Book Reviews - Spring 2023

Culture Shock

The hidden history of reverse colonization

By Ilan Stavans | March 1, 2023
Mariano Mantel (Flickr/mariano-mantel)
Mariano Mantel (Flickr/mariano-mantel)

On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe by Caroline Dodds Pennock; Knopf, 320 pp., $32.50

In his essay “Of Cannibals” (c. 1580), Montaigne talks of meeting, in Rouen in 1562, three indigenous men from Tupinambá, Brazil. They had been brought to entertain King Charles IX, who at the time was just 12 years old. Traveling through Europe, these foreigners were viewed not only as outsiders but also as representatives of “barbaric” civilizations. Of all the things they had seen, the French locals wanted to know what they found most admirable. “In the first place,” Montaigne states,

they thought it very strange that so many tall men, wearing beards, strong, and well armed, who were about the king ( ’tis like they meant the Swiss of the guard), should submit to obey a child, and that they did not rather choose out one amongst themselves to command. Secondly (they have a way of speaking in their language to call men the half of one another), that they had observed that there were amongst us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, whilst, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.

What mesmerizes Montaigne is the judgment by the Tupinambá on economic injustice. How was it that on a continent so plentiful, a small number of people were obscenely rich while a considerable portion of the population lived in poverty? He concludes that “every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live.”

This extraordinary insight highlights the power that outsiders have, forcing us to see ourselves from an altogether different perspective. The spectacle of the Tupinambá men in the French court, as described by Montaigne, could be said to be an instance of “reverse colonization,” a phenomenon in which those who embarked in a colonial endeavor suddenly see themselves as colonized and must face their own limitations.

Caroline Dodds Pennock, a historian at the University of Sheffield, amasses a vast quantity of more or less similar examples in her new book, On Savage Shores. Her laudable objective is to follow the path of dozens among the tens of thousands of indigenous people who, in the aftermath of Columbus’s first voyage, journeyed to Europe in a variety of roles: as slaves, as kin to conquistadors and missionaries, as diplomats, as commodities, and as oddities performing any kind of cultural spectacle, mostly for the well-off. We have obsessed, and rightly so, about the destruction caused by Spaniards, the Portuguese, the French, the English, the Dutch, and other Europeans in the Americas, following, in historical time, their countless misdeeds. The experience of indigenous newcomers who traveled eastward through the Atlantic, however, has been largely ignored.

This isn’t unexpected. In most cases, the path these visitors took was expunged: either their hosts failed to record, in detail, the extent of their impressions or the travelers themselves lacked the education, financial means, audience, or wherewithal to articulate their stories. Pennock’s sources, then, are necessarily obscure, partial, and embedded in all sorts of materials, from diaries and correspondence to regal and domestic chronicles and material culture. Yet the volume resists being a cabinet of curiosities, instead presenting itself as a manifesto against erasure.

Since their uprootedness often ended in tragedy, the leitmotifs of these narratives, not surprisingly, are loneliness, bafflement, and alienation.

The reader is handsomely rewarded with a plethora of accounts. Those providing them include Coastal Algonquin like Manteo and Wanchese, who translated for Walter Raleigh and codified an orthography of the Ossomocomuck Algonquian language in London, as well as a group of Totonacs taken by conquistadors Francisco de Montejo and Alonso Fernández Puertocarrero from Mexico to Spain in 1519, along with exotic items like jewels, shields, and metals. Others are Taínos from the Caribbean, Maya from the Yucatán Peninsula, and Inkans from the Andes. They are described as explorers, “pioneers, pathfinders for their people—and ambassadors to a foreign emperor.”

The quest isn’t only to follow, when possible, their European itineraries, internal and external: how they conceived of “home,” what they witnessed, where they ended up. Although a few traveled, alone or in small groups, on their own accord, most were taken involuntarily, in dehumanized fashion. With few exceptions, they didn’t know the local languages. Since their uprootedness often ended in tragedy, the leitmotifs of these narratives, not surprisingly, are loneliness, bafflement, and alienation. Yet these were treks of resilience, too, as people learned, in a short span of time, the skills—physical, social, legal, and rhetorical—required to survive.

Pennock is an efficient writer but unfortunately not an elegant one. Hers is an accusatory, vengeful voice that mostly seeks to ridicule Europeans for failing to understand the inhumanity they embraced. With few exceptions, the portrait she offers of pre-Columbian civilizations is idyllic, whereas Europeans are consistently seen as vicious. Yet the Aztec-Mexican empire was itself ruthlessly stratified, shaped as a ranked system that featured nobles ( pipiltin), commoners (macehualtin), and slaves ( tlacotin), aside from serfs and prisoners of wars. The Maya civilization, quite hierarchical as well, had already peaked by the time the Europeans arrived, its metropolises abandoned. The Totonacs in eastern Mexico partnered with the Spanish to assert their own political power. In other words, even as the Americas were imagined by Europeans as a preternatural landscape, the landscape was far from utopian (the Greek word utopia means “no place”). Inadvisably, Pennock, even after quoting Montaigne, resists Walter Benjamin’s dictum, in his essay “On the Concept of History” (1942), that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

To be sure, she builds her argument as if walking on eggshells. She frets at length about what to call her subjects, navigating a minefield of terminology: indio (Indian), indígena (indigenous), Native American, First Nations, and so on. This hypersensitivity paralyzes her. The corollary is that historians cannot, in the end, avoid appropriating what isn’t theirs. This, to me, turns political correctness into self-immolation. The truth is that historians have a precious impartiality that endows them with the capacity to reflect on human behavior. To waste it in guilt-ridden disquisitions is a shame.

What I mostly wanted from Pennock—herein my biggest qualm with On Savage Shores—was a more ambitious meditation on reverse colonization. Along with the fascinating sketches of indigenous travel to Europe, how did the Americas reshape Europe as a whole? The thesis offered is that given the low number of indigenous visitors overall from across the Atlantic, the effect is comparatively small, not to say anecdotal. Yet when seen in toto, it is substantial. Beyond these forgotten guests, other arrivals changed the continent’s course. For starters, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, pineapples, squashes, guavas, and chili peppers were introduced in the diet. Animals like muskrats, squirrels, and raccoons found new habitats abroad. The collective identity was transformed as religions adapted themselves, as is the case of Spanish Catholicism after it was exposed to different types of American polytheistic rituals.

And there’s language. While reading, I was reminded of a benchmark moment in the shaping of Spanish as a tongue. Also in 1492, Antonio de Nebrija, a Salamanca philologist, published an influential Spanish grammar. The word he used for boat was barco. A few years later, in a revised edition, he replaced it with canoa, from the Arawak Indian word kanawa. Just like this one, countless other words—Caliban, Shakespeare’s impetuous character in The Tempest, is, according to some, an anagram of the Spanish word canibal—infiltrated European languages, subverting them from the inside. This is also an indispensable part of how indigenous Americans “discovered” Europe.

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