The Discovery of Europe: Exploring De/Post/Anti-Colonial Thought through Caroline Dodds Pennock’s “On Savage Shores”

The Discovery of Europe: Exploring De/Post/Anti-Colonial Thought through Caroline Dodds Pennock’s “On Savage Shores”

Growing up in Lima, I heard the mythologized story of Columbus “discovering” America (the continent, sorry US) a million times: In a leap of faith, Queen Isabel of Spain sold her Crown jewels to finance a daring explorer’s expedition to unknown lands. Nobody believed in him, but Columbus persevered, proving everyone wrong and discovering a land no one else knew about, on three little caravels, whose names were drilled into my brain almost religiously: “La Niña, la Pinta y la Santa María”.

And yet, of course, something was off, even to my still impressionable childhood mind. How could he have discovered the land when my Peruvian History class told me all about the Guitarrero, the Chavín, the Moche, the Nazca, the Paracas, the Chimú, the Tiwanaku, the Chanca and the Inca, who we literally called the Culturas Precolombinas, the “Pre-Columbian cultures”, of Peru. We also talked of the Conquista, the Conquest of the Incas, and how the Spanish held the Inca Atahualpa for ransom in a room in Cajamarca and eventually executed him, despite the ransom being paid. I had, in fact, stood in the very room where he had been imprisoned (my dad made sure of this from an early age!). How can you discover an empty land if you also conquered the people who came before you?

In Lima, there is a famous statue of Columbus (pictured here) showing him holding the hand of a naked Indigenous woman kneeling next to him. He seems so sure of himself, as if he is about to show her all the wonders of civilisation she has “missed”. It is a statue meant to indicate the hierarchy at play: the Italian man standing up, lookng to the future; the Indigenous woman on the ground, looking up to him helplessly. I never liked that statue, but I had seen it often. It was also the source of many more questions. What happened to this “Precolombina” woman? Did Columbus eventually show her this “civilisation”? Did he take her with him? What did she think of him? What did she think of Madrid? I always wanted to know.

As I grew older, and did some research, I confirmed my suspicions: Columbus did take Indigenous people with him back to Spain. Fully aware of the irony of a European claiming to discover America just because he was the first European one to see it, my mind often turned to those Taíno brought with Columbus back to Spain – where they not then the discoverers of Europe? The first Americans to see a continent no other American had? March 4th, when Columbus first docked in Lisbon: The day Europe was discovered.   

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have picked up that this is a day I do not let pass unmarked. I’ve invited my followers to celebrate the Day of the Discovery of Europe every March 4th for the past five years. This year, is no different. Except it kind of is: instead of just noting the day, I want to also share with you my thoughts on Dr. Caroline Dodds Pennock’s wonderful new book, “On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe”.

As you can tell from the title alone, Dr. Dodds Pennock’s book is my childhood musings about Columbus brought to academic life: how exactly did these Indigenous travellers (some as slaves, some as free people) discover the so-called old world. I discovered it because the Twitter algorithm thought I would like to know about it (well done pre-Elon Twitter!) and was so interested I actually managed to buy it two days before the official UK release date. I read it in a matter of days and really enjoyed it. It thus feels right to review it on the Day of the Discovery of Europe.

“On Savage Shores” is divided into 6 sections, each exploring a different aspect of the life of Indigenous travellers in Europe, addressing topics as diverse as the fight by enslaved Indigenous people for their own freedom and the history of how Mesoamerican chocolate invaded Europe. As I read through I kept thinking how each section, itself an amalgamation of several different stories within a common theme, would make an incredible movie in itself (or perhaps a great streaming show; Craig Mazin, if you are reading this…). The book is full of incredible stories that help the reader re-frame the kind of mythologised histories I was exposed to as a child; those told exclusively from the perspective of Europeans, without noting their sometimes obvious yet absent Indigenous element.

Take, for example, the simple issue of language barriers. From the earliest moment of the Europeans’ arrival in America, we have dozens of stories of encounters between them and Indigenous people. In these stories, they trade, they talk, they even negotiate. To do all of these things, someone must have been doing the translating. Hernán Cortez for instance depended on a complex web of translations to be able to communicate with the Indigenous people he sought to conquer: Gerónimo de Aguilar, a shipwrecked Spaniard enslaved by the Mayas translated Cortez’s Spanish to Chontal Maya; Malintzin, Cortez’s Nahua translator, then turned that into Nahuatl (p. 91). This woman, often called La Malinche in Mexican historiography, is well known – if, perhaps unfairly, branded a traitor to her people. Dr. Dodds Pennock adds several more names to this list of Go-Betweeners, as she calls them, rediscovering other invisibilised and extraordinary tales.      

For example, she tells the story of how Thomas Hariot is unfairly credited with inventing the first Algonquian alphabet. Such a task required the unacknowledged role of other Indigenous translators, particularly one Croatan who we only know by the name of Manteo. He is important, because while Eurocentric history holds Hariot as the inventor of this alphabet, a “curly scrawl in the bottom right-hand corner of the page” of the original document recording this alphabet read “MATEOROIDN”; that is, “Manteo roi done” or “King Manteo did this”. As Dr. Dodds Pennock concludes, “[i]n calling this document ‘John Hariot’s Alphabet’, we erase the work of his Indigenous partners” and forget that this was not “the product of European research” or “a white man’s hard work of observation”, but “a collaboration between Manteo and Hariot” (pp. 99-100).

“On Savage Shores” is filled with these acts of historic justice, re-incorporating Indigeneity to the history of a trans-Atlantic world conceived from both European and Indigenous roots. In fact, Chapter 4, The Stuff of Life, tells the story of how everyday items (or “stuff”, as Dr. Dodds Pennock calls it) that we conceive as essential to the modern Western style of living actually have key Indigenous roots and have rather been appropriated and de-Indigenised. Plants with medicinal and ritualised meaning like tobacco were bastardised into the mundane Spanish “cigarillos” (cigarettes) and ceremonial feathers have been turned into empty Museum pieces. In some cases, even the bodies of Indigenous peoples have become objects of study, rather than meaningful ancestors with connections to existing communities.  

Beyond all of these amazing stories, though, as Dr. Dodds Pennock argues in her conclusion, “On Savage Shores” asks us to “look harder” for the traces of Indigenous people that have been relegated to marginal historical roles, “to think about their presence and significance, and to listen to the voices of their descendants” (p. 244). This is, I think, where the true revolutionary potential of Dr. Dodds Pennock’s book lies: it shows us just how Indigenous our so-called Western modernity is and has been.

Take, for example, the discipline that convenes us all to this blog: international law. What are the Indigenous traces within this otherwise overwhelmingly Eurocentric discipline? The initial reaction would be an emphatic rejection: international law is the product of Vitoria, or Grotius, of Vattel. There is no hidden Indigenous component – or is there?

From a critical perspective, Anthony Anghie’s seminal “Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law” gives us the first clue. Vitoria’s ideas on the international, he says, were premised on the ways through which the Europeans’ presence in Indigenous America could be legitimated – international law’s “original sin”, as some refer to it. After this period of early modern European engagement with Indigeneity, however, Indigenous people somewhat disappear from the theoretical debates of the discipline until as late as the 1970s, when the modern Indigenous rights movement was born (see, for example, here), mostly because the doctrines of Westphalian Sovereignty and Discovery, that prioritised state entities over non-state entities like Indigenous people, became dominant. The lesson of “On Savage Shores”, however, is that these processes were never one way only. The book does not go into it, but, as I explore in my own research, Indigenous people also intervened in debates about political thought, sometimes from within the system and sometimes from without, through the ideas of their revolutionary leaders. So while modern-day Indigenous ideas are often painted as “left-wing” inventions, they often have a long and proud history that is just invisibilised.

In Chile, for example, Indigenous communities have been calling for a reformulation of the state, from a Westphalian unitary system to a Plurinational one, where Indigenous communities can have autonomy and self-rule. While these ideas are painted as modern and politicised inventions, they have a much longer genealogy. Already in the 1780s, for instance, Indigenous revolutionary leader Tupac Amaru II called for what Charles Walker describes as a “broad, multiethnic movement that sought to cast off the more exploitative practices of colonialism as well as the European exploiters themselves”. In his own letters, Tupac Amaru, a Quechua Indigenous curaca (leader), called for an Indigenous “grand mayor” for each “Indian nation” and the creation of an Audiencia (court system) and Vicerroyalty specifically in Cusco, where Indigenous people could decide their own fates within the Spanish monarchical system, something not that different from the modern-day proposal of Plurinationality.

Reading “On Savage Shores’” focus on indigeneity’s role in the creation of the modern world also provided me with eye-opening insights into debates about de/post/anti-colonialism in Latin America. Decolonial scholars like Walter Mignolo and Aníbal Quijano, for instance, have long argued for “delinking” from Western modernity as a way to “decolonise” the international order. As Quijano says “it is necessary to first extricate oneself from the linkages between rationality/modernity and coloniality and definitely from all power not constituted by the free decisions of free peoples”. Thus, a truly decolonial epistemology, Mignolo argues, means to “bring to the foreground other epistemologies, other principles of knowledge and understanding and, consequently, other economy, other politics, other ethics”. De-linking, as they conceive it, involves de-Westernization, and cannot be performed “within the frame of the theo and the ego-logial politics of knowledge and understanding”. To be de-colonial, is to embrace indigeneity in opposition and to the exclusion of “the West”.

This is not the image of modernity that “On Savage Shores” shows us. Instead, the book explores how the often world-changing influence of indigeneity has been silenced and erased from the concept of “the West” we know today. The uneven epistemologies that Mignolo describes exist not because there is some pure (and purely) Indigenous epistemology out there, untainted by modernity and inherently de-Westernised, in need of being rescued, but instead from the erasing of the Indigenous role in producing that modernity. Thus, Dr. Dodds Pennock tells us: “When the Europeans set foot on Turtle Island, Abya Yala, Cemanahuac, a process of exchange began that would transform the world through avaricious commodification” (p. 142). Indigenous people were not foreign to this process. All to the contrary, they had things to say about it that have just been excluded from history:  

“[I]t is not that the Native peoples did not participate in exchange. They most certainly did, both in their own internal, far-reaching, trade networks and with Europe, Asia and Africa. But that does not mean that they necessarily perceived these exchanges, or the objects of exchange, in the same way as Europeans” (p 169).

Thus, instead of Mignolo and Quijano’s ideas on delinking from modernity, these sections reminded me of the writings of Aymara scholar Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui. Instead of “aboriginal” beings perceived as foreign to modernity, she sees Indigenous people as “above all, contemporary beings and peers” who “perform and display [their] own commitment to modernity” – a modernity, that is, that they helped shape. Mignolo and Quijano’s de-linking approach, she argues, denies Indigenous people “contemporaneity” and “excludes them from the struggles of modernity”, reducing them to a “new stereotype of the indigenous” that is “invariably rural” and classifies them as “an almost theatrical display of alterity”.

Instead of delinking, therefore, she calls for a “ch’ixi” approach to modernity. Ch’ixi is an Aymara word: “it is a color that is the product of juxtaposition, in small points or spots, of opposed or contrasting colors: black and white, red and green, and so on. It is this heather gray that comes from the imperceptible mixing of black and white, which are confused by perception, without ever being completely mixed”. And it is in this fashion that Rivera Cusicanqui would approach the relationship between the Indigenous and modernity. As “parallel coexistence of multiple cultural differences that do not extinguish but instead antagonize and complement each other”.

In other words, as anticolonial scholar, Priyamvada Gopal, puts it:

“Modernity certainly emerges out of the colonial project and colonialism is needed to produce what we call modernity in a material and discursive sense, but modernity also ends up becoming a very messy, contradictory formation in which I don’t think the colonized and the enslaved are simply victims. They’re also agents of producing modernity”.

The role of anticolonial research, Gopal and Rivera Cusicanqui would say, is to make sure that the modernity-producing ideas of Indigenous people are re-inserted fairly into our epistemologies and understandings of our world’s history.  Similarly, it is this idea of indigeneity as producer of modernity that I think is at the heart of “On Savage Shores’” invitation to “look harder” into the histories of those Indigenous people, objects, and concepts that shaped our modern world; to revalorise them and rescue them, like Manteo’s claim to ownership, from the margins of history.  

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Featured, History of International Law, Latin & South America, Public International Law
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