“Indigenous Americans who travelled across the Atlantic were horrified by inequalities in European society”
Caroline Dodds Pennock talks to Ellie Cawthorne about her new book tracing the remarkable stories of Indigenous Americans who voyaged to Europe after 1492
Let’s start with the title of your book, On Savage Shores. What can you tell us about the meaning?
People often use the term “savage” as a racial slur to diminish and belittle Indigenous peoples. I wanted to deliberately invert that stereotype. In my book, I follow Indigenous Americans who travelled to Europe after 1492 – from their perspective, Europe was a much more savage place than the Americas.
We tend to think of the “Columbian exchange” as a one-way cultural encounter – a story of Europeans going to the Americas. Why is it that we don’t hear much about Indigenous Americans coming to Europe?
That’s a good question. It’s not that historians have never written about this; I’m standing on the shoulders of other scholars in my work. But for some reason the presence of Indigenous peoples in Europe doesn’t seem to have made an impression on popular understanding of the past. I think that might be because, in our imagination, 15th and 16th-century Europe is a white, ruffed and codpieced “Golden Age”. The stories we’re told are about kings, lords and royal dramas. But how many people know that there was a Brazilian king at the court of Henry VIII, or that there were tens of thousands of enslaved Indigenous people in Spain?
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How many Indigenous Americans came to Europe, and when?
Exact numbers are difficult to pin down, because the official statistics we have are almost certainly far too low. We know that there were tens of thousands, at least, but the number may be very much larger. The vast majority came as enslaved people into Spain and Portugal, but there are also Indigenous people recorded in England, the Netherlands, the other Low Countries and Germany. And they appear from as early as Christopher Columbus’s first voyage, when he brought back Taíno people from the Caribbean. So, from the first moment of encounter, Indigenous travellers are part of the story.
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What sources do we have for this?
The problem is that a lot of the sources are from the perspective of Europeans – written either by people who kidnapped Indigenous Americans, or by diplomats or courtiers who happened to see them once they reached Europe. However, there are some sources that occasionally allow us to hear the voices of Indigenous people themselves.
After 1542, when it became illegal to enslave Indigenous people in Spain’s American colonies, amazing testimonies were produced by Indigenous peoples applying for their freedom. Today these are held in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville. They are formulaic legal records, but they provide fascinating pictures of the lives of people from all across Central and South America. They explain what happened to them, including information about their life stories or how they were kidnapped.
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Then there’s the Cantares Mexicanos, a collection of 16th-century Nahuatl songs and poems by Indigenous people singing about their histories – which is how they would have recorded these stories in a popular oral tradition. They include stories of travel, too.
What did Indigenous Americans make of European societies that they encountered?
We’re obviously talking about a hugely diverse range of peoples, from the Inuit in the north of what is now Canada down to the Tupi people in Brazil. But some common threads emerge. One is that they were horrified by inequalities in European society, and didn’t understand how people with vast wealth could live right beside others in abject poverty. They were also surprised by leaders who were ineffective, or were children – the idea of boy kings was completely nonsensical to them.
My suspicion is that many Indigenous Americans saw European gender roles as peculiar. In many Native American cultures, women were incredibly effective and influential but, apart from Elizabeth I, they would have seen few influential women at European courts. Beating children was another thing they were surprised by. They had different ideas about childhood, and didn’t understand using violence against people you were supposed to care for.
Though part of the wider story of slavery, the enslavement of Indigenous American peoples is an aspect with which many in Europe might not be so familiar. What can you tell us about it?
There’s been an upsurge in scholarship on the enslavement of Indigenous peoples in the past few decades. In particular, Andrés Reséndez wrote a wonderful book, The Other Slavery, in which he estimates that around a million Indigenous people were enslaved before 1600 alone – a figure that may have risen as high as 4 to 5 million by 1900.
This idea of it as an “other slavery” is an allusion to the fact that this hasn’t been widely recognised by history. But it also refers to the fact that it was another kind of slavery. Very often, Indigenous people were involved in forms of forced labour that weren’t technically labelled slavery but were still effectively bondage.
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In the first part of the 16th century, Indigenous American people were being literally traded across the Atlantic – maybe tens of thousands of them. Some estimates have been as high as hundreds of thousands, but I haven’t been able to verify a number quite that big. Europeans were kidnapping Indigenous peoples and using them for forced labour, both within the Americas and overseas. But the extent of this became much murkier after 1542, when it became illegal to enslave Indigenous people.
We know they were still being treated as slaves, just identified differently. In Spanish territories, for example, there was a system called the encomienda: as an Indigenous person, you were technically “entrusted” to a Spaniard who was supposed to look after and evangelise you; in exchange, you would work for the Spaniard. In most cases, though, that may as well have been slavery. Sources often talk about Indigenous people being “brought” or “taken” to Europe, and it’s important to look out for those words. Even in the cases of elite individuals who became diplomatic representatives for their people, often the issue of consent is murky and ambiguous.
You look at stories of Indigenous Americans who came to Europe with diplomatic aims. What kind of petitions were they bringing?
A number of high-status Indigenous people came to England, either to assist the English in their explorations or in some cases to meet with the monarch. An interesting case is the so-called “Brazilian king” who met Henry VIII on a diplomatic mission in 1531. In order to guarantee his safe return, the English left a hostage with that king’s people. However, the king died of disease in Europe before he could return home. The English were worried about the fate of the hostage, but the people in Brazil understood, and allowed the hostage to go free.
Other travellers included Manteo and Wanchese, high-status men from Croatan and Roanoke, on the north-eastern coast of what’s now the United States. Although they became entangled with English agendas, they seemed to be part of a mission to investigate Britain on behalf of their own people. The same is true of some of the Taíno people who crossed the Atlantic in the 1490s. It was originally assumed that they were simply brought by Columbus but, when you dig into the sources, it appears that some of them were related to rulers of Caribbean islands, so there may have been a diplomatic agenda.
There are well-recorded cases of high-status Indigenous people in the Spanish and Portuguese territories, often descendants of prominent nobility, coming over to Europe to appeal for their rights through the Spanish legal system. For example, the sons of [the Aztec emperor] Moctezuma are recorded appealing for money, pensions, jobs and confirmation of the rights to their lands.
The Tlaxcalans, who allied with the Spanish to defeat the Mexica (who we think of as the Aztecs), were very successful within the Spanish legal system. The first time that Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés returned to Spain from Mexico in 1528, he brought a big entourage with him. Historically, we’ve tended to focus on the entertainers, jugglers and tumblers in that group, but it also included several ambassadors – noblemen who were there to promote their interests.
During that expedition, the Tlaxcalans gained the right for their city to be recognised as an independent state under the Spanish crown, meaning that they would never be subject to any command or local authority. They got a coat of arms and exemptions from taxation.
Though the Tlaxcalans were especially successful, expeditions in which noble families came to Spain to promote their interests or complain about Spanish actions were fairly typical. The conquest of the Americas was not a straightforward story of Europeans versus Indigenous peoples. Very often, Indigenous nobilities were forced to either cooperate with or exploit European ways of doing things.
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You also recount several cases of Indigenous people starting families with Europeans, willingly or unwillingly. Could you give some examples?
We know that in the Americas, Indigenous women frequently had relationships with European men. Those were often informal, and Europeans weren’t always keen to bring Indigenous wives with them when they returned home. One of the most famous examples is Matoaka, known to many as Pocahontas, who came to Europe as the wife of an Englishman and was used to promote English colonisation in the Americas as a civilising force.
But such examples are more ubiquitous in mainland Europe. Occasionally, the records show Spaniards bringing home Indigenous wives or partners, but we know that a lot of the time it was unrecorded. The trouble is that the Spanish licences to travel across the Atlantic used a word that meant “dependent”; they didn’t have to define exactly who that was, so it could mean a servant or a partner.
The precarity of many of these people is very evident. For instance, one Indigenous Peruvian woman, Isabel, was brought to Castile by a Spanish man, Pedro de Oropesa, whom she recognised as her legitimate partner, but he decided to marry a European woman instead. When he died, the new wife tried to assert that the Indigenous woman was enslaved all along, so they had to fight it out in the courts and Isabel was only declared free many years later in 1570.
Mestizo children [of mixed ancestry] were also often brought to Europe by their fathers. The most famous example is probably Martín, the son of Cortés. The pope legitimised this son, and Martín actually gained a much higher status than his father. Unlike the elder Cortés, who was not deemed of good enough birth, Martín was recognised as a member of the Order of Santiago, because his mother was a high status Indigenous woman [the translator Malintzin, also called La Malinche or Doña Marina] who had been important in the conquest; by then, too, his father had become a marquis.
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You also find much more ordinary stories. In 1539, a woman called Beatriz, from somewhere in Venezuela, came across the Atlantic with a man called Alonso Ponce and their young mestizo daughter, Juana. We know that Beatriz was enslaved because she had been branded on her face. Alonso Ponce was the third person to enslave her, but as far as we know she was recognised as his partner.
If she’d lived just one more year after her transatlantic voyage, she’d have been able to apply for her freedom. As it was, she died and was buried in Spain. Ponce then cared for his daughter with the help of his sister, before sending Juana off to become a maid in a Seville household. This is what would have been expected with a non-mestizo daughter and Juana seems to have become part of the community.
Are there any individual stories from your book that have really stuck with you?
In 1577, the English explorer Martin Frobisher returned from a trip to north-eastern Canada with three Indigenous Inuit people he had captured: a man, a woman and a baby. The Europeans thought that they were a family, but it seems that actually the woman and man didn’t know each other. They arrived in Bristol in October and became a real spectacle. Artists flocked to paint them; memorable images drawn of them by John White show the infant, Nutaaq, peeking out of his mother, Arnaq’s, hood.
Local records talk about how the man, Kalicho, hunted ducks with a “dart” on the river Avon to demonstrate how he would harpoon seals. That’s a funny image, but it’s also an incredibly tragic story. It seems that Kalicho had been injured when he was captured. He quickly became ill, and died less than a month after he arrived. The doctor who carried out the autopsy made Arnaq watch the burial and see Kalicho’s dismembered corpse, to demonstrate that the English were not cannibals, which seems frankly horrific.
Arnaq was very quiet, which the doctor took to mean that she wasn’t bothered, but it seems much more likely that she was incredibly traumatised. Arnaq herself then became ill – probably with measles – which happened frequently to Indigenous people who had no natural resistance to European diseases. She died a few days after Kalicho. The baby, Nutaaq, was then taken to London. His mother had died and he must have been terrified. Strangers took him to an inn called the Three Swans, where they put him on display and charged people to view him.
But, like his mother, he probably had measles, and died just eight days later. Nutaaq is buried at the tiny church of St Olave’s on the corner of Hart Street and Seething Lane in the City of London. Buried in the same graveyard is Samuel Pepys, about whose life no detail goes unreported. The English writer was laid to rest in the same place as this tiny baby about whom we know almost nothing and whose voice we can barely hear, which is such a striking juxtaposition for me.
It’s a moving and tragic story – but also, sadly, typical. So many Indigenous people were taken from their homes and died in a strange land, surrounded by strangers and buried in ways that did not respect their traditions or beliefs. They were separated forever from their homelands – which for many Indigenous peoples is a rupture, a wound.
Can the legacy of this story still be felt in Europe today?
It’s possible to create a jolly cosmopolitan history of globalisation in this period. I could say, for example, that the legacy is that our language is absolutely full of Indigenous words like canoe and hammock. Or I could say that foods from the Americas are central to our lives today. Imagine Italian cooking without tomatoes or peppers. Imagine Asian cuisine without chillies. The first people to drink chocolate in Europe were Maya lords.
The legacy of what’s often called the “Columbian exchange” is vast, and Indigenous peoples were very much part of that. So you could look to this era for the roots of our global world today.
But it’s also important to reflect on the colonial violence in this story that has an enduring legacy – to recognise the depth of that legacy, and the ways in which Indigenous peoples are seeking to overcome it. These peoples are now starting to try to reclaim the bodies and the belongings of their ancestors from European institutes, to recover their heritage and to repair these wounds where they can. But there’s a lot more work to do.
Caroline Dodds Pennock is the author of On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2023). Buy it now on Amazon, Waterstones or Bookshop.org
This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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