It had always been my assumption that the Inquisition had been a European affair, and mostly confined to Spain, but recently I came across an account which showed that the Inquisition had operated in Mexico, also. It was written by an Englishman named Miles Phillips, who had fallen into its clutches.
Miles was a sailor making his third trip to the New World when his ship ran short of provisions in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the men expressed a desire to be put ashore, even though it would be in a strange and maybe hostile place, rather than endure the pangs of hunger any longer. They felt they had rather take their chances with Indians or Spaniards than continue to suffer.
The man in charge, general John Hawkins, readily agreed, and had the captain make for land, where part of the men left the ship. This was on Oct. 8th, 1568.
After putting up with a night of drenching rain, they walked along the seacoast the next day. Attacked by Indians, who first thought they were Spaniards, they could hardly defend themselves at all, since they had very few weapons, and no armour. Eight of them were killed before the Indians realized their error, and broke off the attack. They did, however, strip stark naked all the white men wearing colored garments, except for black, and took the clothing with them, while leaving all those wearing black clothes alone. As they departed, they pointed in a certain direction and spoke the word “Christiano” several times, which the whites took to mean, “Go that way, and you shall find the Christians.”
In due time they did find Christians (Spaniards) but almost wished they hadn’t, because after being robbed of their money, they were made prisoners and informed that they were to be taken to the “city of gexico” (Mexico City), which was a considerable distance away. As they marched through all the towns and villages along the way they were gaped at by the townspeople, who looked upon them as great curiosities. At some of their stops they were well treated and well fed; at other places they were ill treated and ill fed.
When they reached Mexico City they numbered about 100 men. From then until 1574 they were either imprisoned, or made to do various kinds of labor outside the walls, sometimes even acting as servants for wealthy families. This was probably about the easiest work they did. This long stay in and around Mexico City was about like their first few months in captivity, as far as treatment was concerned. Sometimes it was good, and sometimes bad, depending on who was in charge of them at a given time, and what kind of labor they were doing.
Although the Inquisition had been operating in Spain long before Miles Phillips and his shipmates were made prisoners in Mexico, it had not yet reached that country, and many Spaniards there hoped it never would, but their hopes were dashed in 1574, with the arrival on the scene of four top men in which the main authority of the Inquisition was to be vested. They were a Chief Inquisitor and three other officials. They lost no time in conducting trials, and the first ones subjected to them were the English prisoners, whose numbers had shrunk to 68 by that time.
Placed in dark dungeons, where they could see only by candlelight, and never more than one or two to a cell (so there could be but little communication between them), they were at first brought before the Inquisitors one at a time. Here they were severely examined about their religious beliefs, and ordered to say the Ave Maria, the Pater noster, and the Creed in Latin. Since most of them did well to say them in English, this was the first black mark against them.
They then were asked various questions about the Sacrament, the Host of bread, and other matters, which the prisoners tried to answer as best they could, but never satisfying the Inquisitors. The Englishmen were accused of lying, and told that they would be set free if they told the truth. Not a man fell for this, though, figuring it was only a ruse to entrap them.
The Inquisitors returned the men to their dungeons and did nothing for some time, then subjected everybody to the rack. This naturally produced some confessions, which was what the judges were waiting for. The tortures were stopped, and a large scaffold erected in the downtown Market Place.
The night before the judgments were to be pronounced, church officers went to the dungeons and issued “fools’ coats,” called San Benitos, to all, which were made of yellow cotton, with red crosses upon them front and back. No sleep was allowed the prisoners that night.
The next morning every man was given a cup of wine and a slice of bread fried in honey for breakfast. Then a rope was placed around his neck, a large green candle placed in his hand unlighted, and he was marched off to the Market Place, with a guard on either side.
The assembled churchmen and other officials numbered about 300, many of them being Friars, and of course there was a great multitude of onlookers. A solemn oyez! was made, and the crowd fell silent.
The judgments then began. The first man was sentenced to have 300 stripes (lashes) on horseback, and then committed to the galleys for ten years. One by one the others were called; the stripes ranged from 300 down to 100, and the years to be served as a galley slave from ten years down to six. The ones who got off the lightest received no stripes at all, but were sentenced to work in a monastery, wearing a San Benito all the while. These sentences ranged from five years down to three. Phillips himself got five years.
Most of the prisoners had to suffer the lash. Naked from the waist up, each was mounted on a horse and led around to various places located on the principal streets of the city. Leading the way were a couple of “criers,” who yelled as they went, “Behold these English dogs! Lutherans! enemies to god!” At each appointed place every unfortunate victim received a certain number of stripes with a long whip. Several of the Inquisitors went along too, and exhorted those applying the lash to “Strike! Lay on these English heretics! Lutherans! God’s enemies!”
At the end, each man’s back was a mass of blood and lumps. They were then taken from their horses, and carried again to prison, where they stayed until deemed fit to be sent to Spain to serve out their sentences in the galleys.
Of the 68 men, three were sentenced to be burned at the stake, and they were reduced to ashes the same day. Death at the stake was one of the most horrible of deaths, and you might wonder why Christian judges would sentence anyone to it. Well, they probably figured that, since God was going to burn the poor sinner in hell forever anyway, he wouldn’t mind if they burned him for an hour or two ahead of time.
SOURCE: The Liberty Bell, November 1992