Print this pageHistorical Text Archive © 1990 - 2016
by Hether Sebens
The early seventeenth century in Europe was both an exciting and
difficult time to live in. Monarchies fought for new political and religious ideas, and
employed imperialism to create new areas for economic and religious expansion. Thomas
Gage, an English Dominican friar, was a product of this new Europe as well as a victim of
it. His work, The English-American, or a New Survey of the West Indies, gives
insight into the struggle between Roman Catholicism and the new Protestant Reformation,
life in Spanish America, and the rise of imperialism in Europe. Gage’s personal life,
reflected in his work, was one of betrayal and uncertainties, coupled with a love for the
Amerinds in Spanish America and a religious fervor.
Thomas Gage was a Dominican friar in Mexico and Guatemala from 1625 to 1637. During his time as pastor in Guatemala, he became disillusioned with Spanish America and returned to England. Caught up in the political turmoil of the Cromwellian years in England, Gage converted to Protestantism, betraying his family and friends. He then wrote The English-American specifically as an invitation to England to invade Spanish America based upon morality. His book, published in 1648, begins with his introduction to missionary work in Spanish America, and ends with his renunciation of Roman Catholicism in 1642. All of these events in his life reflect the larger trends in Spanish America and Europe.
J. Eric S. Thompson and Norman Newton present Gage in two different lights. Both point to the religious atrocities (betrayal of Catholics in Cromwellian England) that Gage committed late in his life. How they approach that aspect of his life, however, is drastically different. Thompson states that superficially Gage was a self-seeking scoundrel, but underneath he was a "bewildered victim of his failure to reach a clear and lasting decision on his religious beliefs" (Thompson xv). Throughout his life, Gage struggled between his Roman Catholic background and his own religious doubts. Gage’s analysis of religion in Spanish America is largely biased due to these personal conflicts, and hence contains many slanders and a general hatred of priests and friars in America. Newton is more cynical of Gage’s life, and more accepting of Gage’s observations. Newton sees no reason to believe Gage is fabricating lies about Roman Catholicism and the role of the Church in Spanish America. Newton states that all of the abuses Gage refers to can be found in the records of the Mexican courts (Newton 12). He states Gage’s life was run more by secular than religious motives, seeing Gage as hypocritical, attempting to gain money from the system just like the men of cloth he denounces in his book.
These basic differences in approaches to Gage’s life and work permeate every aspect of their analyses. Gage does give many reasons to doubt the validity of his religious accusations. He wrote his book during a time of massive aggression against Catholicism in England. Part of his negative remarks of friars and priests in Spanish America is to play to the emotions of the readers. There is also a degree of personal bias in his work, yet Gage’s religious comments cannot be completely disregarded. Spanish documents support Gage’s accusations of the atrocities of the conquistadors in Spanish America and of the "looseness" of the Church. Gage’s life and work form a compromise between these different ideas.
Thomas Gage was born into a devout and loyal Roman Catholic family, at a time when this loyalty was seen as treason against England and was usually practiced behind closed doors. His three older brothers lived religious lives: his brother Henry fought on the continent for Catholic Spain; George was a diplomat and priest; and William was a member of the Jesuit order. Like many young Catholic men of England, Gage’s family sent Thomas to study in continental Europe. Thomas studied in a Spanish school staffed by Dominicans. Newton suggests that this early life of danger and intrigue, due to his religious background, had a damaging effect upon young Thomas (Newton 24). This life indeed must have been very confusing to a young man searching for his identity. The strength of his family’s Catholic beliefs against England, stress of religious persecution, and distance from family and home country are a heavy burden for a young man to bear. His life lends itself to an intense psychohistorical analysis that is yet to be written.
Thomas’ father decided Thomas could best serve his family and his faith by becoming a Jesuit. Thomas’ early connections with the Dominicans led him to become a Dominican friar himself. This decision caused a fight between Thomas and his father, one that is clouded in mystery today. In his book, Gage only mentions this incident in brief. He says his father wanted him to be a Jesuit, and, since Thomas refused, he disowned Thomas. More specifically, Thomas not only refused to join the Jesuits but also "proved in [his] affections a deadly foe and enemy unto them" (Thompson 10). This vagueness of this statement causes historians to debate its meaning.
Both Thompson and Newton believe there is more to the story than Gage was willing to tell in his published work. There is a record of a Thomas Gage being arrested in 1617, held as a dangerous man, and brought before the Privy Council. Thompson simply dismisses this as not "our Thomas" (Thompson xxvii). Newton believes this is the same Thomas Gage. He continues that maybe the Privy Council released Thomas in return for agreeing to serve as a counter-intelligence agent for Protestant England, which was not uncommon (Newton 199). According to Newton’s theory, this is why Gage would have been disowned. Newton, however, admits himself that this is a wild hypothesis. This assessment seems a bit extreme, but the incident with his father definitely affected Thomas’ religious development. Whether the arrest in 1617 and Thomas’ father’s anger were related is irrelevant, however interesting the debate is. Thomas’ most superficial reaction to the argument with his father was to get as far away from England as possible. Travel and overseas missionary work greatly interested Gage, so in 1625, Gage volunteered for the Dominican mission to the Philippines.
Manila was the center of Spain’s Asian Empire, and the friars played a very important role. The friars controlled the investment banking of the Philippines, and often became rich from their dealings, similar but to a larger extent than in Spanish America (Newton 74). Once in Mexico (modern-day Mexico City), Gage heard from a friar who ran away from his duties in the Philippines that the superiors in the Philippines were cruel and harsh. Furthermore, the friars there focused more on parishioners’ wives and wealth than on their salvation. Gage saw this secular world of the Philippine Church as excessive and immoral. Gage, with three other friars, escaped Mexico and their duties in the Philippines. They moved south towards Guatemala, hoping to find a life there, or at least a passage back to Spain. Gage spent two years in the friary in Guatemala City, and the next five years as a priest in the Guatemala valley towns of Mixco and Pinola.
Nowhere Gage traveled in Spanish America appealed to the strict Dominican heart inside of him. From his first impression of the Church in Spanish America in Vera Cruz to the last in Panama, Gage found fundamental faults. His first encounter with men of the cloth in America was the Prior of the cloister at St. Dominic Vera Cruz. Gage expected to find the Prior’s quarters filled with books, but the Prior only had a few, which were dusty. In place of books he had a guitar and luxuries adorning his quarters (Thompson 33). This was extremely disappointing to Gage who expected to find a learned and simple man. Gage also tells of friars playing cards, and one friar who jokingly took the winnings by brushing them into the sleeve of his robe, mentioning the forbidding of Dominican friars to touch money. He shows his outrage by saying "…the looseness of their lives sheweth evidently that the love of money, of vainglory, of power and authority over the poor Indians, is their end and aim more than any love of God" (Thompson 45). He continually speaks of the looseness and corruption of the friary in Spanish America, and his book contains many insults at Roman Catholicism in general. He lived a difficult life of discipline and danger in England and on the continent, yet when he reached Spanish America, there were many men of the cloth who were slack in their religious fervor. This would definitely be a shock to a sincere and determined Dominican friar.
Gage lived for three years in the cloister at the City of Guatemala, where he studied. His love of learning was satisfied by his work at the cloister, however it raised difficult questions on his belief, such as the idea that the Virgin Mary cannot be without sin. At this point, Gage wished to return to England, but the Prior refused, citing that all friars had to remain in the Americas for ten years (Thompson 249). Unfortunately, Gage had no knowledge that Rome had sent him a license to return to England, for the license never reached Gage. This refusal to let Gage leave led him to find alternative means to return to Europe. Disillusioned, Gage accompanied Friar Francisco Moran into new territories of Guatemala to learn language and customs of the Amerinds, and then preached to two communities of Mixco and Pinola for five years. It is clear to Newton that Gage intended to buy his passage back to England through exploiting his parishioners: "poor Gage, tempted by necessity and strong desire, celebrated his liberation from the chains of Roman Catholicism by rushing to embrace the same sin he had, up to them, so roundly condemned" (Newton 122). Gage gathered about 9,000 crowns during his five years in Mixco and Pinola (more than needed for a simple and devout friar as he claimed to be), but his works also show that he felt the need to lead Amerind souls to salvation and generally aid their lives.
Gage gives a detailed account in his book about the transactions involved in preaching. Legally, the cloister was entitled to all money collected from the parishioners after the priest’s living expenses were deducted. The priest received the profits from the common piece of land in the town. In addition, he received money for all church duties. As Gage comments, the Indians, Creoles, and Spanish never visited a priest with "empty hands" (Thompson 259). He received money for souls in purgatory, sodalities, offerings of food when Mass was sung and for saint’s images, four crowns for each feast (five in a year), Christmas and Easter offerings, communicants, confessions, and money to perform marriage, death, and baptism rites. Christianity among the Indians seems to be more a substitution of saints and priests for the old gods, so they would pay for these blessings. Gage continues ‘Thus all the year are those priests deluding the poor people for their ends, enriching themselves with their gifts, placing religion in mere policy. Thus the Indians’ religion consists more in sights, shows, and formalities than in any true substance" (Thompson 240). Christianity in the Americas was merely idol worship with new names, and the priests and friars reaped the benefits.
In some places, the priests/friars were seen as gods on earth. On the way to Guatemala, Gage had a difficult ride though tough terrain. The Indians, thinking it a miracle that he survived, called him a saint, which Gage did not enjoy. He asked the friar of the area to tell the Indians the truth, yet the friar refused. He said, "such simple-minded errors should not be discouraged, for so long as the Indians thought the friars to be on the very brink of divinity, so long they would obey them in everything, so that their persons and fortunes could be commanded at pleasure" (Thompson 101). Indeed, many self-seeking priests and friars could travel to Spanish America and gain fortune and power through their control over the Indians.
This, according to Newton, is what Gage eventually wants to capture. Gage goes to the Provincial of Guatemala who persuaded Gage that he could get all kinds of money from the towns of Mixco and Pinola. Gage learned he could gather about 2,000 crowns per year from Mixco and Pinola. Gage’s immediate predecessor sent 400 crowns to the cloister. Gage proudly told the Provincial he could send 450 crowns per year, allowing him to gather money from the parishioners and look good in front of his superior (Newton 131). Although Gage did fall prey to some of the corruption in Spanish America, he still held to his devout beliefs.
Four events happened in Mixco/Pinola during Gage’s years that increased his wealth, more so than any friar in the area before him (Thompson 262). They also show how Christianity in Guatemala was viewed by Indians as a mere superstitious religious, incorporating rewards for payment. In Gage’s first year, the towns had difficulties with locusts. The peasants paid for blessed wafers with saints painted on them, in order to bury them in their fields and keep away the locusts. In the second year, there was a massive plague, which killed over 200 people. Gage received money for each person over eight years of age that died. In addition, the effects of the plague worried the Creole landlords, who feared the loss of labor. They, therefore, forced all Indians over the age of twelve to marry. Gage married over eighty couples that year, gaining money for each performance of the marriage rites. There were also great storms and an earthquake that required more processions with images to protect the people, gaining more money for Gage.
Many Indians embraced this new religion brought by the Spanish. It ended human sacrifice, fulfilled the ancient prophecies, and was a passive way to support the new Spanish leaders. However, some Indians clung tightly to their old faith, seeing it as a way to exert their bravery and independence in the midst of new conquerors. He admits, "most of the Indians are but formally Christians, and only outwardly appear such, and secretly are given to witchcraft and idolatry…" (Thompson 268). Gage encountered three incidents of such religious resistance; an old woman accused of witchcraft, an old man who was a member of a nahualista cult, and a group of brothers who revered an old idol. The old woman, Marta de Carrillo, was thought to have killed two-thirds of those who had died in Pinola. The entire town feared her. During Lent one year, she brought more money than most, but Gage believed this was merely to raise his opinion of her. When he asked her about witchcraft, she cried, saying she had been wronged. She begged for Communion the next day, but Gage refused, stating he could not give Communion to one suspected of being a witch. That night and the next day, there were strange occurrences, weird noises, and decay in all of the food offerings the woman had brought to Gage. Gage sent her to the City of Guatemala where she finished the last months of her life in prison. Like in Europe, witchcraft was a serious charge in Spanish America. Gage had little patience for such cohorts of the Devil, as was common among the religious men of America.
The second incident surprised Gage. An old man, Gómez, whom Gage believed to be a devout Christian, called Gage on his deathbed, asking for the last rites. After Gómez’s death, members of the town approached Gage telling him that Gómez was in fact a chief of wizards and witches in the town and often took the shape of a puma. On once such puma excursion, he met his mortal enemy in the form of a jaguar and lost his life due to this battle. This was Gage’s first encounter with nahualistas, an ancient animal cult older than the religions of the Aztecs and Toltecs. This animal cult had a large following among the people in town. Gage does not seem at all skeptical about the validity of humans changing forms into pumas and jaguars. As Newton explains, modern writers tend to explain the events without trying to explain the transformations, for there are no adequate theories in which to explain it. He continues that it is not unusual for Gage to not be baffled, for his faith explained it as a simple result of a pact with Satan (Newton 146). The story of Gómez and the following story of the Fuentes brothers shows that the Roman Catholicism, and hence the culture of the Spanish, in Spanish America, was not completely embraced by the Indian population. The Indians adopted those aspects of religion and culture that they found useful to their daily lives. The remainder of their efforts were used to deceive the conquerors into thinking they were completely "Spanish-ized."
Gage learned in Mixco the four wealthy and important brothers named Fuentes represented this dichotomy of pious on the outside, yet retaining the old gods in their private life. These brothers, and other unnamed members of the town, worshiped a wooden idol located somewhere in the forests. Gage discovered the idol and took it to church the next Sunday. He quoted Exodus "you shall have no god before me" and pulled out the idol. He continued by challenging the idol to speak and show its power, taunted it, and then burned it, telling the people to forsake this god and Gage would protect them from the Inquisition. This action placed him in grave danger, and Gage was attacked by the followers. The Spanish landlords disagreed with Gage’s actions, but Gage refused to change his mind. Gage spared those who begged for forgiveness and became pious Christians from prison and banishment. His fervent and harsh responses to these incidents show that he genuinely cared for his duties as caretaker of the Indians’ souls in his area.
Gage also gives the reader insight into the struggles between Spanish and Creole, ruler and Indian. His physical descriptions of people and places in Spanish America are a trusted authority, along with Spanish governmental and ecclesiastical documents. Hs is unique in that he is the only Englishman to have an intimate knowledge of Spanish America. There is a degree of racism in Spanish America that Gage captures in some of his first observations. When staying in Mexico, he meets a man who tells him the food may look very appealing, but that it provided little nutritional value. The man relates this to differences in race: "as in meat and fruit there is this inward and hidden deceit, so likewise the same is to be found in the people that are born and bred there, who…are inwardly false and hollow-hearted" (Thompson 60). Gage posits this is why he is always hungry in Spanish America. Gage’s own observations, though, show the Indians to be hard working, determined, and full of valor. The mixed breeds, or blackamoors as Gage calls them, are vain, dress well like the Spanish, and live lives of scandal. The Spanish government itself showed respect to the Indians and their institutions, but the conquistadors and Spanish settlers had little moral responsibility to the Indians. The instances of Indian brutality that Gage witnesses are all, as he points out, in violation of Spanish law.
In Mexico he gives a detailed account of the city, noticing that most Indians were forced into ghetto living, and had little education. The artisans of the Indians, and Chinese, were the best in their field, but seldom did they gain wealth from their work, as did the Spanish artisans. While in Mexico and trying to escape into Spanish America from his duties of the Philippine mission, he learned that the friars in Mexico would not help him due to the conflict between Creole and Spanish friars. Gage chose to go to Guatemala because most friars there were from Spain and would help him in his endeavors. He learned from his experiences of the hatred between Creoles and Spanish firsthand in Oaxaca. Gage relates one Spanish friar noted for his learning, was excommunicated due to finding money in his quarters. Yet, Gage notes, all of those in the town were guilty of the same "sin." Their motive was hatred against those Spanish-born in high positions (Thompson 113). He continues that once in Guatemala, the Prior did not send him back to Mexico or cause him trouble because of his use to offset the power of the Creoles.
Another example he gives of the conflict between the Creoles and the Spanish is in Chiapas. Here Creole women were fond of chocolate and turned church services into a coffeehouse. The Bishop tried to end this, and was consequently found dead. The rumor was that the women, who so hated the Bishop for this restriction, poisoned him with chocolate, hence the proverb "Beware the chocolate of Chiapa" (Thompson 145). This showed the fight between the secular powers of the Creoles and the religious orders of the Spaniards. Moral zeal of the church was dangerous in seventeenth-century Mexico.
Gage also gives an observation about the abuse of Indians as slaves through a particular Juan Palomeque. This man lived among his slaves, and took pride and pleasure in breaking the spirit of his slaves (Thompson 199). He would purchase brave women just to defile them. He would sleep with the wives of male slaves and torture the males. This abuse and torture was expressly forbidden by Spanish law, yet Juan Palomeque would use his money and power to buy himself out of trial. It is common for outsiders of Spanish America to blame Spain and the Church for these atrocities, as Gage sometimes does, but it was the Creole encomenderos who did not follow the rules. Gage explains the work tax where three to four weeks out of the year, Indians were to give work to the Spanish. Spain tried to fix the wages and regulate conditions, but more often than not, the Creole landlords would refuse payment and employ violence in the workplace. The Spanish law was not always enforced, but if Spain had tried to enforce the laws protecting the Indians, the Creoles would have revolted and Spain, in turn, would have gone bankrupt (Newton 116). The law remained, but in many areas, more often than not, it remained only in name. As a priest, Gage’s responsibility was to calm the Indians whenever mutiny arose, telling them to bear the sufferings for God and the Commonwealth. Gage describes the one consolation that the suffering Indians had: the drink. As Spain realized that the drunken Indian was becoming an increasing problem, they passed laws saying that no one was to sell wine to the Indians. Certain Creoles and Spanish, however, continued to sell, and the local government merely turned its back. In this, the "Europeans were creating the ‘Indian’" (Newton 120).
By 1635, Gage was ready to return to Europe. He requested leave from the Provincial but was denied, instead being transferred to Petapa. After a year at Petapa, Gage decided to run away. He lost most of his money to pirates along the way to Panama where he gained passage through his service as a chaplain. Once in England, he could not get along with his fellow Dominicans and traveled to Rome. His doubts about his faith continued, until events showed that Catholicism was not going to return to England, and he converted to Anglicanism, and then to become a "Preacher of the Word." Thompson believes Gage swam with the tide in his conversion, but had to convince himself that he made the right decision the rest of his life (Thompson xxxviii). Gage married, became a preacher, and sent three men to their death in order to convince himself of the rectitude of his chosen path.
Gage published his book in 1648. He begins his book with a letter to His Excellency Sir Thomas Fairfax, Captain-General of the Parliament’s Army. He explicitly states his purpose for writing the book was to "impart what I there saw and knew to the use and benefit of my English countrymen" (Thompson 3). His wrote his book, however, for many reasons. He partly wrote it to quell the demons inside of himself, to prove that he had conquered his past of Roman Catholicism and religious doubt. He partly wrote it to share his experiences of the fraudulent Spanish American priests, for whom he had so much hatred. He also partly wrote it to show the immorality and "butchery" of Spanish America in general, giving a good moral reason for England to invade Spanish America.
By 1654, Cromwell was turning to an overseas empire, and Gage’s book provided the propaganda and inside information that he needed. Cromwell called upon Gage for further information pertaining to invasion, upon which Gage informed Cromwell that Spanish America was thinly populated and undefended in the interior. The Indians hated the Spanish and when the time came the Spanish would not be able to count upon them. In fact, they would support anyone who would give them liberty. The jealously between the Creole and the Spanish would cripple their efforts, and the Spanish were lazy and lusty, not expecting anyone would invade them. Finally, Gage told Cromwell that God would help the English (Thompson xlii). All of these ideas were postulated in the first chapter of his book, the letter to Sir Thomas Fairfax. In general his book showed that the Spanish were exploiting the Indians and that any attempt to take them away from Spanish rule would be justified using moral terminology. It pointed to the treatment of the Indians, and the "looseness" of the Church.
Newton in particular notices that Gage made special note of things that would be helpful to an army, such as roads, fortifications, populations and lay-outs of towns, sensitive areas that might have something to gain from the removal of Spanish power (Newton 10). The English did not need much persuasion to believe that the Spanish Empire was cruel and unjust. England’s imperialism could be justified as anti-imperialism against Spain. Gage suggested to Cromwell that England attack Hispaniola. At the end of 1654, Cromwell sent a military expedition to Hispaniola with Gage serving as the chaplain. The attack on Hispaniola was a complete failure. The Indians fought with the Spanish and the Spanish were prepared. Gage’s prediction of the success of an English invasion of Spanish America was wrong. After this failure, the expedition sailed to Jamaica and captured it, thus forming the first Caribbean land under British soil. This was Gage’s last adventure, and he died on Jamaica (possibly of fever) in 1656.
Gage’s life was a struggle between his Roman Catholic heritage and his doubts, leading to his conversion and subsequent traitorous acts against Catholic family and friends. His attempts to publish a book that would lead the English into victory against the Spanish Empire failed. His book, however, went through six editions and five languages until Europe’s interest in Central America dwindled. His book provides historians and readers alike with a sense of Spanish America in land, people, and spirit.
Newton, Norman. Thomas Gage in Spanish America. New York: Barnes and Noble,
Thompson, J. Eric S., ed. and introduction. Thomas Gage’s Travels in the New World. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.