On Savage Shores

Some dates remain etched in one’s mind from school history lessons. 1066 is probably the one that even history-hating British pupils remember, but close on its heels might be 1492. In that year, an ambitious Italian called Columbus set off across the Atlantic in search of a route to Asia. He bumped into the Americas along the way, and then claimed that he had discovered them. This being despite the fact that Leif Erickson and his crews got there around 500 years earlier, that Polynesian mariners had visited the west coast of the Americas before him, and that thousands of Native Americans of various types had been living there for millennia.

What changed with Columbus was not discovery, but an establishing of relationships. This included trade, diplomacy and warfare. Inevitably, as part of this, many Americans made their way across the Atlantic and “discovered” Europe. Some of these people were diplomats, even royalty. Some of them had married Europeans, or been born from such unions, and some of them were working as translators. A very large number of them were slaves. In many cases, probably the majority, what they found in Europe seemed to them as barbaric and uncivilized as our own ancestors found them.

For an historian, researching the stories of such people is fraught with difficulty. Very few of them left any personal records. What information we have tends to have been written by the colonisers, with an inevitable bias. That in turn is often in Spanish, French or Portuguese. References to American visitors to our shores are often fleeting. As an historian of trans lives, I’m used to the past speaking to me mainly through court records. The same is often true of other marginalised people.

The fact that Caroline Dodds Pennock has produced this book at all is impressive. That she has written it so well is a delight. And it is fascinating. Had I had spare copies at Eastercon, where I was reading it, I could have sold at least three copies on the strength of the cover alone. Hopefully this review will move a few more copies, because there is so much material for historical fiction/fantasy there. I’ll give you a few examples.

In the book we inevitably learn a lot about the colonisers. Columbus, it appears, was an even less pleasant person than we might have thought. On the other hand, not everyone in Spain was terrible. Queen Isabella was adamant that the inhabitants of the New World were her subjects and not to be treated as sub-human. The lot of the Americans diminished substantially when she died. Then there was Bartolomé de Las Casas, known in his lifetime as the ‘Defender of the Indians’, who campaigned tirelessly for native rights. There were lawyers who successfully fought for the freedom of their enslaved clients.

Interesting stories come from the ordinary men of the European invasion too. In 1519 Hernán Cortès, beginning his conquest of Central America, heard tell of two white men living among the Maya. Gonzalo Guerrero and Gerónimo de Aguilar had been shipwrecked off the Yucátan 8 years earlier. They had been captured by the local Maya, but had very different lives thereafter. De Aguilar had remained loyal to Spain, and was only too pleased to be able to help his fellow countrymen with their project of conquest. Guerrero, on the other hand, had taken to Maya culture. He had married a Maya woman and had children with her. Rejecting Cortès’s offer of ‘rescue’, he returned to the Maya and eventually died in 1536, fighting alongside his people against Spanish invaders.

Amongst the most successful of the native groups were the Tlaxcala, who were long-time enemies of the Aztec-Mexica. They were only too happy to ally with Cortès against Moctezuma II and his hated empire. As a result they were able to negotiate a significant level of self-rule from the Spanish crown. Tlaxcalan is still a small but fiercely independent state within Mexico, and their state flag bears the coat of arms granted to them by Spain in 1535.

Less successful in his dealing with Spain was a man known to us as don Juan Cortès, a lord of the K’iche’ Maya. In 1557 he travelled to Spain to negotiate rights for his people. Unfortunately his ship was attacked by French pirates and he lost all of the gifts he had for the Spanish crown, along with many important documents proving his right to speak for the Maya people. The fate of the K’iche’ could have been very different had he arrived in Madrid as splendidly as he had intended.

That’s only a brief selection of the many fascinating personal histories that you can find in On Savage Shores. There are tales of people from the Inka to the Inuit. There’s the weirdly fascinating story of Walter Ralegh, who managed to sell himself as a friend to the natives while seeking to colonise them. There are forgotten women whom we know of solely because Ferdinand and Isabella were presented with a chocolate drink, and by native custom that must have been freshly prepared for them by women. And there is John Dee’s scrying mirror, now in the British Museum, which has been shown to have come from the Americas.

Where to writers get their ideas from? From history, of course, and this book is chock full of amazing (if sometimes horrifying) stories.

book cover
Title: On Savage Shores
By: Caroline Dodds Pennock
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Purchase links:
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