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The Indigenous Americans Who Visited Europe

A new book reverses the narrative of the Age of Discovery, which has long evoked the ambitions of Europeans looking to the Americas rather than vice versa.

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.