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

Indigenous people brought to Spain by Hernán Cortés play the game patolli
Indigenous people brought to Spain by Hernán Cortés play the game patolli. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In 2006, Elizabeth II finally responded to a complaint originally aimed at her 18th-century ancestor George II.

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.

Elizabeth II meets with members of the Mohegan Tribe on November 22, 2006.
Elizabeth II meets with members of the Mohegan Tribe on November 22, 2006. Photo by Tim Graham Picture Library / Getty Images

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.

On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe

A landmark work of narrative history that shatters our previous Eurocentric understanding of the Age of Discovery by telling the story of the Indigenous Americans who journeyed across the Atlantic to Europe after 1492

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.

An early 16th-century depiction of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Indigenous interpreter, La Malinche
An early 16th-century depiction of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Indigenous interpreter, La Malinche (far right), who gave birth to Cortés' son Martín in the early 1520s Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Your book doesn’t address the experiences of Matoaka, the woman referred to as Pocahontas and later Rebecca Rolfe, who was one of the most famous Native Americans to visit Europe. Why not?

First, she’s later than the period of the book. This young Powhatan woman died in England in 1617, before her 22nd birthday, and is buried at Gravesend not far from where I grew up.

The other difficulty is that her story is both very well known and extremely poorly understood. It has been appropriated and fictionalized, colonized, for four centuries. Her descendant communities have asked that people stop talking about her. There’s a “Leave Matoaka Alone” hashtag because there have been so many terrible appropriations and misrepresentations of her story in recent years, and part of the argument is there are plenty of other people you could talk about. Let her rest.

Engraving depicting the abduction of Matoaka, also known as Pocahontas
Engraving depicting the abduction of Matoaka, also known as Pocahontas, who is arguably the best-known example of an Indigenous person who traveled to Europe Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

What inspired you to write this book?

I started as a scholar of the Aztec-Mexica, trying to understand perspectives that are hard to hear: women’s history, gender history, the history of non-elite people’s families. I began to wonder why we heard so much about Europeans traveling west and not so much about Indigenous people traveling east.

In 1528, Cortés returned to Spain for the first time after his defeat of the Aztec-Mexica people. He took a big entourage with him, and it included birds, animals and treasures, but also Indigenous people, including tumblers, jugglers and entertainers. He had a large contingent of Indigenous nobles who traveled with him, some sons of Moctezuma II, lords, rulers of allied cities and their representatives. Many died in Spain, as was sadly not unusual for Indigenous people traveling to Europe. This story of devastation by disease is something that happened on both sides of the Atlantic.

A painting of Guaibimpará (Catherine du Brasil), a Brazilian woman who traveled to France in 1528
A painting of Guaibimpará (Catherine du Brasil), a Brazilian woman who traveled to France in 1528 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

After studying the Aztec-Mexica, I started to ask, “Well, where are the other travelers?” I began looking out for them in my work and making note of them. Originally, On Savage Shores was going to be an academic book on people from Central America traveling to Spain. But the more I had time to think about it and reflect on it, the more I realized that this was a much bigger story about Indigenous people in Europe.

You describe people who were enslaved and taken to Europe. How does this fit into the larger, still mostly unknown story of the enslavement of Indigenous people?

The majority of Indigenous people who came to Europe were enslaved. Indigenous slavery has increasingly become part of the story in what is now the United States. Andrés Reséndez’s fantastic book The Other Slavery synthesized a large amount of scholarship and has gone some way toward starting to change that story for North America. He estimates that up to five million Indigenous people were enslaved [between the late 15th and early 20th centuries], and there may have been more.

But the people who were transported elsewhere, like to Europe, are lesser known. Most descendants of Indigenous people in Europe don’t know they’re descendants of early travelers. So the legacy of that oppression and bondage is often experienced within people’s homelands rather than by descendant communities overseas. They don’t have a diaspora in the same way as the African diasporic communities. It’s difficult, because I really don’t want to make it a competition in any way. Slavery was a shared horror.

What are some of the sources you’ve used to uncover this story?

It’s difficult to access the voices of these Indigenous travelers. Usually, the sources are Europeans who either kidnapped them, enslaved them or just encountered them at some point. The exceptions are occasional direct reported speech. There are also some recorded Indigenous oral traditions that speak to how these travels were being received by Indigenous communities.

One of the key sources for the book is the records of freedom suits by people who were enslaved. Those sources come from the fact that after 1542—theoretically at least— Indigenous residents of Spanish territories were not supposed to be enslaved under any circumstances. Now, the laws were suspended in Mexico and Peru for a period of time because of local objections, but they were immediately implemented in Spain, and the crown actually sent inspectors to go around and investigate whether people were being held illegally. Historian Nancy E. van Deusen has worked this material really beautifully, looking at the experiences of different Indigenous people who were either enslaved in the Americas or kidnapped and then enslaved in Spain.

An Inuit woman and her daughter who were captured by French whalers and taken to Antwerp
An Inuit woman and her daughter who were captured by French whalers and taken to Antwerp Zentralbibliothek Zürich

These freedom suits represent one of the few opportunities we get to hear the voices of Indigenous travelers, albeit through a legalized structure. Of course, they’re framing their narrative in a way that will hopefully make them free, but it’s a really important place where we can hear their own voices recorded directly.

In the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, we find another type of record by Indigenous people. Those are elite petitions. In these letters, upper-class Indigenous Americans made various requests to the crown. We know these individuals also appeared at court. So we have not only their own writings but also records of things like crown expenses. We can tease out an awful lot about their personal experiences, from where they stayed to what they were eating to what they were wearing. In one case, a set of records from the 1528 expedition that came with Cortés shows where the Indigenous people were living because someone was being paid for their housing and later their care as they became ill and often died.

The two groups of people we have the best records for were at opposite ends of the spectrum: Indigenous people who were enslaved and elites.

Another significant group was children, some of them related to Europeans.

Martín, a young man who was enslaved as a child, came from Tenayuca in Mexico. The community gave him to Francisco Cervantes de Salazar, a Spaniard who was rather notorious for his brutality, to serve as a page. They emphasized that Martín was not enslaved; he was free. But Martín was immediately branded and enslaved. When he went to Spain with Salazar, he appealed for his freedom. There’s a lot in the records that gives us a sense of how difficult his life was. He had a brand on one cheek, and what’s horrifying is the way these discussions centered around not whether he should have been branded but whether it was the right brand.

Many Spanish men in the Americas had informal relationships or sometimes even formal relationships with Indigenous women. An Indigenous woman called Isabel went to Spain with a man called Pedro. When they arrived, she was described as sitting on a pillow with a gold chain around her neck. We have every reason to believe they came as a family to Spain. After a number of years, Pedro married a Spanish woman, also called Isabel, and then he died. The Spanish Isabel tried to claim that the Indigenous Isabel and her two sons, Lorenzo and Gaspar, were enslaved. The sons, who clearly were used to living quite a respectable life, were very angry at being called things like a “Moorish dog” and other racial insults. In 1570, they successfully appealed for freedom and compensation.

Cortés’ son Martín lived a totally different kind of life, because although he was of mestizo (mixed heritage) birth, he was brought by his father to Spain in 1528 and became part of the royal household. Cortés even managed to get him legitimized. Martín lived the life of a young Spanish nobleman, essentially. He lived at court. He fought for the crown. We believe he went to England with Philip II of Spain. He essentially became integrated into elite Spanish society. He did go back to Mexico, but there’s very little that suggests he didn’t cast off an awful lot of his Indigenous identity. Still, it was very much a part of who he was recognized to be [by other people].

Detail of Juan Cordero's 1850 painting Christopher Columbus at the Court of Catholic Kings
Detail of Juan Cordero's 1850 painting Christopher Columbus at the Court of Catholic Kings Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

What is the most surprising fact readers will learn from your book?

Probably how ubiquitous Indigenous people were in this period, not just as spectacles or diplomats or enslaved people, but also in a very ordinary sense. We know from the records that there were Indigenous people in rural Europe, across the Normandy coast of France, across Seville and the connected trans-Atlantic networks in Portugal, in Antwerp, in England. They were everywhere, and especially in places connected to the trans-Atlantic networks, they were quite a regular sight. There are records of people saying things like, “Look at these two young Brazilian men working in France, just part of the community.”

In the acknowledgements, you describe working on this book during the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. How did that backdrop affect On Savage Shores?

It was really interesting, because I was talking about trans-Atlantic connections, communities and cosmopolitanism, and the breaking down of borders at a time when all of these borders were going up again. People were moving away from this global exchange and movement that we’ve taken for granted for such a long time. So it was almost like we were going back toward a more localized way of doing things, which of course has some ecological advantages. It was very strange to be thinking about the roots of our modern global world. Covid-19 showed how interdependent we were and how fragile those connections are when put under certain kinds of pressure.

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