A Scottish Conquistador and Global Scots in the Sixteenth Century

By Joseph Wagner

The study of Scottish interactions with the world outside of Europe in the seventeenth century has greatly expanded over the past twenty-five years. It has been galvanised by moving away from a focus on Scotland’s ‘national’ attempts at empire-building, such as the unsuccessful attempts to colonise Nova Scotia in the 1620s and 1630s and Darien (Panama) at the turn of the century. Instead, the focus has largely shifted to what T. M. Devine has referred to as ‘imperialism by stealth’ – participation in the empires of other European states at the individual level of merchant, soldier, official, and investor.[1] Information brought to light by studies in this vein has changed the traditional view that suggests Scots did not fruitfully engage in transoceanic ventures until the eighteenth century.[2] The work on Scottish ‘imperialism by stealth’ has, however, overlooked a crucial point. The transoceanic activities of Scots in the seventeenth century were a continuation of a pattern that saw Scots taking part in the global expansion of other European kingdoms in the sixteenth century.

This post seeks to briefly outline one of the earliest known examples of this phenomenon: the career of Thomas Blake. Thomas Blake, or Tomás Blaque as he appears in the Spanish sources, was born in Scotland to William Blake and Agnes Mowat circa 1506.[3] It is not certain how or why he became part of a Spanish venture to the ‘New World’, but doing so made him the first person from the British Isles known to have permanently settled in the Americas. Demonstrating that he arrived in South America in or before 1533, he related that ‘he was at the pacification of Cartagena, under the banner of a brother of the governor [Pedro de] Heredia’ that took place that year.[4] He then spent at least fifteen months in Cartagena before moving to Mexico City, where he established himself as a hosier (a maker and seller of legwear).[5] Likely as a member of the supply train, he accompanied Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in an exploration of what is now the southwestern United States in search of the legendary Cities of Cíbola (the Seven Cities of Gold) in 1540-1542.[6]

After the expedition, Blake returned to Mexico City where he married Francisca de Ribera, widow of the conquistador Cristóbal de Canyego, in 1544. Indicating that he was one of the first Scots to own slaves in the transatlantic context of the early modern period, he possessed four enslaved people at the time of his marriage: an African woman and three Indigenous men.[7] It appears he spent the rest of his life in Mexico City as a hosier and merchant. After meeting Blake there in 1556, the English merchant Robert Thomson described him as ‘a Scottishman borne, who had dwelt and had bene married in the said Citie above twentie yeeres before I came’.[8]

Blake had no children of his own and disowned his stepdaughter, Francisca de Canyego, because she married against his wishes.[9] It is not certain when he died; the latest known evidence relating to him dates from a court case in 1572.[10] Demonstrating a transatlantic link with Spain, Blake’s will included a gift of 1,500 Castilian ducats to create a chapel in the church of San Juan de la Palma in Seville.[11] This gift suggests the possibility that he had spent time in Seville before making his transatlantic journey. If so, his time there could have been related to the city’s English merchant community.[12] It is, however, also possible that the gift stemmed from his wife’s connection with Seville rather than his own.

Thomas Blake is the earliest known example of a Scot participating in transoceanic ‘imperialism by stealth’, but there were others in the sixteenth century. Scots were involved in Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish operations in the Caribbean, South America, Africa, Asia, and the Arctic during the period. As the work of the past twenty-five years has resulted in the recognition that Scots were globally active in the seventeenth century, research into Blake and others demonstrates that Scottish involvement in transoceanic activity dates to the sixteenth century.

Author’s Bio: Joseph Wagner is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews. His research interests include Scottish involvement in overseas expansion in the early modern period and the relationship between England and Scotland during the Union of the Crowns (1603-1707). He recently authored an article published in the Journal of British Studies titled “The Scottish East India Company of 1617: Patronage, Commercial Rivalry, and the Union of the Crowns” (July 2020).


[1] T. M. Devine, Scotland’s Empire and the Shaping of the Americas, 1600-1815 (Washington, D.C., 2003), 3-4.

[2] See, for example, A. Mackillop and Steve Murdoch, eds., Military Governors and Imperial Frontiers c. 1600-1800: A Study of Scotland and Empires (Leiden, 2003); Marsha Hamilton, ‘Commerce around the Edges: Atlantic Trade Networks among Boston’s Scottish Merchants’, International Journal of Maritime History 23:2 (December 2011): 301-326; David Worthington, ‘Sugar, Slave-Owning, Suriname and Dutch Imperial Entanglement of the Scottish Highlands before 1707’, Dutch Crossing 44:1 (2020): 3-20.

[3] Richard Flint, Shirley Cushing Flint, Kevin Comerford, et al., ‘A Most Splendid Company [website]’ (Albuquerque, 2019), https://coronado.unm.edu/node/7681.

[4] Archivo General de Indias, Seville, México 1064, L.1, ‘[Informes] Verídicos d[e] l[a]s person[a]s que se hallaron, en la Conquista de la Nueva España y Ziudad de México q[ue] pasaron con el Marq[ués] del Valle’, [c. 1550], fol. 139v. My translation.

[5] Ibid.; Flint, et al., ‘A Most Splendid Company’.

[6] Archivo General de Indias, México 1064, L.1, ‘[Informes] Verídicos’, [c. 1550], fol. 139v.

[7] G. R. G. Conway, ed., An Englishman and the Mexican Inquisition, 1556-1560 (Mexico City, 1927), xxi, xxii n2.

[8] Ibid., 11.

[9] Ibid.; Archivo General de Indias, México 1064, L.1, ‘[Informes] Verídicos’, [c. 1550], fol. 139v.

[10] Flint, et al., ‘A Most Splendid Company’.

[11] Conway, An Englishman and the Mexican Inquisition, xxii n2.

[12] See Heather Dalton, ‘Negotiating Fortune: English Merchants in Early Sixteenth-Century Seville’, in Bridging the Early Modern Atlantic World: People, Products, and Practices on the Move, ed. Carolina A. Williams (Farnham, 2009), 57-74.

Select Further Readings:

Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Entangled Empires: The Anglo-Iberian Atlantic, 1500-1830 (Philadelphia, 2018).

David Dickson, Jan Parmentier, and Jane Ohlmeyer, eds., Irish and Scottish Mercantile Networks in Europe and Overseas in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Ghent, 2007).

  1. H. Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 (New Haven, 2006).

Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, A Most Splendid Company: The Coronado Expedition in Global Perspective (Albuquerque, 2019).

Alexia Grosjean and Steve Murdoch, eds., Scottish Communities Abroad in the Early Modern Period (Leiden, 2005).

David Worthington, Scots in Habsburg Service, 1618-1648 (Leiden, 2004).

Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/77/Coronado_expedition.jpg