On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe by Caroline Dodds Pennock - review by David Gelber

David Gelber

Coming from America

On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 290pp £22

In 1550, two groups of indigenous Brazilians, ‘all naked … without anything to cover the part that nature commands’, fought a pitched battle on the banks of the Seine. Arrows flew, parakeets shrieked, marmosets scurried up trees and flames consumed rows of wooden huts. From a distance, King Henri II, his wife, Catherine de’ Medici, and the assembled French court watched in fascination. Yet in spite of the noise, havoc, fire and fury, no Brazilian appears to have been killed in the exchange. The entire tumult was a spectacle staged by the city of Rouen to flaunt its mariners’ achievements in negotiating the deeps of the Atlantic and returning with flora, fauna and humankind never before seen in France.

As frightful as the Brazilian Tupis – their faces covered in piercings, sharpened axes clenched in their hands – might have seemed to onlookers, the real savages of Caroline Dodds Pennock’s book are not any of the native peoples of the Americas who wound up in Europe during the century and a half after Columbus’s first voyage. They are the sailors, prospectors and adventurers who kidnapped, bribed, blackmailed or otherwise compelled them across the Atlantic. Pennock’s purpose here is to overturn conventional notions of civilisation and savagery. She sets out to explore how indigenous Americans made sense of a lurid new world of powdered cheeks and frilly cuffs, virgin mothers and child kings.

Indigenous Americans were in Europe from almost the time Europeans were in the Americas. During his first voyage in 1492, Columbus seized several dozen Taíno people from the islands that now form the Bahamas and Cuba and transported them back to Spain. The few who survived the voyage were presented to the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella as trophies of conquest, along with – as Pennock pointedly notes – parrots, pearls, craftworks and other ‘curiosities’. Over the subsequent 150 years, many more followed in their wake. From Newfoundland, from the River Plate, from all points in between they came to Spain, Portugal, France and England. Some were of high degree. In the mid-16th century, members of the Inca dynasty – which had, until its deposition by Pizarro, ruled Peru – could be found living out their days in the Castilian town of Trujillo. Many more were of no special status, ending up in Europe though happenstance or misfortune rather than for reasons of politics. Pennock notes that in the churchyard of St Olave’s in the City of London, resting place of Samuel Pepys, can be found the body of an Inuit baby whose mother caught the eye of the privateer Martin Frobisher as he was cruising the coast of Canada and was brought to England as a hostage for the return of captured crewmen.

In the decades immediately after 1492, native peoples were taken to Europe to perform slave labour, but over the course of the 16th century – Pennock is a little imprecise on the details – monarchs restricted the grounds on which indigenous Americans could be enslaved, while churchmen, eager to expand the Christian communion, threw a protective cassock over them. Even so, they continued to arrive in Europe. Some were illegally trafficked. Some were recruited as interpreters and intermediaries. Others crossed the Atlantic as envoys, especially after the wars between the European powers spilled over into the Americas, causing monarchs to seek alliances with native tribes. Others still came as plaintiffs seeking redress of abuses by conquistadors. Pennock sees in Diego de Torres y Moyachoque, who travelled from Colombia to Madrid in 1575 to present to the king a dossier of the crimes of the colonial authorities, a forerunner of the anti-imperialists of later centuries.

As Pennock shows, intermarriage and sex, often of a non-consensual kind, were a feature of relations between Europeans and Americans almost from the outset. In the early 1500s, a shipwrecked Portuguese sailor, Diogo Alvares Correia, so impressed a Tupi chief with his display of firepower that the chief offered him his daughter Guaibimpará in marriage. She accompanied Correia back to Europe and was baptised ‘Catherine du Brasil’. The offspring of such relationships also regularly crossed the ocean. Martin, the son of a Nahua woman and Hernando Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, found his way to the Spanish court and ended up joining a crusade against the Muslim regent of Algiers.

Pennock is good on the particularities of such cases, which she describes pithily and sympathetically. When it comes to the general, however, she is all over the place. Her estimates of the numbers of indigenous Americans in Europe are understandably vague, given the patchiness of records. But they are also consistently inconsistent. She speaks early on of ‘thousands’. By the end this has become a ‘vast company’. Yet along the way we are told that Americans in Europe were ‘isolated emissaries’. The speculative nature of her undertaking is emphasised by the terms we encounter every few pages: ‘very likely’, ‘cannot say with certainty’, ‘impossible to detect’. If Pennock had trimmed her ambitions to the shortcomings of the sources, this would scarcely matter. Yet for some reason, they lead her to double down. ‘We just have to look harder,’ she insists.

That reason may lie in the sense of mission that infuses this book. Pennock seems to have conceived of her work not merely as an act of recovery but as one of reparation too. Native peoples have been ‘ignored’, ‘effaced’ and ‘rendered silent’, and Pennock has set herself the task of righting these wrongs. Accordingly, she seeks to highlight the apparent virtues of indigenous American cultures, at the heart of which are ‘sustainability and the sharing of resources’, and the concomitant deficiencies of European value systems, which are underpinned by ‘extraction and profit’. Individual Europeans fare no better: they always seem to be ‘ungrateful’, ‘uncivilised’ and lacking in ‘compassion’.

In pursuit of her cause, Pennock takes us down some curious paths. She criticises the marginalisation of native peoples in accounts of the past, yet at the same time instructs us to value ‘multiple narratives as histories’. There are moments when it feels like one has been dropped into a New Age healing group. The reader is advised, for instance, to refer to the Americas by the Haudenosaunee, Lenape and Anishinaabeg name of ‘Turtle Island’, the better to empathise with native peoples. And in one of the hardest challenges an author has surely ever laid down, she urges readers to resist ‘the siren call of economics’.

Pennock’s moral charge leads ultimately to muddle. ‘Most people seem to have forgotten that Europeans and their descendants weren’t the only ones moving in this period,’ Pennock says in the introduction. Yet in a mawkish afterword she writes, ‘In churchyards and cemeteries, under fields and homes, and in catacombs, their remains lie unmarked among the jumbled vestiges of centuries, traces of Indigenous presence erased, but not forgotten.’ So is their presence forgotten or not?

All the hand-wringing comes with other costs. Significant aspects of indigenous American society are left unexplained. Pennock makes repeated references to caciques (chiefs), for example, but never describes what functions they performed in indigenous communities. She provides a little more on indigenous beliefs, but not enough to properly explain how Americans conceived of Europe. She also overestimates the extent to which the minds of early modern Europeans ran along rational, or at least material, tracks. Greedy and callous many undoubtedly were, but they – no less than the Americans they encountered – found themselves suddenly having to adjust to a world of which their hoary cosmology took no account.

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