On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe book cover and author headshot of Caroline Dodds Pennock

How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe

Already hundreds of indigenous Americans lived in France before Cortes landed in Mexico in 1519.

Their stories are more complex, rich and nuanced than we typically understand. Too rarely have we followed their journey across the Atlantic to Europe, which they considered “savage,” especially because of the stark inequality they found.

That’s the focus of history professor Caroline Dodds Pennock’s 2023 book “On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe,” which she calls “a project of discovery.” Like the 2006 book 1491, this is part of an effort to add complexity to the post-contact era.

I shared notes from my reading below for future research.

My notes below:

  • Matoaka (incorrectly named Pocahontas) was perhaps the only indigenous person whose name is widely known who traveled to Europe, though tens of thousands did
  • 6-7 indigenous people went back with Columbus, landing in 1493 to be the first known on European soil
  • Doctrine of discovery
  • Europe was more multicultural than we think it was, as has been shown by research from people like Onyeka Nubia, Imtiaz Habib, Olivette Otele, Johny Pitts and David Olusoga
  • Charles V ordered Cortes’s men Montejo and Puertocarrero to treat their indigenous tribesman well and to bring them and the wealth to him to evaluate whether to endorse the Cortes attack of the Americas
  • “This book is a project of discovery”
  • Walter Raleigh is seen as discoverer of tobacco and potatoes though he never went anywhere near where potatoes originated; tomatoes are Mexican and potatoes are Andean
  • Of Totonac men wearing rings and plugs in men’s lower lips: “I cannot remember that I have seen anything more hideous; but they think that nothing more elegant exists under the lunar circle. This example proves the blindness and foolishness of the human race: it likewise proves how we deceive ourselves. The Ethiopian thinks that black is a more beautiful colour than white, while the white man thinks the opposite. A bald man thinks himself more handsome than a hairy one, and a man with a beard laughs at him who is without one. We are influenced by passions rather than guided by reason, and the human race accepts these foolish notions, each country following its own fancy. In deference to another’s opinion, we prefer foolish things, while we reject solid and certain ones.”
  • Small pox disease hit Tenoxhtitlan and cost 8mi lives, often running ahead of actual contact
  • The Cortes attack of Tenochittlan benefited from divisive politics among indigenous tribes
  • These men and possibly woman who traveled with Cortes were well treated by Charles v, one died in Seville and others sent to Cuba where we lose the record
  • October 11 1492: Columbus sees what we today think is Watling Island (or San Salvador in the Bahamas); writes in his diary: “The people ought to make good slaves, for they are of quick intelligence..” plans to take six to become interpreters
  • Lucayan Taino
  • Anna Brickhouse: “unsettlement” native pushback on colonial settlements
  • La Casas, the defender of the Indians at first endorsed enslaving Africans to reduce pressure in Indigenous but later repented
  • Treaty of Tordesillas, plus papal bulls, split Catholic kingdoms Spain and Portugal of territory in Africa and the Americas (but the western line gave Portuguese Brazil): caused a balance of interests between profit and evangelizing
  • Charles V in 1550-1551 paused at Valladolid to seek theological debate about the ethics of evangelizing in the Americas: if they were subjects of Spain, how could they be enslaved? Three exceptions: cannibals, captured in a “just war” or they were being saved from a worse fate , like human sacrifice or enslaved to a non Christian)
  • Nahua people and others used courts to lobby for their freedom: “ I am a free man of my nation and a rational son of free men,” said baptized Mexican Martin in 1537
  • In his book The Other Slavery, Andres Resendez estimates 2.4m to 4.9m native Americans were enslaved between 1492-1900, most within the Americas and Caribbean but at least tens of thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of Indios sold in Europe in 16th century ; Resendez estimates as much as 2m before 1600
  • Nancy Van Deusen 650k Indios transported by Spain in 16th century
  • Young Guatemalan couple Francisco and Juana In 1545 won a court case in Ciudad Rodrigo in western Spain against their enslaver Cristobal de Cueto for being enslaved too young and declared free on May 13 1549, where they then were granted free transport back home to new Spain; example of legal battles
  • Branding of indigenous was common to mark slave but often done illegally and fought in court (like Martin who was freed in 1537
  • Slavery of indigenous was largely illegally in 1500s so records were hidden and facts murky
  • The Croatoan Manteo with Thomas Harlot in London To produce the Ossomocomuck, first conventions for the Algonquin alphabet
  • “It is easy to forget the language barrier, when reading accounts which report direct and detailed conversations between Indigenous people and invaders. European sources confidently recount eloquent speeches and complex negotiations, never mentioning the fact that the two parties would have had little or no sense of what the other was saying. Some of this startling confidence can, of course, be put down to literary convention. The grand orations supposedly exchanged by Cortés and Moctezuma evoke classical traditions, positioning the opponents as stately protagonists; they are a reflection of writing conventions and readers’ expectations, rather than reality. The language barrier could also be an advantage to colonisers: if your opponent doesn’t really understand what you’re saying, then it’s easy to claim that they agreed to all kinds of things. The accounts of colonisation are frequently invented as much as they are observed. As Stephen Greenblatt wrote: “The Europeans and the interpreters themselves translated such fragments as they understood or thought they understood into a coherent story, and they came to believe quite easily that the story was what they had actually heard”
  • “Go-betweens become obvious by their absence if you scrutinized any account of an event where people spoke different languages and ask yourself: how could these people understand each other?”
  • Columbus kidnapped “so that they may learn to speak” , as translation was quickly a priority of his
  • Eastern woodlands culture has the oral tradition of the an immense Bird, which would be the European boat
  • Diego Colon (Spanish name) was an early Columbus translator
  • Wanpanoag: The Great Dying
  • Nahua “nepantla” is the “in-between space” of language and culture between Europeans and themselves, the “nepantleras” were translators or in betweeners , and “Beachcombers” were the Europeans who learned language perhaps after shipwreck (Gonzalo Guerrero)
  • European colonialism included both hard power and what the political science world called soft power
  • Diego Valdez spoke three indigenous languages: Nahuatl, Tarascan and Otomi
  • Jesuit Blas Valera: Matoaka (Pocohhantas) and Tisquantum (Squanto) are translators; Madalena, a Tocobaga woman from Spanish Florida who became de Soto’s translator (look at an article by historian Scott Cave)
  • How did Cortes rally so many native groups to take Tenochittlan? Two translators: In early 1519 after landing in Yucatán, he found two Spanish men with beards shipwrecked 8 years ago and living in Mayan tribes: Gonzalo Guerrero had converted to Mayan life and battled against the Spanish; Geronimo de Aguilar eagerly agreed to be Cortes translator, and then later a Maya regional chief “gave” Cortes a group of women including Malintzin, Dona Marina, La Malinche, or nicknamed La Lengua
  • “lates her role is La Lengua (the tongue). A Nahua woman, possibly of noble birth, enslaved to the Maya, Malintzin was the perfect go-between for Cortés. In the early days, she and Aguilar translated for him in a laborious chain of communication: Spanish to Chontal Maya through Aguilar; Maya to Nahuatl through Malintzin, and back again, Nahuatl to Maya to Spanish. As if this wasn’t convoluted enough, the coastal Totonac region spoke another language entirely, and so two Nahuatlatos (Nahuatl interpreters) translated the Totonac speech of their chief into Nahuatl for Malintzin, who then switched it into Maya for Aguilar, who then rendered the words in Spanish for Cortés.3 The possibilities for mistranslation and misunderstanding in this tortuous and protracted chain of translations are endless. A quick and clever woman, Malintzin swiftly learned Spanish and became Cortés’s primary translator and aide, interpreting not only language, but also customs and culture. Although barely mentioned by Cortés in his letters, she was at the heart of events, and also of his life. She stayed by him through several campaigns and in 1522 gave birth to Cortesz son Martin”
  • She was sold into bondage by the Nahua people: did she inflame or encourage the Cortes attack against her former enslavers?
  • Malinchistas is now a word in Mexico to refer to those who betray their culture
  • Felipillo who translated fir Pizarro during his conquest of Peru is now a word there for lying politicians
  • “The process of transforming indigenous, non-alphabetical languages into our familiar Latin script is it self a subtle form of colonization: Rich, flexible, adaptable sounds, and other forms of communication wrestled into the constraints of 26 neat European characters.”
  • Bernadino de Sahagun first anthropologist of Nahua culture and Thomas Harrio my famous translation of Algonquian alphabet both relied on native peoples (Harriot worked with Manteo and Wanchese)
  • Coll Thrush deciphers “MATEOROIDN” on the Algonquin alphabet sheet (King Manteo did this”)
  • “Indigenous translators in negotiators were in established feature of transatlantic networks by the turn of the 17th century”
  • John Provost the christin name of another prominent Indigenous translator
  • Essemeriq: was he real?
  • A third of Spanish men married indigenous women in early 1600s, and many more were engaged in forced sexual relationships
  • Between 1550-1800, 70% of the world’s gold and 80% of silver from the Americas
  • 630 First Nations in Canada and US has 567 federally recognized and 63 state recognized tribes and 600 distinct languages from central and South America
  • Call the Americas Turtle island
  • Robin Wall Kimmerer “honorable harvest”
  • Elder Axu Alfred on Potlach: a rich person isn’t someone who has a lot, a rich person is someone who gives the most away
  • Even more than tomatoes and potatoes, tobacco use is from America’s (Mayan people from BCE) but divorced of that context; smoking cocoa also popular before the milk and sugar
  • Madrid Codex ignored original maya owners
  • February 1546 AJ Pop B’atz and others arrive back in Maya after famous negotiation, they had Brought chilles, beans and maize
  • “Indigenous peoples did not just form their own Atlantic patois, but also profoundly changed European languages. To give just a few examples: because of the Caribbean Arawak languages, we can barbecue, canoe or lie in a hammock during a hurricane. Quechua, spoken by the Inkas, is why we eat jerky and quinoa and perhaps even take cocaine. Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec-Mexica and their neighbours, gave us avocados and tomatoes to eat with chile and chocolate in a shack. Tupi-Guarani is why we eat manioc and tapioca while watching jaguars, piranhas and toucans sitting among petunias. For cold weather, Inuit gave us the iconic anorak, and Algonquian our moccasins and toboggans.”
  • Moctezuma offered Cortes to “command as you will,” as a version of his hospitality not authority but the cultural gap was too wide and Cortes took it as submission
  • Raoni Metuktire, chief of Kayapo in Brazil said they call money “piu caprim” or sad leaves “because it is a dead and useless thing, and brings on the harm and sadness”
  • Mestizo Diego part of 16th century Colombia human rights efforts (many indios were granted lavish perks by the crown because they were seen as poor children
  • Indigenous frequently mentioned the inequality of Europe (but I ask: could there be wealth without that cruelty?)
  • Inuit means the people so we don’t say the Inuit people
  • Kalicho among Inuit taken for spectacle; he refused bloodletting before he died, for which a surgeon called him “uncivilized” timid and foolish; baby Nutaaq buried near diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote himself into history , but we do see toddler Nutaaq in a John White portrait painting peering out from his mother’s hood (whose story gets told?)

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