane. Avocado, tomatoe, petunia, piranha, jaguar, moccasin, buccaneer, and obviously canoe all derive from various Indigenous languages that were appropriated by European speakers, providing not only a word to name things but also knowledge of the context of its use or dangers.

While Europeans were taught about the Americas, its plants, traditions, languages and customs, Indigenous travellers would observe and learn about Europe. Although sparse, their comments and remarks on its cultures and societies provide an insight into how the continent looked in those centuries but also gave Europeans a mirror through which they could see their own depravity.
In Rouen in 1562, three Tupinamba men met King Charles IX of France. During their visit, philosopher Michel de Montaigne had a chance to get to know them and, inspired by this encounter, wrote his essay ‘On the Cannibals.’ It may sound bizarre that we have to learn of Indigenous perspectives on Europe through an essay written by a French philosopher, and it is. But because their voices were erased or overlooked by the Eurocentric writing of history, we are left to retrieve them from other people’s pieces and to fill the gaps with speculation and imagination. Rigorous historical research conducted by Pennock allows us to hear some of their voices and perspectives. However, as she warns us, many of the sources are weak, as some European thinkers have used and altered Indigenous accounts to serve the cause they wanted to advance. Montaigne writes that the Tupinamba came to Europe because of their “desire for novelty,” which the king tried hard to meet. After conversing with them, he showed them “our ways, our ceremonies and the layout of the beautiful city”. Their opinion of Europe baffled Montaigne. The Tupinamba were surprised that so many strong-armed men agreed to obey the child (the king). They also noted how appalling the disparity between the wealthy and the poor was, how some are overstuffed with riches while others are begging at their doors instead of revolting and setting fire to the houses. As much as acute, this observation could have been seen as prophetic, knowing the events that unfolded in France two centuries later.

Similarly, in Birmingham, Senontiyah, an Ioway spiritual leader, made corresponding remarks about what he observed in England, comparing his community to the inequalities in Europe. Such responses were common among Indigenous travellers. They observed not only economic inequality but also wider social disparity. The Mississauga Chippewa chief Maungwudaus described how “English women cannot walk alone; men must always assist them” and “when the tea got ready, the ladies were brought to the table like sick women…”. What can sound like an unfavourable depiction of European women, at the same time is an adequate illustration of the consequences of patriarchy and the effects of the everyday violence it inflicted on women in Europe.
Through these meetings and exchanges of observation, the more self-reflecting Europeans were able to see a ‘savage’ not in ‘the other’ but in themselves. Observations of the Indigenous people and their encounters provided Europeans with a mirror through which they could see their own depravity, the violence of European societies, and the inequalities embedded within their culture.

Pennock’s On Savage Shores shows that the centuries of colonisation and the conquest of the Americas are not solely the story of death, suffering, slavery and depravity. Such a narrative has positioned Indigenous people as passive recipients, stuck in the past, like the stolen artefacts exhibited in various museums and art galleries across Europe. Continuing to retell history from a Eurocentric perspective only perpetrates and reproduces colonial violence. It is not to say that we should not reappraise the wrongs of those times but try also to see the agency, resistance, lives and perspectives of the Indigenous people too, acknowledging their active and vast roles and the nuances of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Pennock finds a more productive and accurate way to see and tell world history. Her approach can help us to truly see what Europe gained thanks to Indigenous communities and their knowledge and how much history has been shaped by Indigenous people. In doing so it helps reverse the damaging narrative in which white, predominantly male Europeans solely stir the currents of history.

Caroline Dodds Pennock’s second book On Savage Shores – How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe was published in January 2023 by Penguin Random House.

TOMASZ JABLONSKI is a master’s research student in Anthropology at UCL, specialising in environmental and economic Anthropology, researching community response and the impact of ecological disasters in western Poland. He has also been interested in and studied Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies to decolonise his thinking and the discipline of Anthropology.



Proofreading by LEE GRIEVESON


Lead Image: The Chafariz d’El-Rey (King’s Fountain) in the Alfama District, Lisbon. Netherlandish, ca. 1570-80. The Berardo Collection, Lisbon (via Walters Museum)