Conquest of the West Indies, The

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John Day, William Haughton, and Wentworth Smith (1601)


Historical Records

On Samuel Rowley’s authorisation, Henslowe (on behalf of the Admiral’s Men) paid amounts totalling £6. 15 to Day, Haughton and Smith for this play between 04 April and 01 Sept 1601, and an additional £15. 5. 9 for properties including suits, stockings and copper lace (NB. Greg II.217 gives £14. 7. 9).

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe's Diary)

Lent vnto John daye & wm hawghton the 4 of
aprell 1601 in earnest of playe called the conqueste
of the weste enges at the apoyntment of
Samvell Rowlye the some of . . . . . . xxxxs
(F.86, Greg I.135)

Lent vnto mr smyth & mr hawghton the xj
of aprell 1601 in earnest of a Boocke called the
conquest of the west enges at the apoyntment
of samwell Rowly the some of . . . . . . xxs
(F.86, Greg I.135)

lent wm Haughton in earneste of the
playe called the conquest of the west enges
the 2 of maye 1601 the some of . . . . . . vs
(F.86v, Greg I.136)

Lent vnto John daye the 21 of maye 1601
in earnest of a Boocke called the ^[vj yemen of the] weste
enges[enges] the some of . . . . . . xxs
at the a poyntment of Samwell Rowley
(F.87, Greg I.137)

Lent vnto Samwell Rowley the 5 of
agust 1601 to lend in pte of payment vnto
John daye & wm hawghton of a Boocke
called the weaste enges some of . . . . . . xs
(F.92, Greg I.145)

Lent vnto wm hawghton & John daye
the 11 of aguste 1601 in pt of payment
of the playe called the west enges some of xxs
(F.92v, Greg I.146)

Lent vnto John daye the 26 of agust 1601
in pt of payment of a Boocke called the
weast enges the some of . . . . . . xs
(F.93, Greg I.147)

Lent vnto the company the 1 of septmbr to
Lend John daye in pt of payment of
a Boocke called the weaste enges some of . . xs
(F.93, Greg I.147)

Payments for Properties (Henslowe's Diary)

Lent vnto my sonne & wm Jube the
31 of Septmbr 1601 to bye divers thinges &
sewttes & stockenes for the playe of the weaste
enges the some of . . . . . . xll xs
pd more vnto the lace man for cope lace some . iijs ixd
pd mor for cope lace for this playe . . . . . . vijs
(F.94, Greg I.149)

pd the tayllers bille Radford & wm whites bell
at the apoyntment of Robart shawe & Jube the
10 of octobr 1601 for the playe of the weaste enges
the some of . . . . . . lvijs
(F.94, Greg I.149)

pd the 21 of Janewary [1601/2] for xij oz of lace
for Jndies . . xs & pd to spencer for twiste
ijs vjd pd for ij tiers . . xs & pd for v oz
& lacynge ye sleues ^. . vs vjd to E Alleyn the some of xxviijs
(F.104, Greg I.164)

Henslowe Papers

[Samuel Rowley to Philip Henslowe, 4 April 1601. Autograph. See Diary, 86 18. Printed, Malone, xxi. P. 391; Alleyn Papers, p. 23.]

Mr hinchloe J haue harde fyue sheets of a playe of the Conqueste of the
Jndes & J dow not doute but Jt wyll be a verye good playe therefore J praye
ye delyuer them fortye shyllynges Jn earneste of Jt & take the papers Jnto yor
one hands & on easter eue thaye promise to make an ende of all the reste.
[note in Henslowe’s hand:]
lent the 4 of aprell

(Henslowe Papers MS. I. 32; Greg, Papers 56)

[Samuel Rowley to Philip Henslowe, 4 June 1601 (?). Autograph, with note and copy of verses in the hand of John Day. The payment mentioned in Art. 34 was the full and final one for the Six Yeomen; the present letter must therefore be earlier. The ‘rest due’ would probably mean due up to date for papers delivered, possibly the first three acts. It implies, however, that it was not the first payment, 20 May. The next on 4 June, for £2, is entered as paid to Day, but it may have been at his appointment, and this may have been his share only, for two days later there is a payment to Haughton of 15s. See Diary 87 and 87v. . . . Printed, Malone, xxi. p. 392 (without the verses); Alleyn Papers, p. 23; Warner, p. 23.]

Mr henchloe J praye ye delyver the Reste of the Monye to John daye & wyll
Hawton dew to them of the syx yemen of the weste
[note in Day’s hand:]
J have occasion to be absent about the plott of the Jndyes therfre pray delyver
it to will hamton sadler
by me John Daye

(Henslowes Papers MS. I. 35; Greg, Papers 57) [NB. Foakes has “J have occasion to be absent” after “about the plot of the Indies” (Foakes 295)].

Theatrical Provenance

No performance dates recorded. From Rowley’s letter to Henslowe it appears that 5 sheets of the play had been written by 04 April 1601, but Henslowe was still paying for properties 9 months later on 21 of January 1601/2.

Probable Genre(s)

History (Harbage), Foreign History (? See "Possible narrative and dramatic sources or analogues" below), travel (?)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources and Analogues

In 1596, Thomas Nicholls (or Nicholas) republished The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the West India (his 1578 translation of Lopez de Gomara’s Spanish text), which details Hernando Cortez’s conquest of Mexico and the Aztec empire. The Stationer’s Register entry for this text gives it precisely the same title as the lost play (SR 7v):

28 Januarij [1596]
Thomas Creede/
To paie vjd in the
Pound to th[e]
Use of the poore /
Entred for his Copie vnder the wardens handes./ a booke intituled The Conquest of the West Indies by HERNANDO COURTIS / and another booke intituled. The treasure for Englishmen . xijd

There is an overarching narrative (Cortez’s conquest) in Nicholl’s text, even though the action is often interrupted by the provision of cosmographic details (“The Market place of Mexico” [196]; “The Gardens of Mutezuma” [187]). A dramatist developing this text for the stage would find in Cortez a viable, larger-than-life lead role redolent of Tamburlaine or Henry V. Nicholls’ translation includes such readily-adaptable passages as the orations that Cortez made to his soldiers (24-25, 135), stirring motivational speeches in the vein of Henry V’s orations in Shakespeare’s 1599 play. The Mexican King, Mutezuma, also has orations preserved, such as the one in which he explains (with a tragic irony apt for the theatre) that although he and his people initially perceived Cortez as a threat (the Spaniards’ “iesture and grimme beardes did terrifie” the Mexicans), they people were no longer concerned by the Spaniards’ arrival: “But now I do see & know that you are mortal me[n]” (172).


After numerous battles, Cortez and his men arrive at the Mexican capitol, where they are lavished with gifts and attention according to Mexican custom. Cortez grows concerned about being outnumbered, should the Mexican King, Mutezuma, turn on them. Letters from Pedro Hircio report that the Indian lord Qualpopoca has slain 9 Spaniards. Cortez resolves to apprehend Mutezuma. Whilst plotting in his lodgings, Cortez chances upon a recently walled-up door which, after forcing, reveals the treasury of Mutezuma (an opportune moment to utilise the discovery space of the stage?) (209). Cortez demands an audience with Mutezuma, and insists the Mexican King reside in Cortez’s lodgings under house arrest until Qualpopoca arrives to explain the murder of 9 Spaniards. Mutezuma consents and is carried upon men’s shoulders, on a rich seat, to Cortez’s lodgings.

(POSSIBLE SUBPLOT (220-21): Pedro Hircio is left in charge in Vera Crux when Cortez leaves that town, and charged with the task of procuring the place called Almeria for the Spanish. Hircio asks the Indians to submit to Spanish rule, and Qualpopoca, Lord of Nahutlan (now Almeria) claims he cannot meet to discuss Hircio’s request unless Hircio provide an armed guard for security; Hircio sends 4 men, 2 of whom are killed by Indians. The surviving 2 return to Vera Crux where Hircio, believing Qualpopoca responsible, retaliates with significantly more men. In the ensuing skirmish, Qualpopoca’s men kill a further 7 Spaniards. Qualpopoca’s town is eventually sacked, and the prisoners blame Mexico (Mutezuma) for commanding Qualpopoca to slay the Spaniards. Hircio writes this news to Cortez in Chololla, and Cortez uses the letters to apprehend Mutezuma. END SUBPLOT)

At length, Qualpopoca arrives and admits having slain the 9 Spaniards (219). For his alleged complicity in the murders, Mutezuma is placed in irons by Cortez (an analogue to the debased Bajazeth in Tamburlaine?) (222). Qualpopoca and his men are condemned to death at Cortez’s insistence, and are burned alive in the market place (220). Mutezuma’s nephew, Cacamazin (or Cacama) gathers a great army to “redeeme his uncle out of captiuitie, and expulse the Straungers [Spanish], or else kill and eate them” (227). To avoid war, Mutezuma arranges for Cacama to be taken prisoner and brought to Mexico (229). Invoking the belief that their true king (or his descendant) would once again return from foreign lands to rule Mexico, Mutezuma yields himself to the King of Spain in a parliamentary speech (230-33).

Mutezuma eventually asks Cortez to leave their country; Cortez (surprisingly) agrees, requesting time to build ships from scratch (whilst he plots how to stay). 8 days after Cortez’s men venture into the woods in search of timber, 15 Spanish ships arrive. Cortez worries that it may be his enemy James Velasques (Governor of Cuba) rather than a fleet from Spain (it is, in fact, a new expedition led by Pamphilo de Narvaes, sent on Velasques’s order). Pamphilo de Narvaes turns the Indians against Cortez, claiming Cortez is a rebel who was in Mexico against the King of Spain’s will. Before negotiations commence, Cortez hears word that Narvaes intends to apprehend or kill him at the meeting, and makes a speech to his men (250) to rally them in anticipation of preventing Narvaes’s entry to Mexico. En route to talks with Narvaes, Cortez meets his old friend Andres de Duero, who bears the message that Cortez must surrender his conquests to Velasques (via Narvaes) or be regarded as an “enemie and Rebell” (253). Cortez’s men besiege Narvaes, put out one of his eyes with a pike, and apprehend him (255). In treating Narvaes’s men kindly, Cortez wins their favour and they join his ranks in returning to Mexico City (257).

Meanwhile, the Indians have revolted in Mexico; a reaction against the massacre of Indians (by Pedro de Alvarado) whilst they were celebrating a holy festival in their temple (261). The Spanish lodgings are besieged (264-65). Cortez persuades Mutezuma to address the mob from the roof of the house, and a stray stone hits his temple and kills him (266). In the ensuing battle (271), Cortez sustains a knee-injury, and it is given out that he has been slain (to the dismay of his men and the joy of the Indians) (273). The Spaniards running low on provisions and in poor health eventually decide to leave Mexico (274). A Spaniard named Botello, skilled in necromancy, declared that they would escape successfully if they departed at a “certaine houre appointed” (275), and at that time the men carried out their planned evacuation, carrying a makeshift bridge of timber to help cross the city’s moats. Before departing, Cortez called John de Guzman (his chamberlain) to open the treasure hall and distribute the riches. “[T]hey tooke as much golde and other riches, as they might possibly carry, but it cost them deare, for at their going out of the Citie, with the waight of their heauie burthens, they could neither fight, nor yet make haste on their way, vpon which occasion, the Indians caught many of them, and drew them by the heeles to the slaughter-house of Sacrifice, where they were slaine and eaten” (276). A great many Spaniards are killed and much treasure lost.

Cortez subsequently returns to Mexico to besiege the city (320) with assistance from other provinces and towns. During the siege Spaniards are seized and sacrificed in public, Cortez sustains a leg injury, and thousands of Indians are killed (335), but Mexico City finally succumbs to Spanish rule.

(Possible) Dramatis Personae

Hernando Cortez, Spanish conquistador
Pedro Hircio, left in charge of Vera Crux by Cortez
Andres de Duero, Cortez’s friend and financier of the voyage
Pedro de Alvarado, left in charge of Mexico in Cortez’s absence; responsible for the temple massacre that caused the insurrection
Botello, a Spaniard skilled in necromancy
John de Guzman, Chamberlain to Cortez
James Velasques, Governor of Cuba and enemy of Cortez
Pamphilo de Narvaes, Lieutenant sent by Velasques to apprehend Cortez
Mutezuma, King of Mexico City
Qualpopoca, Lord of Nahutlan (Almeria)
Cacamazin, King (Lord) of Tezcuco, nephew to Mutezuma
Other Spaniards
Other Indians

i.e. approx. 5-6 main speaking parts (Cortez, Pedro Hircio, Mutezuma, Qualpopoca, Pamphilo de Narvaes, James Velasques[?]) and 4 minor speaking parts (Andres de Duero, Pedro de Alvarado, Botello, Cacamazin) = c.10 actors plus extras.

References to the Play

Wilhelm Creizenach implies that The Conquest of the West Indies may have been the subject of a reference in one of William Crashaw’s sermons:

In a sermon preached by William Crashaw before the start of an expedition for the plantation of Virginia (1610), mention is made of the fact that the plantation has been ridiculed on the stage; the reason being, as Crashaw maintains, that no players or other idle persons are tolerated among the settlers. (Creizenach 183n)

The case for The Conquest of the West Indies as subject is hardly strong; equally viable contenders include The New World’s Tragedy (1595, lost) or more obviously, such satirical plays as Eastward Ho! (1605), with its mockery of Virginian voyages.

Critical Commentary

In the context of Sir John Harington’s list of quartos (see Furnivall), Wilhelm Creizenach assumed that the lost play “dealt with Raleigh’s expeditions to Guayana and Virginia”:

At the end of the list of contents of vol. i. of Harington’s collection of quartos … occur the following words: ‘Note yt Guiana ys sorted wth Virginia and Maundev.’ This is probably an allusion to plays now lost which dealt with Raleigh’s expeditions to Guayana and Virginia, and which the collector ‘sorted with’ the dramas dealing with the adventures of the traveller Maundeville. Perhaps the ‘playe of the weaste enges’ (West Indies), mentioned several times by Henslowe in 1601, belonged to this category. (Creizenach 183n)

Harington’s comments are ambiguous: his statement “Note yt Guiana ys sorted wth Virginia and Maundev” does appear at the end of a list of plays (Furnivall 382), but his subsequent entry, “Guiana. mandevil & Virginia.” appears in a miscellaneous list of “Loose books” (e.g. “Alminacks”, “mr Toste. booke of survey”) and clothing (“3 pairs of stockings of mr Johns”) (Furnivall 383), which suggests that neither “Guiana”, “mandevil” or “Virginia” are plays at all.

In his critical edition of another Haughton play, Englishmen for my money, Albert Croll Baugh acknowledges Creizenach but instead connects The Conquest of the West Indies with Nicholls’s Conquest of the West India, failing to comment further, beyond posing the possible influence of Nicholls’s text on the play:

It would not be surprising … if it were connected with a tract published first in 1578 and again in 1596, and having the title “The Pleasant Historic of the Conquest of the Weast India, now called new Spayne, Atchieued by the worthy Prince Hernando Cortes Marques of the valley of Huaxacat, most delectable to Reade : Translated out of the Spanish tongue, by T. N. [Thomas Nicholas]”. However, this may be, nothing further or more definite is known of the play. (82)

At least two critics, Wright and Ramsaram, have entertained the supposition that the play’s subject matter was English by nature. Wright notes that “[w]hether The Conquest of the West Indies (1601), a lost play by Day, Haughton, and Smith, recounted the adventures of English buccaneers, we have no way of knowing” (634). J. A. Ramsaram conjectures that “[t]he lost plays— New World’s Tragedy, 1595, and The Conquest of the West Indies, 1601, must surely have given a prominent place to Drake’s adventures” (99).

For What It's Worth

“Thomas A Nicholls” was one of the inhabitants of Finsbury who (along with the likes of Anthony Marlowe; Kit’s Crayford relative and the London agent of the Muscovy Company) signed an address to the Privy Council (c. January 1600) petitioning that the new playhouse lately erected there be permitted to remain (Henslowe's Papers MS.I.28; Greg, Papers 50-51). If there were reason to believe “Thomas A Nicholls” = the Thomas Nicholls who translated The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the West India, it may be relevant that he had an active interest in the theatre at approximately the time that The Conquest of the West Indies was being written.

This lost play is a theatrical precursor to at least two extant plays which also dramatised the story of Montezuma and Cortez. The first of these, existing in manuscript, is the Latin play Montezuma sive Mexici Imperii Occasus. Harbage lists it as an anonymous 17th century play, but Dana F. Sutton proposes that it should be ascribed to the Jesuit playwright, Joseph Simons (1594-1671; alias of Emmanuel Lobb), based at the English College of St. Omers, Pas de Calais. Sutton's critical edition of this play, in the original Latin and in an English translation, is available at the Philological Museum site, where it is also accompanied by a critical introduction. The second, more famous retelling of the conquest of Mexico is Dryden's The Indian Emperour (1665). As with the lost play, Lopez de Gomara was also one of Dryden’s known sources, though probably in French. (On Dryden’s sources, see the California edition, 307-18, and Macmillan. Gomora’s analogue of Dryden’s torture scene (5.2) does not appear in Nichols’s English translation, but it does appear in the French (see Macmillan 368).)

Works Cited

Arber, Edward (ed). A Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, 1554-1640 A.D. Volume III. — Text. Entries of Books to 11 July 1620. Entries of Freemen to 31 December 1640. Succession of Master Printers in London 1586 – 1636. Privately Printed, London: 1 July 1876. Print.
Baugh, Albert Croll (ed). William Haughton. Englishmen for my money. U of Pennsylvania P, 1917. Print. (Internet Archive)
Creizenach, Wilhelm. The English Drama in the Age of Shakespeare [Translated from Geschichte des neueren Dramas]. NY: Haskell House, 1964. Print.
Dryden, John. The Indian Emperour. The Works of John Dryden. vol. 9. Ed. John Loftis and Vinton A. Dearing. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966. Print.
Foakes, R. A. (ed). Henslowe's Diary. 2nd edn. Cambridge: CUP, 2002. Print.
Furnivall, F. J. “Sir John Harington’s Shakspeare Quartos.” Notes & Queries s-7 IX (May 1890): 382-83. Print.
MacMillan, Dougald. “The Sources of Dryden’s ‘The Indian Emperour’.” Huntington Library Quarterly 13.4 (1950): 355-70. Print.
Nicholls, Thomas (trans). The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the West India, now called new Spaine. 1578, rpt. 1596. Print. (EEBO).
Ramsaram, J. A. “Sir Francis Drake in Contemporary Verse.” Notes & Queries 202 (1957): 99-101. Print.
Simons, Joseph. Montezuma sive Mexici Imperii Occasus. ed. Dana F. Sutton. Philological Museum. Stratford: Shakespeare Institute, February 2010. Web.
Wright, Louis B. Middle-class culture in Elizabethan England. London: Methuen, 1964 reprint. Print.

Site created and maintained by David McInnis, University of Melbourne, 26 August 2009; updated 10 July 2010.

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