Eric Thompson’s work on Maya hieroglyphs and the correlation of Maya and Christian calendars is well known, and an outline of his career has been well summarised in The Times (11 September). Perhaps less know is his ethnological work among the living Maya. An early publication was Ethnology of the Mayas of Southern and Central British Honduras (1930). He was always very close to the Maya and this was shown by his lifelong friendship with his old foreman Jacinto Cunil. He had asked Eric to be a godfather to one of his children, always a very close link in Latin America, and I still remember the welcome I received when I paid a visit to Jacinto at Soccotz in British Honduras, and told him that I came from his compadre far away in England, and that I also was a compadre of his. Thompson’s 1966 Huxley Lecture shows how well he knew all parts of the Maya area, and the distribution of the various Maya groups and dialects at all times from the 16th century to our own day.

His book Maya Archaeologist gives many vivid pictures of life in Guatemala, Honduras, eastern Mexico, and British Honduras, as it then was, in less comfortable times for travelling than our own. He tells of his visit to Tikal on mule back. He had tried to reach it before, but lost his way, and when in the end he reached it he slept in a hammock in a Maya ‘palace’ and had a miserable night of being bitten by sandflies. I went there many years later by an easy flight from Guatemala City, and one of his companions in that journey long ago was in the party. I still remember how she pointed out that palace and said ‘You can tell Eric Thompson that you saw the building he slept in’. He tells of dreary days waiting for trains in Puerto Barrios, of long days on mule back, of all-night curing ceremonies, of a New Year party on his birthday at which the host gave a toast ‘Vivan Dios y meester Tonson’ (“Long live God and Mister Thompson”), and at the end he writes of ‘this land of Mexico’ to which ‘I had given a large share of my heart’.

Another of his interests is shown by his edition of Thomas Gage’s Travels in the New World, the almost incredible story of an English Dominican friar belonging to a recusant family in the 16th century, who was sent to be educated abroad, was largely trained in Spain, volunteered as a missionary to the Philippines, sailed to Mexico, gave the authorities there the slip and yet managed to work in Chiapas and Guatemala in good standing with his Order. Later he returned to Europe, then England, joined the Church of England, became Vicar of Deal, and ended his life as a ‘preacher of the word’ and chaplain to a Cromwellian expedition to Jamaica in 1656. No one but a devout Churchman would have the sympathy and understanding to edit such a story, and this Thompson was. He served as a lay reader both in the United States and in this country. He had many friends in many parts of Latin America, and in the United States, as well as in his own country, and his death, when proper recognition had just come to him, has left a great gap in their lives.

G.H.S. Bushnell

This obituary first appeared as: Bushnell, G.H.S.. 1975. 'Obituary'. RAIN, No. 11, p. 6 Reproduced with permission.


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BUSHNELL, G.H.S.. 1975. 'Obituary'. RAIN, No. 11, p. 6 (available on-line:


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