England’s first chocolate influencer

Upon encountering chocolate in the new world, Europeans brought their own distinct opinions to this strange, new delicacy. There were those like the early American explorer, José Juan de Acosta, who emphatically rejected the cacao drink chocolaté and claimed those who consume it do so “foolishly, and without reason; for it is loathesome to such as those who are not acquainted with it, having a skumme or froth that is very unpleasant to taste” (Acosta 271).  Some, like doctor Francisco Hernandez, approached it as a medicinal product and wrote volumes about its physical effects like ““treat poisoning, mitigate intestinal pain and the symptoms of colic” (Hernandez 304). And then there were those like Thomas Gage, who quickly caught on to the local love for cacao and found a similar passion he was eager to share with his home country of England.

Illustration of Thomas Gage’s voyage through New Spain (Avelline 1720)

Gage was a Dominican priest who spent over a decade working and traveling through Spanish America in the 1600’s. During his time overseas, he experienced firsthand how a lifestyle could be utterly transformed by the cacao plant. His encounters with cacao are well documented in the treatise he published entitled The English-American his travail by sea and land: or, A new survey of the West-Indies. While the work details his travels over more than ten years, he places special emphasis, as well an entire chapter, on the cacao beverage known as choccolat. In turn, the work helped assert Gage as an early expert of Mesoamerica in addition to cacao. The focus on chocolate however played a very strategic role. At the time, the consumption of chocolate was under scrutiny in Europe by the church for its association with “cannibalistic” or “un-christian” Mesoamerican cultures (Campos 185). It had been being classified by some as a sacrilegious product and, according to Gage, was even banned by a Guatemalan priest in his perish (Coe 198). His writing can therefore be viewed as the first attempt to promote acceptance of his beloved chocolate potion both culturally and religiously.

Title Page of The English-American his travail by sea and land: or, A new survey of the West-India’s (Gage 1648)

Although Gage documents choccolatte quite objectively in his attempt to assuage the public of their fears, his admiration is apparent in his description of its elemental qualities and physical effects. Additionally, the first time Gage introduces cacao in his work was shortly after his arrival in Vera Cruz where he writes “the Prior of the Cloister of St. Dominicke, who entertained us very lovingly with some sweet Meates, and everyone with a Cup of the Indian drink called Chocolatte whereof I shall speake hereafter” (Gage 24). Introducing the beverage early on in the work demonstrates a clear interest in sharing the product with his audience and is further expunged later in the chapter entitled “Concerning two daily and common Drinkes, or Potions much used in the India’s, called Chocolatte, and Atolle”. This chapter reveals Gage’s careful effort in appealing to potential consumers.

Through his classification of cacao in this section, Gage implies the superior, if not almost godly, qualities of the compound as he states “This Cacao, though as every simple, it containes the quali|ty of the foure Elements” (Gage 111). When Gage speaks of the four elements, he is referring to humoral states of hot, cold, dry and humid. Typically, elements could be classified by two of these traits, however he stipulates that it “is not a simple element” as it is classified as “cold and dry” by Physicians but can also be encountered with “hot and soluble parts”. Furthermore, he explains how this can be used as a powerful solution to combat any ailment and that for “such a quantity of Cacao, the severall dispositions of mens bodies must be their rule”. By referencing both the physical and medicinal elements in this section Gage implies the divine qualities of the cacao plant that transcend Mesoamerican religion and can even be supported by Christianity.

Cacao beverage similar to the “choccolatte”
consumed by Gage (National Geographic 2017)

In addition, he recounts his own use of the beverage and the effects it had on his wellbeing to support his stance that it should be introduced to all men. Gage had grown entirely reliant on the drink as he “used it twelve yeers constantly, drinking one cup in the morning, another yet before dinner between nine or ten of the clock; another within an houre or two after dinner, and another between four and five in the afternoon” (Gage 110). Even more, he states that he had grown so accustomed to the drink that going a day without it left him with a faint stomach. His body’s dependence on the substance he argues was entirely beneficial as he was healthy without “any obstructions, or oppilations, not knowing what either ague, or feaver was”. Gage is clearly not only a firm believer in the powerful effects of cacao but England’s most ardent user too. His role as a priest further suggests it could be readily accepted by a devout man.

Finally, in the section’s conclusion Gage addresses the opinion much of England held towards cacao at this time. He claims that in conversations with Spainards who have had their ship seized by Englishmen, “in anger and wrath we have hurled over board this good commoditie, not regarding the worth and goodnesse of it” (Gage 111). In response to the animosity held towards cacao, Gage references the treatment of the product as a delicacy across the Indias as well as the ways in which nuns enhance it with flavors such as “Cinnamon, Sweet-waters, Amber, or Muske” to cure the ill. The addition of cinnamon into the mix of flavors used to flavor the drink was a strategic mention on Gage’s part. The spice was not indigenous to Mesoamerica and would be more widely accepted by many in England (Martin, Sampeck 420). Suggesting the blend of these two tastes was an appeal to his European friends to acclimate to cacao through hybridization. He also emphatically suggests that the English people could easily reap these benefits by through trade with the Spanish. Lastly, the motivation to convince England to introduce into local markets is cemented as he scarcely references the other drink he popularly encountered in Mesoamerican culture, Atolle, as he claims “of which I will say but a little, because I know it cannot be used here (England)”.

Although Gage is not commonly referred to as one of the first chocolate pioneers in Europe, his writings had lasting impact on the acceptance of chocolate in England. After publication, Gage was recognized as England’s foremost chocolate expert. Additionally, Gage’s first edition of his treatise was published in 1648 in London and shortly after in 1655 the Spanish colony of Jamaica was captured by the English. One of the key commodities that would be produced from the Jamaican market would in fact be cacao and an increase in accessibility would spread throughout the country. While chocolate certainly would not take off in England as it did in Spain and Portugal at this time, the eventual growth of interest would culminate in the country being home to the world’s first large producers, J.S. Frye & Sons and Cadbury. Gage’s writing was one of the first introductions for many Englanders to cacao while he served as one of its first accepting voices. Even though chocolate would take over a hundred years to reach prominence in England, Gage can be viewed as a key force in battling aversion in the country towards a product that now mainstream markets.


Acosta, José. The Natural and Moral History of the Indies. 1590, 271.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 2007 [1996], pp. 199-216.

Campos, Thomas Valentine. “Thomas Gage and the English Colonial Encounter with Chocolate.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 39, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 183–200.

Gage, Thomas, and Arthur Percival Newton. The English-American, a New Survey of the West Indies. G. Routledge & Sons, 1946 [1648], pp. 24, 109-112.

Hernández, Francisco. Historia De Las Plantas De Nueva Espana. Imprenta Universitaria, 1577 [1946], p. 304.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” 2016, pp. 37-60.

“Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making.” YouTube, National Geographic, 13 Oct. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3l3TFieqIvk.

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