We have long been taught to presume that modern global history began when the "Old World" encountered the "New", when Christopher Columbus "discovered" America in 1492. But, as Caroline Dodds Pennock shows, for tens of thousands of Aztecs, Maya, Totonacs, Inuit and others--enslaved people, diplomats, explorers, servants, traders--the reverse was true: they discovered Europe.
... a work of historical recovery ... The history examined here has been carefully assembled from shattered fragments; tiny shards of historical detail from which Pennock builds a larger mosaic ... In one of her early chapters Pennock urges us to to “imagine the sixteenth century a little differently”. Despite the enormous challenges presented by the sources and the inevitably fragmentary nature of the lives that appear from within them, few books make as compelling a case for such a reimagining.
Determined not to be clouded by a white imperial perspective, Dodds Pennock tries hard to avoid the pitfalls of traditional 'explorer' narratives. That is to be applauded, but occasionally her overly righteous academic analysis pulls the reader too far from the experiences of her subjects. Her mission to change our perspective can also veer towards the moralistic, which is a shame, because the stories and lives she has unearthed are fascinating in themselves ... Mostly, though, Dodds Pennock’s unpeeling of the indigenous experience from obscure manuscripts and her imaginative attempts to fill the gaps is a much-needed and refreshing take on our all-too Eurocentric telling of the past.
In principle all this sounds fascinating, and at its heart is a very imaginative premise. What undermines it, though, is that Dodds Pennock’s stories don’t go anywhere ... On Savage Shores isn’t just a history book but an earnest polemic, ending with a hand-wringing tirade about western museums as sites of 'oppression' ... Dodds Pennock’s publisher claims her book “shatters Eurocentric understandings of the Age of Discovery”. That strikes me as completely untrue, since so many historians have done similar work already. Indeed, I suspect many readers will find it preachy, overwrought and sometimes downright ridiculous.