Caroline Dodds Pennock on The Indigenous Americans Who Visited EuropeHistorians in the News
tags: colonialism, Native American history, Indigenous history
Karin Wulf is the director of the John Carter Brown Library and a historian at Brown University. She was previously the executive director of the Omohundro Institute of American History & Culture and a professor of history at William & Mary.
Welcoming a delegation from the Mohegan Tribe, the British queen accepted a petition originally brought to England in 1735 by Sachem Mahomet Weyonomon, who wanted the crown to acknowledge the crisis posed by British settlement of tribal lands in what is now Connecticut. Weyonomon contracted smallpox and died before he could present his petition to a royally appointed commission; as a foreigner, he was barred from being buried in London and was interred outside of the city.
Almost two centuries later, Elizabeth fulfilled a request from the modern-day Mohegan to erect a monument in Weyonomon’s memory. Crafted from Connecticut pink granite, the sculpture was installed on the grounds of Southwark Cathedral, near his unmarked grave, on November 22, 2006. The queen presided over the dedication ceremony, accepting a copy of the original petition and a red stone peace pipe from the delegation.
Weyonomon’s story, in which a Native American leader journeys east to Europe, runs counter to common assumptions about Indigenous people and colonization. The “Age of Discovery,” as the century between the mid-1400s and mid-1500s is commonly known, has long evoked the ambitions of Europeans looking west to the Americas rather than vice versa.
Christopher Columbus is the default example, an Italian who famously “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492, on the first of four major voyages for the Spanish crown. Beyond Columbus, “explorers” who introduced the possibilities of American riches, lands and people to their royal patrons (and eventually the wider world) included Spain’s Hernán Cortés, Portugal’s Vasco da Gama, England’s Sir Walter Raleigh and France’s Jacques Cartier. Despite efforts to change the public’s understanding of this era of exploration—celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day, for example, helps shed light on the destructive legacy of colonization—the basic European-dominated narrative has proved difficult to dislodge.
In her new book, On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe, Caroline Dodds Pennock reverses this oft-repeated narrative, demonstrating that Weyonomon’s trip to England was part of a lengthy history of Indigenous people crossing the Atlantic. A historian at the University of Sheffield in England, Pennock explains that tens of thousands of Indigenous people traveled to Europe after 1492, whether as diplomats and leaders, enslaved laborers, or the wives and children of European men.
Cortés’ son Martín, for example, was born in Mexico City in 1522. The child of an Indigenous woman known as La Malinche, he traveled to Spain as a toddler and was raised as a Spanish nobleman. During his illustrious military career, this “Indigenous knight,” as Pennock calls him, even returned briefly to Mexico to meet his mother’s family.
Martín’s experience in Europe was far from typical. Most Indigenous Americans who traveled to the continent were enslaved, and many died from smallpox or other diseases. Still, their stories show just how much historians have missed by assuming that Europeans were the only ones who crossed the Atlantic to see new worlds. Indigenous people’s voyages, says Pennock, “speak to a bigger story that is incredibly relevant right now, about the origins of our world as an entangled, cosmopolitan place.”
Smithsonian chatted with Pennock to learn more about her research and its implications. Read a condensed and edited version of the conversation below.
On Savage Shores dramatically inverts the narrative of the Age of Discovery. Why is this reframing significant to scholars’ understanding of the era?
My story starts with a period people think they know really well, with the Tudors and Golden Age Spain. What most people don’t know is that a Brazilian king, as he’s called in the sources, was at the court of Henry VIII. I was speaking to a Tudor specialist recently, Suzannah Lipscomb, on her podcast, and even she said she didn’t know.
It’s so important to recognize that Indigenous people were in Europe, that it’s not just white people going out from Europe. Indigenous people were experiencing Europe themselves. They were involved in diplomacy, trade and slavery, and they are central to this story. Scholars like Olivette Otele, David Olusoga, Imtiaz Habib and many others have started to shift the view of Europe to include Black people and people of African descent in that story, but Indigenous people haven’t yet been fully incorporated into it.
Coll Thrush wrote a wonderful book, Indigenous London, that covers Indigenous people from the 16th century up to the 20th century and includes Aboriginal people from all across the world. But the reality is that there were thousands of Indigenous people in Europe before the British got heavily involved in North America in the 1580s. My book goes up to the founding of Jamestown in 1607. It was really important for me to focus on the early period where we see the beginnings of globalization. You could carry on telling this story later, but it’s this first period that hasn’t been as well studied.
That’s what the book is about: shedding light on these stories of Indigenous travelers, which are so important in their own right, but also trying to shift that broader picture to give us a sense that their lives matter for how we see this period.