On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe 
by Caroline Dodds Pennock.
Weidenfeld, 302 pp., £22, January, 978 1 4746 1690 4
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In June​ 1616 the Virginian princess Pocahontas arrived in Plymouth and travelled to London. With her came her husband, the English tobacco planter John Rolfe, and several members of her Native American family. Done up in embroidered silks and Flemish lace, she enjoyed – if that’s the right word – the adulation of the crowds and an audience with James I. She was not, in fact, a princess, however much it suited the Virginia Company to pretend she was. Nor was her name Pocahontas, which means ‘playful girl’ and like so many other aspects of Indigenous culture had been misunderstood. Yet the name is a fitting symbol of her plight and short life. She was known previously by her childhood names Amonute and Matoaka, and later by her Christian baptismal name, Rebecca, with her husband’s surname: everything about the experience of Native Americans in Europe was caught between the Old World and the New, awkwardly and usually unhappily.

The Virginia Company, a private joint-stock venture, had been struggling and needed some positive PR to attract investment and political support. Four months before the arrival of the Rolfe entourage, the company organised a fundraising lottery, advertised with printed handbills. These were decorated with engravings of the monetary prizes, the royal coat of arms and a pair of American men, Eiakintomino and Matahan, who the previous year had been displayed in St James’s Park, where their portraits were painted. The broadside also included verse, a ventriloquised appeal from the visitors:

Once, in one State, as of one Stem,
Meere Strangers from Jerusalem,
As Wee were Yee; till Others Pittie
Sought, and brought You to That Cittie.
Deere Britaines, now, be You as kinde;
Bring Light, and Sight, to Us yet blinde:
Leade Us, by Doctrine and Behaviour,
Into one Sion, to one Saviour.

The declared ideals were charity and conversion, the sincerity of which is questionable given England’s undisguised desire for overseas land and natural resources. Eiakintomino and Matahan appeared wearing doeskin mantles and holding bows and arrows; Pocahontas, however, in her Jacobean finery, was a promotional mannequin for the spiritual and material fruits of colonisation. Even her portraits gave her a Caucasian makeover, airbrushing racial distinctiveness – she may have had facial tattoos – to make her conform to English expectations. Her cultural rebirth was not so much a gesture of accord between Britain and the Indigenous people of Virginia as a symbol of conquest and dominion over the American wilderness and its supposedly savage ways.

The Pocahontas story has been avidly fictionalised in novels and films, mostly as a bogus love story between Matoaka and the explorer Captain John Smith. It’s a versatile tale, delivering romance and adventure, as well as a Southern creation myth that allowed postbellum Virginia to compete with the Mayflower pageantry cherished by the victorious North. Pocahontas is a household name. But, as Caroline Dodds Pennock shows, there were many thousands of Native Americans in early modern Europe who have long been forgotten.

The circumstances in which they crossed the Atlantic were diverse. Some came voluntarily as traders, ambassadors and scouts, others as prisoners and slaves, although it’s often hard to tell whether coercion or curiosity lay behind their journeys. From the late 15th century, diplomatic missions on behalf of Indigenous nobility were received at the Court of Castile and its imperial outposts. A deputation of Mexican Totonacs, allied to Spain as enemies of the Aztecs, arrived in 1519. They were well looked after, body and soul – given velvet tunics and compulsorily baptised – and granted an audience with Charles V. Exactly who they were and what they were doing is unclear, but they were astute interlocutors and the king, soon to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor, considered good relations a means to an end. Charles exhibited the golden treasures the Totonacs brought with them in Brussels town hall, where they were seen by Dürer. ‘In all the days of my life,’ he said, ‘I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things.’

American visitors to European courts were usually seeking confirmation or extension of their rights as imperial subjects. Tlaxcala, a Mexican city state (like the Totonacs hostile to the Aztecs), sent several embassies to Spain during the 16th century. ‘One of the savage kings of the Countrey of Brasill’, probably a Tupinambá from Bahia, visited Henry VIII at Whitehall. He had facial piercings, his lower lip was set with a jewel, and everything about him, it was said, was ‘very strange to the beholders’. Once he had seen what he wanted of this curious place, his hosts put him back on a ship – but, like Pocahontas and so many other Indigenous people in contact with Europeans, he succumbed to a germ against which he had no immunity and never saw Brazil again.

By this time, the presence of dark-skinned foreigners didn’t attract much attention in Iberian cities. In Seville, every tenth person was enslaved. Most of them were African but a significant minority came from the Americas. In Lisbon, Tupí and Guaraní people were assigned to the same drinking fountain taps as Africans. As many as 650,000 Native Americans were shipped abroad in the 16th century, compared to less than half that number of people from Africa. Columbus sent several thousand women and men to Europe from the Caribbean, most of them destined for domestic service. Between 1492 and 1900, somewhere between 2.4 and 4.9 million Indigenous Americans were enslaved, perhaps a quarter of the total number of people enslaved in the period.

By aiming at a ‘deliberate inversion of the imperial perspective’, On Savage Shores falls in behind global (as distinct from imperial) history and the dynamic reciprocity of oceanic histories (no longer confined to the Atlantic), but especially the recent ‘decolonisation’ of academic agendas – not a purge so much as an overdue diversion of attention towards people marginalised by race. Indigenous peoples have long been either missing from the European story or misrepresented as ‘artefacts of empire, spectacular curiosities, avatars of the riches and mysteries of far-off subjected lands’. They are the yielding objects of every sentence written about them, whereas we’d do better to imagine them as subjects: Indigenous peoples were indeed victims of heartless rapacity, crushed by ships and steel, deracinated and culturally belittled, but Dodds Pennock shows that they were also agents of change.

Inverting the imperial perspective involves considering the impressions that Native Americans formed of European life: did they feel the same fear, perplexity and awe experienced by the white colonists and conquistadors in America? In native cultures wealth conferred status but was not accumulated for its own sake and was not so unequally shared as to mean the lowest of the lower orders went without food, clothing and shelter. So a Wyandot youth in early 17th-century France was appalled to see people begging in the streets. Discipline to him seemed harsh, meted out by the officers of the French state and by parents to their children, as if the society were terrified of rebellion, its majesty and order some precarious, perhaps unsustainable, construct.

As the baptism of the Totonacs suggests, Europeans did not celebrate diversity, nor were they given to inclusion. Instead, they fretted over who these ‘primitive’ people were, how they fitted into God’s creation and the responsibility of ‘civilised’ Christians to reform them. As sincere principle or cynical pretext – it could be both – Europeans obeyed God’s will that every corner of his earth should be exploited and the gospels planted there. They were motivated by pity as well as piety. The spurious emotional plea attributed to Eiakintomino and Matahan that Britons should rescue their people from paganism, as they themselves had been redeemed by missionaries, is typical. Like the deserving poor, native peoples were objects of charity, ‘salvages’ to be saved. The altarpiece in Seville’s Casa de Contratación shows the Virgin Mary harbouring famous navigators beneath her cloak and behind them, tenebrous yet distinct, natives blessed by true religion. When Columbus brought Taíno people to the royal court, Ferdinand and Isabella fell to their knees and wept in a stage-managed ritual of evangelical fervour and cultural supremacy. But salvation only underlined the nagging problem of native rights. Charles V sought legal and theological counsel on the matter, and his subjects wrestled with the conundrum that even if imperial territories were best governed as vassal states, this made their inhabitants Spanish citizens exempt from enslavement unless they were prisoners of war or cannibals. English colonisers later faced a similar problem with African slaves and the status of their offspring, which was solved by the idea of heritable bondage written into slave codes.

European desire for knowledge of the world was quickened by the twin impulses to understand God’s creation and to acquire valuable minerals and other raw materials. In 1492 Columbus, anchored off the Taíno island of Guanahaní, did not hesitate to take fifteen prisoners back to Spain – men, women and children – ‘so we would know what there is in this land’. To this end, there needed to be an exchange of language. Installed in Sir Walter Raleigh’s London palace in the 1580s, Manteo and Wanchese, two men from what is now North Carolina, worked with Raleigh’s navigator Thomas Hariot to devise an Algonquian alphabet to learn about America’s ‘singuler great comodities’. Between 1550 and 1800 the Americas were the source of 80 per cent of the world’s silver and 70 per cent of its gold, although as Raleigh and his 17th-century English successors would discover, greater riches lay in tobacco and sugar.

Europeans were eager for Native Americans to tell them the location of precious metals and the source of beaver pelts. But less practical Indigenous knowledge needed either to be assimilated into the existing intellectual scheme of the world or placed outside it as a monstrous anomaly. Like the jumbled artefacts in Renaissance Wunderkammern, Indigenous travellers to Europe were made into spectacles: ethnographic specimens and sensational sideshows. Guaraní children abducted from what is now southern Brazil and Paraguay were shipped to Portugal as ‘curiosities’, just as Inuk people from modern Canada made forced journeys to European cities. In 1566, when a man from Nunatsiavut was murdered trying to defend his family, his wife became ‘raving and mad’ at the prospect of leaving behind their seven-year-old daughter. So mother and child were both taken to Antwerp to be gawped at in their sealskin clothes. An Inuk hunter was brought to London in 1576 and hastily subjected to the European gaze – painted by a Flemish artist and togged up in English apparel – before he died, possibly of pneumonia. The presence of four Mohawk and Mahican chiefs at a West End performance of Macbeth in 1710 proved so distracting to the audience that their seats were moved onstage where they could be seen clearly without commotion.

Most Americans transported against their will never returned to their native lands and lived typically short lives of alienation and desolation. Pocahontas died in Gravesend as she prepared to depart and is buried beneath the chancel of St George’s Church. According to the parish register she was ‘A virginia Lady borne’ as well as John Rolfe’s wife, Rebecca. (In 1635 their son, Thomas, raised in England, returned to Virginia where he became a successful tobacco planter.) Sometimes the ancestral homes of native visitors were destroyed by fire and farming, their countryfolk put to the sword or wiped out by pestilence. Perhaps a third of Spanish men in the Americas were married to Indigenous women, who were often forced into the arrangement. The Genoese voyager Michele da Cuneo left a brazen account of how he raped, in his words, ‘a gorgeous Cannibal woman’, who fought him tooth and nail before he overpowered her.

Native Americans​ who were given some freedom in Europe often made the best of their new lives. Some became fully acculturated, such as Cortés’s mestizo son, Martín, or the kidnapped Taíno boy whom Columbus treated as a sort of brother to his son Diego. Amercans in Spain, Dodds Pennock writes, made ‘their own landscapes of identity and community … unobtrusively shaping the perceptions of the people around them’. After a couple of years in London, three Newfoundland men, ‘in their demeanor like to brute beasts’ when presented to Henry VII, had blended in to the extent that a chronicler ‘could not discern [them] from Inglish men’. Exile, voluntary or otherwise, provided opportunities for self-reinvention. Leonard Ragapo, who came to England with Raleigh, became a society celebrity and generous host, ‘not after the ordinarie rude manner of the Indians’, according to the adventurer Robert Harcourt, ‘but in a more civill fashion, and with much respect and love’. Raleigh’s protégé Manteo was reborn a Protestant, allowed to carry a gun and learned to use a pen. A fascinating draft of his and Hariot’s linguistic scheme survives in the archives of Westminster School, adorned with a line of neat looping writing deciphered as: ‘Manteo king done’. Behind the mask, however, lay uneasy feelings of hybridity. Identity was most confused in those trained as envoys and interpreters, who were essential for imperial projects but doomed for ever to be in-betweeners, or to use a Nahuatl word, ‘nepantleras’. Depression and suicide were common.

It’s a moot point, however, as there’s little direct evidence of what they actually felt. Dodds Pennock’s skilful method involves subtly layering European accounts ‘against the grain’, reading between the lines left by observers uninterested in native mentalities or intellectually incapable of understanding them. She calls her book ‘a project of recovery – of filling a gap in our knowledge’. But often all that can be recovered is the gap itself, which can only be filled by well-informed speculation. It’s maddening that we don’t know whether Manteo and Wanchese met Elizabeth I. The German travel writer Lupold von Wedel said they did – but that’s all we have, along with the thought that Raleigh probably did orchestrate a meeting because he was such a show-off. After five pages about Essomericq, a Brazilian child enslaved in France, Dodds Pennock asks: ‘Did Essomericq really exist? There is no way of knowing for sure.’ An eye-catching quotation from a Wyandot chief, who decried European ‘notions of Mine and Thine, those two great Disturbers of the World’, turns out to be the fiction of a French visitor, even if ‘we also have every reason to believe the dialogues could be genuine.’ But then On Savage Shores never pretends its imaginative propositions are anything else. What’s more, Dodds Pennock uses the archival thinness to illustrate centuries of neglect in writing about native subjects. To shy away now would be a despairing resignation that would ensure the continued absence of Indigenous people from the history of early modern Europe.

The truth seems even more elusive when we realise not only that the sources are partisan and patchy but that even impartial observers may have been deceived. The possibility that Indigenous people were calculating in their dealings with Europeans is at least a vote for their agency. After all, even ‘active’ rather than ‘passive’ Native Americans were likely to appear compliant rather than assertive: they were playing a role. To gain a concession or title or right may have first required some craven gesture to validate the status quo. This was surely true of the Nahua sportsmen – warriors, jugglers and ball-players – who performed at the Spanish court in Toledo in 1528, likewise the Rouen pageant of 1550 in which Tupí visitors obligingly posed in a mocked-up ‘Brazilian village’. This, Dodds Pennock suggests, was not merely a demeaning spectacle but ‘also a scene of vigorous exchange’ – a strategic demonstration of transatlantic loyalties as well as an extravaganza of imperial hegemony. Politics paved the way for business. The 1550s saw the development of a key trade route between northern France and Brazil, mainly in hardwoods but also monkeys, jaguar skins and parrots that had been taught to speak French. When it came to religion, the Totonacs were both openly curious about their baptism but also careful to express their contentment. Mayan legal claims abided by Indigenous custom and convention but also paid homage to the Catholic faith, as a ‘creative adaptation to colonial expectations’, a means ‘to record ancestral knowledge in a way which was both meaningful to outsiders and useful to the community’.

Easier to pin down is the manner in which European forays into the New World transformed the Old, not least by introducing intoxicating novelties. As well as too much silver, the Spanish got maize, beans and chillies. They also received tomatoes, which were initially spurned for their possibly destabilising effect on bodily humours (and vulva-like appearance inside). The British Isles began a sincere love affair with tobacco and potatoes, once – largely thanks to John Rolfe – they could buy the sweet golden type of the former, and got past the idea that the latter were ugly tubers which might cause leprosy. And with imported food and other global encounters came new words, including ‘hurricane’ (Arawak), ‘jaguar’ (Tupí-Guaraní), ‘anorak’ (Inuit), ‘cocaine’ (Quechua), ‘toboggan’ (Algonquian) and ‘chocolate’ (Nahuatl). ‘Avocado’ derives from another Nahuatl term, although the etymology speaks to the fraught complexities of exchange in the Columbian era. It actually comes from the English trying to say a Spanish word, ‘aguacate’, which in turn came from Spaniards trying to say ‘āhuacatl’. That the final iteration turns out to be a corruption by an imperialist nation with no aptitude for foreign languages serves as a reminder of the force of Malcolm X’s comment on the African-American experience: ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock – the rock was landed on us.’

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Vol. 45 No. 13 · 29 June 2023

Malcolm Gaskill quotes Malcolm X commenting ‘on the African American experience’: ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock – the rock was landed on us’ (LRB, 18 May). I suspect Malcolm X was riffing on Cole Porter’s ‘Anything Goes’ (1934):

Times have changed
And we’ve often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock
If today, any shock they should try to stem
’Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock
Plymouth Rock would land on them

David Zeitlyn

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