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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

An English friar in Guatemala

Engraved plate depicting various groups of figures dancing and celebrating beside a shore. With a palm tree in the right foreground and a sailing ship in the bay.Plate depicting the Indian celebration of a saint’s day.Thomas Gage (1603?-56) was born to a Surrey family which was prominent among the Roman Catholic recusant gentry. His father intended him to become a Jesuit, so that he could help to convert England to Roman Catholicism, but Thomas rebelled against the discipline of the Jesuits and decided to become a Dominican friar.

In 1625 he travelled illicitly on a ship which was taking friars to a mission in the Philippines via Mexico. Spain had debarred foreigners from visiting Spanish America, for both religious and economic reasons, and the Dominicans had decided that English friars should work in England, so his presence was unwelcome. For reasons which are unclear, Gage decided to stay in Central America. For most of the next ten years he served Indian communities in Guatemala as a priest.

Gage’s book A new survey of the West-Indies, which first appeared in 1648 and went through several editions in the next fifty years, attracted interest not just because it was the first eyewitness account in English of social conditions in Spanish America, but because it dealt with a part of the world enticing to the proselytising Protestantism of Cromwellian England. In 1654 Gage sailed as (Protestant) chaplain to an expeditionary force which intended but failed to capture the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) but which successfully seized Jamaica, where Gage died.

In the first edition Gage urged General Lord Fairfax to consider the English conquest of Spanish America. One of the reasons which he adduced was the belief - common in Protestant countries at the time - that the Spaniards had displayed unusual and inhuman cruelty in the conquest of the Americas. Although the Catholic religious orders wanted to extirpate pre-Christian religions and forcibly convert the Indians, their position was often ambiguous. They had to accept the co-existence of Catholic and polytheistic practices and that the conversion of Indians was often only superficial.

Gage’s text reflects this ambiguity. He documents the Indian celebration of a saint’s day (as depicted in this plate) and is uncomfortably aware that the festivities mirror those for pre-Christian gods.  

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