The Many Faces of Thomas Gage

The title page of Gage's "A New Survey of the West-Indias"

The title page of Gage’s “A New Survey of the West-Indias,” F1211.G13 Williams. 

In 1648, Thomas Gage published an account of his travels in the new world, the first of its kind to be written in English. In The English American, Gage writes of his travels through what are now the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. His book covered his entire stay in the Spanish new world and focused on the atrocious mistreatment of indigenous peoples by the Spaniards and the Catholic Church. The English American helped spread the infamous Black Legend, the tale of the brutal and genocidal violence inflicted upon indigenous peoples by the Spaniards.

Thomas Gage was born in 1602 or 1603 to one of the remaining prominent Catholic families in England. In 1620, his father sent Thomas to study at the College of San Gregorio in Valladolid (Spain), where he hoped his son would become a Jesuit. While in Spain, Gage became disgusted with the Jesuits and the Spaniards, and opted instead to join the Dominicans, a decision that caused his father to disown him. In 1625, Gage volunteered to be a missionary to the Philippines, despite strict orders by the Spanish Crown not to allow non-Spaniards into New Spain. By his own account Gage avoided this obstacle by smuggling himself onto the ship in a “barrel of dry biscuit.” Gage changed his mind mid-voyage, however, and slipped away with several other friars in Mexico. They fled south, where they joined a Dominican mission in Guatemala. Gage spent ten years in the new world.

Gage included linguistic study material for the languages he had observed while living in Guatemala.

Gage included linguistic study material for the languages he had observed while living in Guatemala.

In 1637, Gage fled the new world without the permission of his religious order and returned to England. He officially renounced his Catholicism in August 1642 with a sermon entitled “The Tyranny of Satan, Discovered by the Teares of a Converted Sinner.”  He remained in England for many years, living through the turmoil of the civil war and aligning himself with the Parliamentary forces. He also acted as an informant on the side of the Parliamentarians. Gage’s testimony led to the arrest of least three Catholic priests living covertly in England, all of whom would eventually be hanged for treason.

Thomas Gage was no historian, nor was he a novelist, but he lived a storied life. He likely travelled more in ten years than most people today will in a lifetime. He did not write his book to enlighten or entertain readers. His goal was far more grandiose: Gage wanted to convince Oliver Cromwell to invade the Spanish New World. His book provided the moral justification for such an invasion as it highlighted the brutal nature of Spanish rule. This assertion is not speculation. Gage himself writes, “I humbly pray your Excellency [Cromwell] . . . direct your noble thoughts to employ the soldiery of this Kingdom upon such just an honorable design in those parts of America.” This advice was heeded: Cromwell ordered an invasion of Spanish holdings in the new world and appointed Gage as chaplain of the main ship. But Gage died of dysentery upon arrival in Jamaica. His dream of bringing the new world under British control failed.

The book is dedicated to Sir Thomas Fairfax, an officer in the Parliamentary army.

The book is dedicated to Sir Thomas Fairfax, an officer in the Parliamentary army.

Gage’s book is a valuable tool for historians looking to understand the Spanish new world and English opinions about Spanish Catholicism during and after the civil war. But the book also demonstrates that history has a surprisingly human element. Gage’s own motives, shortcomings, ambitions, and biases all make themselves very clear in his book. The English American reveals Thomas Gage warts and all—a strange, curious, and remarkable life.  Gage lived through some of the most tumultuous events of his era. But more than that, he actively participated in them. He switched sides in a conflict where being on the wrong side generally meant death. He smuggled his way into a new world, and helped spark a conflict between two great world powers. Gage’s book allows historians to see abstract concepts like the Black Legend, Cromwell’s “western design,” and the English civil war as more than just historical terms. They were actual events that real people lived through. The English American allows us to see history from the perspective of a man who lived through it and whose choices helped shape it.

The English American is part of the Williams Ethnological Collection and is available for your perusal in the Burns Library Reading Room.  If you have questions, please contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or

  • Donald Orr,  A & S ’14

 This blog post is drawn from the exhibit “Making History Public: Books Around the World: 1400 – 1800.”   This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2012 HS600 class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.  From April – December 2013, the “Making History Public” exhibit is on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South. Stay tuned for more posts from this exhibit!

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