"Indigenous Americans who travelled across the Atlantic were horrified by inequalities in European society"
BBC History UK|February 2023
Caroline Dodds pennock talks to Ellie Cawthorne about her new book tracing the remarkable stories of Indigenous Americans who voyaged to Europe after 1492
By Caroline Dodds Pennock

Ellie Cawthorne: Let's start with the title of your book, On Savage Shores. What can you tell us about the meaning?

Caroline Dodds Pennock: 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 Henry VIII's court, or that there were tens of thousands of enslaved Indigenous people in Spain?

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 very 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.

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.

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 also 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.

Contemporary portraits of Inuit people Kalicho, Arnaq and baby Nutaaq. Captured by the explorer Martin Frobisher in 1577, all three died soon after being brought to England

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?

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