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The Discovery of Europe

A new book investigates the lives of the hundreds of thousands of indigenous Americans who were brought to or traveled to Europe in the sixteenth century—a story central to the beginning of globalization.

A faux Brazilian village constructed for Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici on the banks of the Seine in Rouen, France, and inhabited by fifty Tupinambá people who were forcibly brought there from Brazil, 1550,Bibliothèque de l’Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris


On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe

by Caroline Dodds Pennock

Knopf, 302 pp., $32.50

In 1560 Paquiquineo, a young Kiskiack or Paspahegh man from the Chesapeake Bay area, was invited aboard a Spanish ship exploring the coast of North America. The boat’s captain thought Paquiquineo, the son of a chief, would be useful to Spanish forces whenever they decided to conquer the region, so he kidnapped him and took him to Madrid. A fast language learner, Paquiquineo turned out to be a dexterous politician. Upon meeting King Philip II, he explained that he didn’t want to serve as Spain’s mediator or adopt its religion.

For the Spanish Crown, royalty was royalty regardless of ethnic origin. Philip respected Paquiquineo’s wishes and in 1562 ordered that a ship traveling to New Spain—now Mexico—take him aboard, with the understanding that the passenger would be brought to what is today the mid-Atlantic coast of the US whenever a boat went north.

After his arrival in Mexico City, Paquiquineo fell seriously ill and asked to be baptized—just in case. He was given the Christian name Luis de Velasco in honor of the viceroy of New Spain. As an aristocrat he had the right to the title “don,” which he used for a few years.

Paquiquineo convalesced in the Dominican monastery. After he recuperated, friar Pedro de Feria, the contentious superior of the order in New Spain, decided to keep him there more or less by force, hoping to gain an advantage over the Franciscans as both groups of friars positioned for religious control of the unconquered lands to the north. (The dispute between the orders continued for four years, until King Philip resolved it by giving spiritual authority over Paquiquineo’s homeland to the Jesuits.)

During his long stay in Mexico City (formerly Tenochtitlan), Paquiquineo learned Nahuatl—the language of the Mexica, the correct name of the people later called Aztecs—and made enough acquaintances to understand the tumultuous political moment the city was going through. In 1521, after his surrender, Emperor Cuauhtemoc had agreed to a capitulation—no copy of which survives—by which the Mexica would be exempt from taxes if they stayed in Tenochtitlan, kept the imperial administration working, and constructed a Spanish town there, rather than disbanding the defeated capital, as had been customary in Mesoamerica. By the 1560s the Spanish Crown had broken the pact, sparking a rebellion that ended in the brutal repression of the local people and the punishment of their leaders. Paquiquineo saw all of it and took silent note.

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After spending four years in Cuba, in 1570 Paquiquineo was sent on a Jesuit mission to Virginia as its official translator. A Spanish town was peacefully established near what is today the James River. Then, after the boats that had carried the missionaries left, Paquiquineo led a rebellion in which all but one of the Europeans were killed and the town was razed. When Philip II heard the news, he cancelled all future explorations of what is now the eastern seaboard of the United States. If even the Catholic convert Don Luis de Velasco could act in such a treacherous and brutal way, it meant that a successful occupation would cost too many Spanish lives.

The Spanish medievalist Carmen Benito-Vessels has called Paquiquineo’s story—which was recently recounted in Camilla Townsend’s Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs—the case of a historical character desperately looking for a novelist. She is right, and one could even claim that the first presidents of the United States were not Spanish-speaking Catholics in large part because the British eventually took advantage of Paquiquineo’s strategic thinking and brave behavior.

In On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe, the English historian Caroline Dodds Pennock doesn’t expand on existing accounts of Paquiquineo’s life, maybe because he is already known to those familiar with the history of early modern North America. She does, however, follow him through the archives of Spain, where she found lists of his expenses during the time he spent at court in Madrid: good European clothes, haircuts, theater tickets, even alms for the poor. (Since he was considered a diplomat, he had social responsibilities.) According to the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas he was a subject of the Spanish king, and the New Laws of 1542 placed him under the king’s direct protection—although he surely didn’t know this when he was captured—so the Spanish Crown paid all his bills.

Reading Dodds Pennock’s book, one discovers that Paquiquineo’s experience was not unique. His case is well known because he left archival traces, but hundreds of thousands of other indigenous people went to Europe during the sixteenth century. Their lives and contributions are essential to understanding the beginning of globalization, which, for good and ill, has helped create the modern world.

The vast majority of indigenous people in Europe were brought there as slaves. Although the New Laws unequivocally stated that “naturals,” as people from the Americas were called, could not be enslaved, Dodds Pennock finds credible the estimate that there were 650,000 American slaves in Spain alone. Many of these captives died in servitude, but some sued for and won not only their freedom but return tickets and compensation for labor unwillingly provided.

Others went to Europe—as advocates, entertainers, or spouses—and established themselves in royal, religious, and legal courts. Representatives of indigenous nations crossed the Atlantic with friars like Bartolomé de las Casas, who sided with them in denouncing the abuses of Europeans during their occupations of indigenous lands. Many helped negotiate the colonization process and defend their communities in courts of law. There were cultural specialists who came to teach Europeans: it may be intuitive to plant a tomato and make sauce with it, but to make chocolate from cacao beans is less obvious. There were men and women—acrobats, musicians, animal tamers—who displayed their spectacular abilities and stayed in Europe simply because nobody took them back home once the tour was done. They married, had children, and were buried in cemeteries where they are still not commemorated as early agents of globalization.

For some five hundred years we have studied the Atlantic cultural and commercial exchange as a pipeline through which Europe sent people to the Americas and the Americas sent back commodities. In Dodds Pennock’s comprehensive study, this idea, like so many we have about the period, is revealed to be a Eurocentric fantasy. “We need to invert our understanding of encounter to see transatlantic migration and connection,” she writes, “not just as stretching to the west, but also as originating there.”

The indigenous people of the Americas created spaces of their own, initially in the European courts and then in the kitchens, dining rooms, living rooms, streets, and gene pools of the countries they landed in. Cities in Extremadura, Spain, were home to Inca royalty, and towns on the Atlantic coast of France and Portugal had entire neighborhoods of people from Brazil. These migrants, while adapting to change, also changed the places that received them—even though the reception of the newcomers was, then as now, reluctant when not overtly hostile. Europeans brutally colonized the Americas, but in exchange the European imagination was colonized, first by the traveling exhibitions of American wonders and later by actual cohabitation with American bodies.

In 1550 in the port city of Rouen, France, an enormous pageant was staged to honor the visit of the royal couple Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici. Among the spectacles presented for the monarchs’ amusement as they floated down the Seine were mock sea battles, gladiators’ duels, representations of famous events in French history, and a performance of life as it was imagined to be in what is today the bay of Rio de Janeiro, featuring fifty naked Tupinambá men, women, and children who had been forcibly taken to the city, along with 250 French sailors who had visited Brazil and who acted as indigenous people.

The pageant organizers constructed a replica of a Tupinambá village—which didn’t look at all like the real ones—and painted tree trunks red so they would resemble brazilwood, the first commodity sent to Europe from the region. They also set loose parrots, marmosets, and monkeys to add a soundscape to the performance, which culminated in an attack on and burning of an enemy village—but not, as many in the audience probably imagined or hoped, with a feast of human flesh.

Michel de Montaigne, who witnessed the Rouen pageant and interviewed a few Tupinambá men who were part of the performance, famously concluded in his essay “On the Cannibals” that the ritual ingestion of human flesh is not necessarily a barbaric custom, because it honors the eaten person by making them part of the body and heritage of the eater. For Montaigne, Europeans surpassed the Tupinambá people “in every kind of barbarity.” The number of enemies the Tupinambá captain he interviewed would sacrifice in all his life as a warrior was negligible compared with the number of French Protestants Catherine and her son Charles IX would let be murdered a couple of decades later in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

As Dodds Pennock notes, most of the Tupinambá taken to the north of France—like most of the people kidnapped in America and brought to Spain or England—left no trace apart from a few gravestones; family trees didn’t grow from the intermarriage of common people. But the high social status of many migrants in their communities of origin was often respected in Europe, so their blood ended up mixing with that of European nobility and the newly empowered bourgeoisie. Dodds Pennock recounts some of their histories.

In 1505 a native Carijó man from Brazil named Essomericq arrived in Honfleur, France. He was the son of a chief and an associate of the ship captain and explorer Binot Paulmier de Gonneville. Essomericq married one of Gonneville’s close descendants and inherited the family name and coat of arms. He became a rich merchant dealing in hosiery and died at ninety in Lisieux. One of his mestizo grandchildren was an official at the royal treasury and married a marquise. Meanwhile, the descendants of Tecuichpo—also known as Isabel de Moctezuma, the eldest daughter of the famous Mexica emperor—still hold high titles in Spain.

Indigenous Americans shaped European intellectual life as well. Among the prominent figures discussed by Dodds Pennock is the polyglot Diego Valadés, a mestizo of Nahua origin who was the first indigenous person to be ordained a Franciscan friar in the Americas. His work as a scholar took him to Spain and France and eventually to a senior position at the Vatican, where he wrote Rhetorica christiana (1579). This volume, composed in Latin, was the most used manual for the evangelization of the peoples of the Americas.

The mestizo Blas Valera—born in the Andes to a Quechua-speaking noblewoman and the son of a conquistador—became a professor of humanities in the Jesuit College of Cádiz after being prosecuted in Peru because of his dangerous ideas. In his preaching and lectures he established the bases for an indigenous Catholic theology. His writings were burned by British and Dutch invaders in the 1596 sack of Cádiz, but his calls for an inclusive, flexible faith survived as part of the Jesuits’ eclectic providentialism—which was essential for the globalization of European values. The echoes of his silenced voice resounded in the liberation theology that flourished in Latin America during the cold war, and they can still be heard in the ideas of Pope Francis, an Argentine Jesuit.

On Savage Shores—which begins with the mesmerized accounts by the humanist Pedro Mártir de Anglería of the human loot that Hernán Cortés sent to the young emperor Charles V after the fall of Tenochtitlan and ends with Lakota men touring Europe in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show—could have presented indigenous experiences in Europe as a collection of signatures in an old hotel guest book. Like all histories of the slow, colossal, and merciless occupation of the Americas, it risks flattening a wide array of experiences, including those of millions of people who still resist the adoption of European languages and ways of living. The Americas are too vast and their cultures, languages, and nations too diverse to try to fit them all in any linear narrative; in Bolivia alone there are thirty-seven official languages, thirteen more than in the European Union.

To give her book shape, Dodds Pennock organizes the results of her research under six themes: slavery, mediators, families, cultural changers, diplomatic missions, and showmanship. The result is a big collection of stories that can be illustrative, depressing, infuriating, vindictive, or hilarious, but the only thread tying all her subjects together is their common origin in the western hemisphere.

Dodds Pennock’s previous book, Bonds of Blood (2008), is a study of gender and ritual in the Mexica culture before the arrival of the Spaniards. There are thousands of books on Mexica culture, so she was able to focus on a few aspects of it and propose solid explanations about practices in education, family relations, and retirement. Her chapter on human sacrifice is an especially memorable defense of the most notorious of the Mexica’s religious rites. Expanding on Eduardo Matos Moctezuma’s groundbreaking Muerte a filo de obsidiana (Death by obsidian blade) (1975), she explains to English-speaking readers the political and religious bases of a ritual that was sensationalized by the European invaders in order to justify the perpetual occupation of Tenochtitlan.

On Savage Shores feels loose by comparison, but this is because it opens a new field of study. Until now the experiences of indigenous Americans in Europe had not been put together in one place. There are bits and pieces, articles and chapters about the subject, but as far as I know no one had attempted to tell a comprehensive history of eastward migration. (The movement of people from Africa and Asia to the Americas in the early years of the occupation has been better studied.) On Savage Shores not only changes how we think about the first contact between America and Europe but also sets the methodological standard for a new way of understanding the origin of the modern world.

Toward the end of his essay on cannibalism, Montaigne recounts a very rare testimony: the opinion of indigenous Americans about life in Europe. “They have a way in their language of speaking of men as halves of one another,” the essayist explains.

They had noticed that there were among us men full and gorged with all sorts of good things, and that their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these needy halves could endure such an injustice, and did not take the others by the throat, or set fire to their houses.

The question of inequality, which Dodds Pennock explores in the final pages of On Savage Shores, is central to David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything (2021), in which they argue that the “indigenous critique” of Europe threatened established social hierarchies. Europeans saw the indigenous way of life as precarious, while indigenous Americans of various backgrounds believed that equality and the fair distribution of goods were essential to keeping a community tightly knit together. On Savage Shores and The Dawn of Everything are very different books—The Dawn of Everything is primarily a study of ancient cultures that flourished without a central government—but both are guided by despair over contemporary wealth disparities and use indigenous arguments against what Dodds Pennock calls “the ‘savage’ qualities of European society” to make readers question inequality in a world where there are enough resources to give a decent life to all.

Graeber and Wengrow’s “indigenous critique” draws on the widely read Mémoires de l’Amérique septentrionale (1703), by Baron Louis-Armand Lahontan. Lahontan was an officer in the French army who served in Canada and became an acquaintance of a Wendat leader known as Kandiaronk. After his return to France, the baron published a version of their dialogues in which Kandiaronk, under the name Adario, pointed out the tremendous inequalities he saw in New France and the lack of freedom that French people suffered in exchange for a strong government. According to Graeber and Wengrow, this book started the European discussion on rights and freedom that was crystallized in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality (1755), which proposed that private property and a strong state—and hence inequality—originated in the expansion of agricultural techniques in Eurasia.

As Kwame Anthony Appiah noted in his review in these pages of The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow avoided the exegetical work of determining which ideas in Baron Lahontan’s book came from Kandiaronk and which were his own.

 Dodds Pennock too warns:

As with many of our sources, we again have to be cautious at the ways in which this text “ventriloquises” the Indigenous informant, a European “giving voice” to Native people rather than allowing them to speak directly for themselves.

The problem is unavoidable with most of the sources we have: letters, journal entries, and judicial affidavits from which indigenous Americans’ own voices are mostly absent. From Christopher Columbus’s “Letter on the First Voyage” of 1493 to John Carey Cremony’s Life Among the Apaches (1868) or even Our Word Is Our Weapon (2002), by the Mexican indigenous rights guerrilla fighter Subcomandante Marcos, Europeans and their descendants have described Native Americans, told their stories, and written about them with different degrees of amusement, admiration, or contempt.

Dodds Pennock is careful to include the voices of Native Americans in Europe when she can. Addressing the Temperance Society of Birmingham, England, during the first half of the nineteenth century, the Ioway (Báxoje) leader Senontiyah expressed his dismay with the European way of doing things: “My Friends,—it makes us unhappy, in a country where there is so much wealth, to see so many poor and hungry.” Maungwudaus, a Mississauga Chippewa chief traveling through Europe in the same period, put it succinctly after his visit to England. While he considered London a “wonderful city,” the people, he lamented, were like the mosquitoes in America, “biting one another to get a living. Many very rich, and many very poor.” Though briefer than Kandiaronk’s views on French settlements, these observations might have given firmer support to Graeber and Wengrow’s notion of “indigenous critique.”

Of course, the indigenous peoples in the Americas have never been silent concerning the abuses of European colonialism. Strong Native voices, like that of the sixteenth-century Quechua nobleman and chronicler Felipe Guáman Poma de Ayala, have reshaped the way we understand the history of the western hemisphere, while writers such as Ignacio Manuel Altamirano—an indigenous novelist and poet who founded and edited El Renacimiento, the most influential literary magazine in nineteenth-century Mexico—among many others, have made important contributions to modern political views and literary traditions.

In the first hundred years following the defeat of the Mexica and Inca empires, silver mined in the Americas became a universal exchange tool; world commerce was spurred with the creation of the Manila galleons, which went from the Philippines to Acapulco and back; and the basic ingredients of human diets worldwide became more homogeneous. As Charles C. Mann pointed out in 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (2011), after this period enormous intercontinental migrations became common, with people brought forcibly from Central Africa, the Philippines, and China to the new Spanish kingdoms in the Americas. Most residents of Mexico City or Lima in the late sixteenth century were not of indigenous or European descent. Common words in Mexican Spanish like maiz (corn) or the verb chingar (used to describe almost any negative experience) are respectively Taino and Bantu in origin. The indigenous priest Domingo de San Antón Chimalpahin describes the dressing of a group of samurais in 1610. A human exchange of this magnitude in only one generation had never happened before.

We will never know the full truth about the first contact between the Europeans and the great civilizations of the Americas, as we don’t have contemporaneous indigenous perspectives to balance those of the Spaniards. In an essay written in 2021, the five-hundredth anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan, the young Mexican political philosopher Enrique Díaz Álvarez proposed that early Spanish chroniclers wrote about their contacts with Americans using the conventions of classic and medieval epic fictions.

 The generation of the conquistadors was the first for which books were private and not institutional property, and a literate soldier of the period would have read chivalric novels and Greco-Roman epic poems. Their extraordinary accounts of the events that changed their lives—and the history of the world—owe as much to fiction as to experience: in The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, for example, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier who entered Tenochtitlan with Cortés, compares the Mexica capital to the imaginary kingdoms in Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s 1508 romance Amadís de Gaula. Documents like Cortés’s Second Letter to Charles V (1520) and Díaz’s True History are as literary as they are historical, and there is little to corroborate or challenge their narratives.

The indigenous voices that recorded those same histories did it later, well into colonial times, and they were informed by the original Spanish accounts: all the earlier indigenous-produced codices had been burned, although some—such as the well-known Boturini and Mendoza codices—were later recreated under the supervision of Spanish priests and politicians, and annotated in Nahua by indigenous Christian converts using Latin characters.

The lack of trustworthy sources about the military conflicts that brought us a global world has been compensated for in recent decades with documents that don’t explicitly tell the story of the campaigns but deal with their legal consequences. In the early 1980s the French historian Serge Gruzinski read, translated, and collated enormous archives of judicial papers about land disputes and the reconstitution of altepeme—Nahuatl polities—as Spanish municipalities after the fall of Tenochtitlan. The result was La colonisation de l’imaginaire (1988), in which he proposed that there was never a “conquest” but a slow process of occupation that operated more in writing than in reality. For centuries, Gruzinski suggested, we understood colonization as fast and definitive because it was told that way for the convenience of the conquistadors. The fact that the book was infamously translated into English with the title The Conquest of Mexico (1993) serves as perfect testimony to how difficult it is to change conventional narratives about the indigenous populations of the Americas.

Since the publication of that book, a growing group of Anglophone scholars have followed the path set by Gruzinski and the American historian James Lockhart in The Nahuas After the Conquest (1992). Camilla Townsend, Barbara Mundy, and Mark Restall, to name only the most prominent of a new generation working in US universities, have put together new accounts that not only include the points of view of indigenous Americans through alternative sources—the anonymous Annals of Tlatelolco, Domingo Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin’s Annals of His Time, and testimonies written by the Tlaxcalteca elite, which had been known for centuries but were ignored by historians—but also try to recount the invasion of the continent from a less fiction-like perspective. On Savage Shores is an important addition to this brave rewriting of a story we all think we know but don’t.

Álvaro Enrigue is a Mexican writer and professor. He lives in New York and teaches at Hofstra. His latest novel, You Dreamed of Empires, was published in January. (January 2024)

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