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En-Gage-ing England with Chocolate, the Praiseworthy Drug

Image Courtesy of the William Reese Company

Thomas Gage was one of the first Englishmen in Mesoamerica to document his experiences there, of which he had over a decade’s worth. His chronicle, The English-American, his travail by sea and land, or, A new survey of the West-India's, published in 1648, helped Gage establish himself as an early authority on the subject of Mesoamerican culture, and cacao in particular, for many Englishmen. Even though English translations of Spanish treatises about the New World and chocolate were abundant by the time The English-American appeared, Gage’s account was received differently among the British population because he wrote from the perspective of a native Englishman, as his self-referential title makes clear. As a result, Gage’s experiences with cacao are generally regarded as pioneering efforts towards its widespread consumption in England.

Gage’s allegiance to the crown of England lent him credibility with the British population, who tended to favor the writings of one of their own over the writings of Spaniards. In addition to his nationality, Gage’s religious persuasion caused his work to gain traction among the primarily Protestant subjects. But that would not always have been the case. Prior to his experience in Mesoamerica and for the duration of his time there, Gage was Catholic. After returning to England, he converted to Protestantism (Campos, 2009). This conversion substantiated his reputation among Britain’s Protestant population, which had a strong distaste for Spain and its Catholicism.

One of Gage’s motives in writing his treatise was to reassure his British audience that chocolate could be applied to “severall dispositions of men’s bodies” in climates and world regions other than the Americas (109). However, despite the knowledge that he must have acquired about cacao through his time in Mesoamerica, Gage rarely wrote from his own perspective and instead relied primarily upon material taken from James Wadsworth’s translation of Antonio Colmenero’s A Curious Treatise on the Nature and Quality of Chocolate (see 7/4 & 7/12 posts) in order to create his own treatise. By doing so, Gage further established Colmenero as the leading expert on cacao on the European continent.

Gage claimed that his experience in Mesoamerica gave him authority to speak about the nature of chocolate, but his only original argument not taken directly from Colmenero was that he had “used it twelve yeers constantly [...] and with this custom lived twelve yeers in those parts healthy, without any obstructions, or oppilations, not knowing what either ague, or feaver was” (109). In fact, the only times that he ever felt ill were when he failed to drink chocolate at one of his “accustomed houres” (109). The fact that Gage’s stomach felt “fainty” when he didn’t drink chocolate indicates, in today’s vernacular, that he was addicted to it or at least dependent upon it. Gage incorporated this passage into his defense of cacao and used it to solidify himself as an experienced user of the praiseworthy drug. He used his addiction as a central part of his argument for cacao: If he, a native Englishmen, could enjoy and derive health benefits from drinking a lot of hot chocolate, which is from a region that presented a completely different environment than England and might appear only to make sense in hot climates, couldn’t other Englishmen drink and benefit just as much as he did?

As Gage did not include any other instances of his own experience with chocolate in this passage, we can conjecture that there were no other experiences that could prove a stronger point than material he borrowed from Colmenero. Gage’s experience with chocolate was largely anecdotal in nature. His authority to speak on the subject came from his claim of 12 years of experience, rather than any scientific or medical expertise, as he never did “take upon him the skill of a Physitian” (109). The extent of Gage’s training was as a Dominican priest in the Catholic Church (and later as an ecclesiastical leader in the Anglican Church), so while it may have been in his nature to try to offer up as much help as he could, all he could render was his non-expert opinion based on the experience of his own body with chocolate.

Still, in the world of experiential science, the testimony of his health was persuasive and what’s more, he could back it up with comparison to other cold climates who also benefited from the tropical hot beverage. Gage rhetorically wondered “why [chocolate] may not bee used as well in England as in other parts both hot and cold.” (109) His experience with chocolate had led him to believe that the drink was suitable for more than just the Mesoamericans where chocolate originated from. Not only was chocolate suitable for consumption in England, but everywhere “where it is so much used.” The people living in different regions, including the Americas, the “India’s, as in Spaine, Italy, Flanders (which is a cold Countrey) find that it agreeth well with them.” (110) It is worth noting that Gage points specifically to Flanders.

In the 17th century Flanders refers to what is now the northern region of Belgium that borders the North Sea. By mentioning Flanders, Gage invoked both a climate and culture that more closely resembled England than Spain or Italy. He highlighted the fact that chocolate could be suitably consumed in cold climates as well as hot ones. Mesoamerica is hot, Spain and Italy are relatively warm, whereas Flanders and England are cold—not to mention northern European and Protestant. Gage referred to Flanders as a cold region, but it should not be lost on the reader that the Flemish people also corresponded religiously and racially to British subjects, as well. Gage thus makes the point that chocolate may be enjoyed by more than just Catholic people with darker skin (such as the indigenous populations of the Indies, or even Spaniards and Italians) to directly challenge the notion that chocolate would not suitable for Englishmen.

In putting Flanders on the chocolate map, Gage associates chocolate with important trade cities of the north (Bruges and Ghent) and the Dutch Golden Age, thus conveying the significance of chocolate as a beverage of sophistication. Flemish painting, for example, was at the forefront of European art from the 15th to 17th centuries with artists such as Jan van Eyck, Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck setting standards for art in Europe. The popularity of chocolate in that region should have elevated its appeal to everyone on the European continent. In order for England to keep up with the times, they too should adopt chocolate and its associated culture of refinement.

Indeed, Flanders was in very close proximity with the center of the Dutch East India Company—one of the most powerful economic forces in Europe at the time. This put chocolate in a very favorable situation to become a consumer commodity throughout Europe, of which Gage felt England should take full advantage. Trade was one area where the Dutch were outshining the English. Since chocolate had become an important trade commodity, then entering the chocolate market would enabling England to stay competitive with Holland.

According to Gage, the reason for the lack of chocolate’s presence in England wasn’t because of any commercial difficulties England may have been facing. The true challenge in bringing cacao to England thus far had been a miscalculation about the true value of cacao by the English. There had been multiple accounts given by the Spaniards about the English “who have taken a good prize, a ship laden with Cacao,” (110) in search of anything of value. However, the English sailors, not recognizing the true value of the cacao, would become angry that there didn’t appear to be many items of worth on the ship. In their “wrath”, they would “[hurl] over board this good commoditie, not regarding the worth and goodnesse of it, but calling it in bad Spanish, Cagaruta de Carnero, or sheeps dung in good English.” (110) A simple misunderstanding about the importance of the millions of small beans on board trade ships caused the English sailors to not only throw away a valuable commodity, but also to metaphorically throw away the supplement to English culture that Gage believed his country desperately needed at that time.

One of Gage’s main purposes for writing his treatise was to assert that “Cacao with the other Indian ingredients [should] be had in England.” His experience with cacao had convinced him that England had thus far been left out of an important cultural phenomenon. The entire country could only stand to benefit—in body and in coffer—if chocolate were brought over to England and incorporated into their way of life. What would be the best way to do this? The solution that Gage offered was not to establish a trade route directly with the source of cacao beans in America. He suggested that the importation of cacao could be accomplished in a more straightforward and less expensive manner: chocolate could be brought into England “by trading in Spaine for it, as we doe for other commodities.” (110) No additional trade routes needed to be established, which would help maintain as low a cost as possible to English merchants.

This existing infrastructure would have made “one of the necessariest commodities in the India’s” (110) accessible to the entire population of England.

As the established English voice of authority on chocolate, Gage sounded the alarm to his country—an alarm to wake up to the gradual sublimation of chocolate into the rest of Europe’s culture. England had somehow managed to remain largely unenlightened about this Mesoamerican tradition that was changing the lifestyle of England’s very own neighbors. In fact, it is because of persuasive efforts like Gage’s that England embraced chocolate and did go on to establish major trade routes to the lower Americas, notably Jamaica.

Works Cited

Campos, Edmund Valentine. “Thomas Gage and the English Colonial Encounter with Chocolate.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 39.1 (Winter 2009): 183-200.

Gage, Thomas. The English-American, … or, A New survey of the West India’s. London: Printed by R. Cotes, 1648.

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