George Walford: Expediency

In the late 16th Century John Hawkins, one of those rumbustious Elizabethan sea-captains, commanded a trading fleet intending to buy slaves from African rulers and sell them in the New World. The Spaniards, having been granted exclusive rights in America by the Pope, disapproved of this practice but Hawkins relied on his own ingenuity, and the inefficiency of Spanish government, to get away with it. He bought his slaves, and succeeded in selling some of them, but was then caught by a Spanish fleet in the port of San Juan de Ulua. He escaped with most of his men but some were captured and taken to Mexico City. All Protestants while in England or on English ships, they knew their only hope now lay in accepting Catholicism. Telling the story in a very readable book [1] Rayner Unwin puts it like this:

[On entering Mexico City] The Englishmen, so long upbraided as Lutheran heretics, were wise enough to follow their escorts’ example without hesitation. They knelt before the Madonna, and said their prayers in good faith, well aware that under the power of Spain the only hope of freedom lay in an acceptance of the Catholic Church. To many of them this was no conscious dissimulation. Memories of the old manner of worship still remained. The new doctrine of Protestantism had not yet struck deep roots into the soil of patriotism. Over matters of dogma men and boys alike were content to trim their sails to whatever wind might blow, and reconcile their God to the prevailing system.

The significance of that strengthens when we read, on the same page, Unwin’s account of the attitude of the native inhabitants:

They worked for their new masters, the Spaniards, with the same passive obedience that they had devoted to the tyrants of the previous age. Their labour was exploited; they suffered hardship and cruelty; but they accepted and endured abuses as the natural order of things, against which their imagination had not taught them to rebel.’ [1]

Two groups, belonging to civilisations on opposite sides of the world, yet with but a single ideology. [1] Unwin R. 1962 The Defeat of John Hawkins; a biography of his third slaving voyage. Harmondsworth: Pelican 231).

from Ideological Commentary 61, August 1993.