Two years ago, Professor Jacques Lafaye published a most interesting and challenging book, entitled Quétzalcóatl et Guadalupe (Paris, 1974), a large part of which is devoted to a study of the identification of Quétzalcóatl. with the apostle Saint Thomas. I will not discuss here the conclusions that he draws from it, since they are beyond the scope of this note and outside my competence; but I find cause to differ with the author’s assertion that the finding of traces of Saint Thomas in America was posterior to the conquests of Mexico and Peru, and that it was made known through the writings of Jesuit missionaries: “Les premiers découvreurs des traces de Saint Thomas furent les augustins du Pérou, mais ce sont les écrits des jésuites, repris par nombre d’historiens du Nouveau Monde, au XVIe et au XVIIe siècle, qui en ont véhiculé les témoignages. Il n’est pas exagéré de dire que le constat d’existence de Saint Thomas en Amérique est ce passage d’une lettre écrite par le P. Manuel da Nobrega le 15 avril 1549, alors qu’il se trouvait à Bahia. . .”1 I will try to show that such traces were found before the Spaniards conquered Mexico and Peru, before the Society of Jesus was founded.

The belief that one or two apostles (Bartholomew, Thomas) had evangelized the land later called America was the consequence of Columbus’ first voyage, and it began to spread immediately after his return to Spain in March 1493. In May, as the Genoese was preparing for his second voyage, the Catholic Sovereigns issued some instructions concerning the treatment of the Indians and their evangelization. The task of converting them to the Catholic faith was to be entrusted to a Catalan friar named Bernal Boyl or Buyl, a disciple of Saint Francis of Paola (or Paula).2 Boyl was his vicario general in Spain, and enjoyed the confidence of the Catholic Sovereigns, for whom he had accomplished various diplomatic missions regarding the cession of Roussillon by France. Among his friends was a caballero from Mallorca, Arnau Cos (or Dezcós), who resided in Valldemosa, a picturesque village ten miles north of Palma. Since 1481, he and Boyl had been corresponding in Latin. Two of Cos’ letters concern Boyl’s mission to the New World.

The first letter was addressed on September 5, 1493, to Refill, regent of Mallorca. In it Cos wrote: “Please don’t forget to let me know if our Brother Bernaldo Boil has already left Barcelona to go with the royal fleet to those newly discovered islands, as you have told me, or if he has changed his mind. If he has not left yet, I will write to him immediately.” Evidently Bofill answered that Boyl had not departed, for Cos wrote him a long letter, praising him for his determination, but expressing fear for his safety in lands inhabited by “barbaras gentes . . . ab omni humanitate destitutas. . ..” And after some quotations from Ovid about “ferocissimas gentes,” Cos added the following: “You yourself, relying on that divine strength that made the Apostles undertake joyfully such labors, have decided to assume so great a task, considering your life more gloriously and more saintly employed in the salvation of so many souls, so that countless people would not be swallowed up in the flames of Hell because of your refusal; you are like the Blessed Bartholomew who, while clothing these Indians in catholic faith, did not fear to expose his own skin. Therefore, like Bartholomew, you preferred to preach the Gospel in far parts of the world, rather than hide in your cell praying to God and benefitting only yourself. . . .”3

In the above passage, Bernal Boyl is compared with the Apostle Bartholomew. Like him, he is going to risk his life converting the Indians. Little is known of Bartholomew’s identity. He is mentioned by Saint Jerome, Gregory of Tours, Bede and others, as having preached the Gospel in India.4 From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle we learn that alms were sent in 883 and 884 by King Alfred to Rome ‘ and also to India, to Saint Thomas and to Saint Bartholomew.”5 Although an ancient martyrology reports that Bartholomew died in Armenia, according to other sources he suffered martyrdom in India citerior or India felix, which some critics have identified with West India (the Malabar Coast), in the vicinity of the ancient city of Kalyana, meaning felix in Sanskrit. Today Kalyana is a suburb of Bombay.6

In the Middle Ages, the best-known account of his life and death, entitled “Martyrdom of the Holy and Glorious Apostle Bartholomew,” was included in the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, a compilation of the sixth century, falsely attributed to Abdias, first bishop of Babylon. This is how it begins: “Historians declare that India is divided into three parts; and the first is said to end at Ethiopia, and the second at Media, and the third completes the country; and the one portion of it ends in the dark, and the other in the ocean. To this India, then, the Holy Bartholomew, apostle of Christ, went and took up his quarters in the temple of Astaruth, and lived there as one of the pilgrims and the poor.”7

Astaruth, identified by some as the Hindu god Astarudra, was, according to the Pseudo-Abdias, an idol who healed the bodies of the infirm, but injured their souls. One day, in front of King Polymius and a vast multitude, Bartholomew entered the temple, and with the aid of an angel, he forced the demon Astaruth out, who “flew away, groaning and weeping, and disappeared.” As a result, Polymius and all those present became converted; but when Astreges, Polymius’ elder brother, learned of this, he ordered Bartholomew “to be beaten with rods, scourged and beheaded.” Thirty days later, Astreges was overpowered and strangled by a demon. The whole population, then, became Christian, and Polymius was made bishop.8

Few modern historians find any factual truth in the Pseudo-Abdias account, except that Bartholomew may have preached in India. Belief that he had been there was almost universal in the Christian world at the end of the fifteenth century. Therefore, Arnau Cos’ comparison between the apostle and Fray Boyl must not surprise us, for when Columbus discovered land across the Atlantic, he was convinced that he had reached India, or the Indias, since according to medieval geographers there were three of them, which encompassed most of southern and southeastern Asia. As early as October 17, in his Diario, he referred to the natives of the newly discovered islands as “estos indios,” and to the islands themselves as “estas Indias.”9 When he returned to Spain, he told of having reached Cipangu (Japan) and Cathay (China), and of having come within a short distance of Quinsay, capital of the Grand Khan. Except for a few dissenters, his listeners and readers took him at his word, and they believed that the lands he had discovered were the Indies where Bartholomew had preached. Fray Bernal Boyl, about to leave for the newly found lands, must have believed it also, like his good friend Arnau Cos. Boyl sailed with Columbus from Cádiz on September 25, 1493. He soon became disillusioned about his mission, quarreled with the Admiral, and returned to Spain in 1494.

Bartholomew was not the only apostle of India. He had a colleague, Thomas, and we have seen that both were mentioned together in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as having shrines in India. As a matter of fact, Thomas’ fame as a missionary was much the greater, and nearly eclipsed that of Bartholomew, for in addition to the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, his legend had been popularized by Prester John’s Letter, Marco Polo, Mandeville, and various Franciscan missionaries, Pordenone and Marignolli among others. He was said to have evangelized India, and to have founded there Christian settlements some of which still exist, inhabited by the “Christians of Saint Thomas,” as they are known today. It was reported that the saint’s remains were kept in a shrine in Meliapur, on the Coast of Coromandel, south of the Gulf of Bengal, and were the object of great veneration. Some writers even asserted that, in addition to India, “the doubting Thomas” had also preached in China and the land of the Grand Khan. Since his life and martyrdom are well known, I will refer only to some bibliographical data.10

Let us now turn to a letter addressed to Christopher Columbus on August 5, 1495, by Jaime Ferrer, a Catalan goldsmith and jeweler by profession, and a geographer and astrologer by addiction. Ferrer enjoyed the confidence of the Catholic Sovereigns, and wrote the letter at the Queen’s behest, advising Columbus that if he wanted to find gold, he should look for it near the equator, because things of great value like gold, precious stones, spices and drugs, “were produced there.” Before reaching this important point, however, Ferrer devoted a great part of his letter to extolling the religious character of the Admiral’s mission:

It pleased our Redeemer to send through various parts of the earth his obedient apostles, to teach the truth of our holy faith . . . I, Mylord, contemplate this great mystery: the Divine Providence sent the great Thomas from Occident to Orient to preach in India our holy catholic faith, and you, Mylord, were sent in the opposite direction, from East to West. Thus by the Divine Will, you have reached the East and the far parts of Upper India, that the descendants may hear what their ancestors neglected of Thomas’ predication, and may be accomplished in omnem terram exwit sonus eorum (their word spread through all the earth). And very soon, through the Divine Providence, you will reach the Sinus Magnus (Gulf of Bengal), near which the great Thomas left his remains; and thus will be accomplished the supreme prediction that the whole world shall be under one shepherd and one law. . .. And surely I do not think I am wrong in saying that the great mission you have undertaken ranks you as an Apostle and Ambassador of God, sent by his Divine Will, to reveal his Holy Name in parts where the truth is unknown. . ..11

Throughout this passage, Ferrer repeatedly compared Columbus with Thomas. Like the saint, the Genoese was an apostle and ambassador of God, sent to spread the faith in the very regions where Thomas had already preached but had largely been ignored. And there is no doubt that these regions were India, or the Indias, since Columbus was expected to reach soon the tomb of the saint in Meliapur, and the Gulf of Bengal.

The belief that Thomas had evangelized the New World antedates the finding of his traces there; it also antedates the conversion of the Indians. It was the logical consequence of the geographic conception of a tripartite world, which was then prevalent in Europe. According to the Bible and Ptolemy, the earth was divided into three continents, Europe, Africa and Asia and the lands just discovered by Columbus were part of Asia. Since Bartholomew and Thomas had preached in Asia, they must have preached in the newly discovered lands.

This belief survived even after it was demonstrated that America was a fourth part of the earth. As far as I know, the first to have referred to four parts of the world is Rodrigo de Santaella, in the introduction to his Spanish translation of Marco Polo in 1503. Santaella was probably influenced by Amerigo Vespucci, who had returned from his Portuguese voyage of discovery and was just back in Seville. It may even have been Vespucci who brought to Santaella from Lisbon the copy of Valentim Fernandes’ Portuguese translation of Marco Polo, which the Seville churchman used as a model. In his introduction, Santaella ridiculed Columbus’ assertion that he had reached the Earthly Paradise; he rejected the theory that the New World was part of Asia; and he concluded that “Asia e Tarsis, Ofir e Cetin son en oriente, y Antilla la española en occidente, en lugar e de condición muy diferente.”12 Ten years later, Juan López de Palacios Rubios proposed the name Islas Nuevas for the islands discovered by Columbus.13 It was not until the publication of Encisco’s Summa de Geographia in 1519 that the distinction between Indias Occidentales and Indias Orientales became widely accepted.14

Yet even after it became known that the land discovered by Columbus in 1498 was a continent unrelated to Asia, many people continued to believe that one of the apostles, namely Saint Thomas, had preached in America. They thought that the saint could have been transported by angels. Also, since Christ had sent his disciples to all parts of the earth, America could not have been left out. Naturally, Spanish and Portuguese missionaries who came to the New World expected to find footprints and other traces of the saint. In addition, in their conversations with the Indians, they also expected to detect ancient traditions of his predication and of the miracles he had performed. In their indoctrination, they always looked for some common ground that would facilitate the conversion of the natives. This would lead to the identification of the apostle with a local mythological figure.

The earliest known notice of traces of Thomas in America was printed in Augsburg in 1514. It is entitled Copia der Newen Zeytung ausz Prasillg Landt (Tidings Out of Brazil). It is a German version of an account written by a Portuguese or Italian trader. From it we learn that “. . . on this same coast they [the natives of Brazil] cherish the memory of Saint Thomas, they refer to him as the lesser god. There is, however, another god which is greater. It may be well believed that they do have memory of Saint Thomas, for it is known that the body of this saint is actually buried beyond Malacca, on the Coast of Siramitl (Coromandel) in the Gulf of Ceylon. They frequently name their children Thomas in that land.”15

The author evidently believed that Brazil was not far from India, and so did the German cartographer Johann Schöner, who set down his ideas about geography in 1515, in a pamphlet entitled Luculentissima terrae descriptio, using the Tidings Out of Brazil as one of his main sources of information. In his booklet, Schöner wrote: ‘Moreover there is only a short distance between Brazil and the Malacca region, where Saint Thomas received a martyr’s crown.”16 Schöner went even further on a globe which he constructed that same year (1515). Although he pictured South America as a continent independent of Asia, he wrote on the southern part of it (Patagonia), the following legend: S. Thome Terra. Two copies of this globe are known to exist, in Weimar and in Frankfurt am Main.17

The sight of crosses in such distant lands particularly amazed the Christians. Francisco Fernández de Córdoba and his men found many of them in Yucatán in 1517, for the Mayas did make stone crosses resembling the Maltese cross. Two members of the expedition, the pilot Antón de Alaminos and the chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo, reported having seen them, and mentions of the Yucatán crosses are found in Oviedo, Gómara and Peter Martyr. The latter noted in his fourth Decade: “Crosses have been seen amongst them [the natives of Yucatán], and when they were asked, through interpreters, the meaning of that emblem, some of them answered that a very beautiful man had once lived among them, who had left this symbol as remembrance of him.”18 In 1518, Juan de Grijalva saw some columns shaped like crosses in Cozumel.19 After the conquest of Mexico, and that of Peru, other crosses were discovered. Garcilaso de la Vega describes at length one he saw in Cuzco.20 Still more have been unearthed recently in Palenque, Quiriguá, Tikal, and other Mayan sites. They may have had allegorical meanings, but they were not objects of worship.

Painted and sculptured figures resembling Christ, the Virgin Mary, and even the Trinity were also found in various places.21 Indian traditions about bearded white men, and Aztec prophecies predicting the return of their holy magus Quétzalcóatl, prompted the discovery of more footprints and other traces of Saint Thomas, like those Father Nóbrega saw in Brazil.22 To my knowledge, Fray Diego Durán, a Dominican like Las Casas, was the first writer to propose identifying the apostle with Topiltzin-Quétzalcóatl:

Even though I wish to adhere to the Holy Gospel of Saint Mark, who states that God sent the Holy Apostles to all parts of the world to preach the Gospel to his creatures, promising eternal life to all baptized believers, I would not dare to affirm that Topiltzin was one of the blessed Apostles. Nevertheless, the story of his life has impressed me greatly and has led me to believe that, since the natives were also God’s creatures, rational and capable of salvation, He cannot have left them without a preacher of the Gospel. And if this is true, that preacher was Topiltzin, who came to this land. According to the story, he was a sculptor who carved admirable images of stone. We read that the glorious apostle Saint Thomas was a master craftsman in the same art. We also know that this apostle was a preacher to the Indians. . ..23

In other parts of Latin America, in Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, a bearded white man was also alleged to have preached a doctrine similar to the gospel. Naturally, he was identified with Thomas. In Peru, this holy man “travelled with his staff, teaching the natives with much love, and calling them his sons and daughters. As he went through all the land, he performed miracles. The sick were healed by his touch. He spoke all languages better than the natives. . .. They called him Tonapa. . . but was he not the glorious apostle Saint Thomas?”24

Why did Bartholomew fade out of the picture, while traces of Thomas were found almost everywhere? Probably because the Portuguese claimed they had discovered Thomas’ shrine and his grave in Meliapur,25 thus giving an additional stimulus to the spreading of his legend. Also because the very sound of his name made it easy for the Indians to identify him with some of their mythological figures, with Tonapa in Peru, as we have already seen, and with Zumé, the benevolent divinity of the natives of Brazil. And in Mexico, it was pointed out that Thomas (in Greek) and Quétzalcóatl both meant “twin.” Yet it must be kept in mind that, if these philological speculations contributed to the spreading of the legend, they did not create it; for they took place after Thomas had been heralded as the Apostle of America. They were not the cause, only the consequence.


Lafaye, p. 242. See also Manoel da Nóbrega, Cartas do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro, 1886), p. 52: “A trustworthy person told me that S. Thomas gave them the roots of which their bread is made, for they did not have any bread before that, according to a tradition that is widespread among them and is transmitted from generation to generation. Not far from here, there are some footprints on a rock, which they claim to be his. Since we must travel again, we plan to go and see them.”


“Their Highnesses charge and direct the said Admiral. . . that by all ways and means he strive and endeavor to win over the inhabitants of all the said islands and mainland to be converted to our Holy Catholic Faith; and to aid him in this work, Their Highnesses are sending thither the learned Fray Buil, together with other religiosos whom the said Admiral is to take with him.” Samuel Eliot Morison, Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (New York, 1963), p. 204. Sixteenth-century authors usually term Bernal Boyl a Franciscan; yet he was not a Minorite, but a Minim. He belonged to a tough order of anachorets, who were forbidden to eat meat, milk products and eggs, and they humbly (or proudly) called themselves the Minims (the Least or the Lowest). Their founder, then living in France, was held in great veneration at the Spanish Court, for he had predicted the capture of Málaga.


Fidel Fita y Colomé, Fray Bernal Buyl (Madrid, 1884), pp. 78-80.


Eusebius Hieronymus, Liber de Viris Illustribus, in Jacques Paul Migne, Patrologia Latina, 221 vols. (Paris, 1851-1894), XXIII, col. 651; Grégoire de Tours, Miraculorum Liber I, in Migne, Patrologia Latina, LXXI, 734; Bede, Martyrologia, in Migne, Patrologia Latina, XCIV, 1015.


Benjamin Thorpe, ed., Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London, 1861), II, 66.


A. C. Perumalil, The Apostles in India (Patna, 1971), pp. 105-140.


Apocryphal Gospels, Acts and Revelations (Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Edinburgh, 1870), XVI, 429 ff.


Ibid., p. 439. Polymius has been identified with King Pulumayi, who reigned from 45 to 62 A.D. Perumalil, pp. 127-128.


Carlos Sanz, ed., Diario de Colón (Madrid, 1962), fol. 13v, 14v.


Apocryphal Gospels, pp. 388-428; Marco Polo, Travels, Yule-Cordier, ed. (London, 1903), II, 353-359; Sir John Mandeville, Travels, Malcolm Letts, ed. (London, 1953), I, 123-124; Sir Henry Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither, 4 vols. (London, 1913-1916), II, 141-142, III, 249-254; Vsevolod Slessarev, Prester John, the Letter and the Legend (Minneapolis, 1959), pp. 14-20.


For Spanish text of this letter, see James Boyd Thacher, Christopher Columbus (New York, 1901), II, 366.


Rodrigo de Santaella, Las cosas maravillosas de Marco Polo (Seville, 1503; reprint, Madrid, 1947), pp. 12-15.


Juan López de Palacios Rubios, De las islas del mar oceano (Mexico, 1954), p. 8.


Martín Fernández de Enciso, Summa de Geographia (Seville, 1519).


John Parker, ed., Tidings Out of Brazil (Minneapolis, 1957), p. 30.


Johann Schöner, Luculentissima Terrae Descriptio (Nüremberg, 1515), fol. 61v (dedicated to the Bishop of Bamberg, but printed in Nüremberg).


L. Gallois, Les Géographes Allemands de la Renaissance (Reprint, Amsterdam, 1963), pp. 82-86, Planche V.


Henry R. Wagner, The Discovery of Yucatán by Francisco Fernández de Córdoba (Reprint, New York, 1969), pp. 34, 37, 42, 62.


Henry R. Wagner, The Discovery of New Spain in 1518 by Juan de Grijalva (Berkeley, 1962), pp. 82-83.


Garcilaso de la Vega, Royal Commentaries of the Incas (Austin, 1966), I, 73-74.


Bernardino de Sahagún, Historia de las cosas de Nueva España (Mexico, 1956), III, 358-359; Fray Gerónimo de Mendieta, Historia ecclesiástica indiana (Mexico, 1870), pp. 536-539.


Nóbrega, Cartas do Brasil, pp. 52, 64, 72. See also Bartolomé de las Casas, Historia de las Indias, 3 vols. (Mexico, 1951), II, 167.


Diego Durán, Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar (Norman, Oklahoma, 1971), p. 59.


Juan de Santa Cruz Pachacuti-Yamqui Salcamayhua, “An Account of the Antiquities of Peru,” in Sir Clements Markham, ed., Narratives of the Rites and Laws of the Incas (London, 1873), p. 71.


Alvares Cabral brought back some earth from the saint’s tomb to King Manoel of Portugal in 1501. This earth was supposed to have curative power. See letter of Manoel to Ferdinand and Isabella, in William B. Greenlee, ed., The Voyage of Pedro Alvares Cabral to Brazil and India (London, 1937), p. 49.

Author notes


The author is Professor Emeritus, George Washington University.