‘Our island’s story is not one of isolation’: Aztec historian Caroline Dodds Pennock awarded Voltaire Lecture Medal

15 November, 2023

Pictured: Andrew Copson with Voltaire Lecture Medalist Caroline Dodds Pennock

Humanists UK was honoured to return to Conway Hall for a very special 2023 Voltaire Lecture featuring renowned historian Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock, Humanists UK’s 2023 Voltaire Lecture Medalist.

Chaired by Humanists UK President, Dr Adam Rutherford, Caroline’s lecture was an exploration of the Indigenous American presence in and impact on early modern Europe, aligning with the title of Dr Pennock’s book, published in January this year: On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe.

The lecture was watched by over 1000 people in-person and online, with, for the first time ever, humanist ‘watch parties’ organised by Exeter Humanists and Leicester Humanist. This marked Humanists UK’s first in-person Voltaire Lecture since 2019.

Caroline’s lecture challenged historical preconceptions about early contact between Europeans and indigenous Americans, revealing a long and fascinating of interactions between them dating back centuries before the ‘discovery’ of the New World. The lecture highlighted moments such as Henry VIII hosting a Brazilian king at court, cross-Atlantic journeys by indigenous explorers, the extensive list of words still in use today borrowed from indigenous languages, and multiple accounts of indigenous peoples interacting with European monarchs, people, and civilisations. Caroline showcased an intricate history of cross-cultural exchanges, including many who settled and married in mediaeval Europe.

One key theme from Caroline’s talk was the challenge facing historians to properly investigate these interactions, most documentary evidence of which comes from European writers and sources. In explaining this duty for historians, she emphasised the importance of recognising the often overlooked contributions and voices of indigenous Americans in European history, and in European accounts of indigenous people’s histories.

Caroline also touched on the complex and troubling histories of ‘ attempted Christianisation’ by colonial powers, and revealed the tragic consequences of disease, violence, coercion, and slavery. Caroline’s insights resonated with the audience, prompting reflection on identity, cultural and human heritage, and historical assumptions.

In a fitting conclusion, Caroline was awarded the Voltaire Lecture medal for her exceptional contributions to revealing histories of early contact between civilisations and expanding our understanding of civilisation. The well-deserved recognition capped off a truly captivating evening.


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