Three Early Modern Utopias: Thomas More: Utopia / Francis Bacon: New Atlantis / Henry Neville: The Isle of Pines (Oxford World's

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Island Time: On the Poetics of the Isle


“The isle is full of noises, /Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.”—Caliban in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610)

“Is our island a prison or a hermitage?”—Miranda in Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête (1969)

In 1810 a struggling whaler by the name of Jonathan Lambert, “late of Salem…and citizen thereof,” set out for torrid waters. By December of 1811, Lambert and his crew of three alighted upon an unpopulated volcanic island in the south Atlantic that Portuguese navigators had christened Ilha de Tristão da Cunha three centuries before. Lambert, in a spirit of boot-strapping individualism, declared himself to be king. A solitary monarchy, this Massachusettsian and his three subjects on that rocky shoal of penguins and guano. Still, Lambert exhibited utopian panache, not just in spite of such remoteness, but because of it. Contrary to the British maritime charts that listed the archipelago as “Tristan de Cunha,” the American renamed them a far more paradisiacal “Islands of Refreshment.”

This whaler’s small kingdom promised not just refreshment from Lambert’s old life, where he explained that “embarrassments…have hitherto constantly attended me,” but from the affairs of all people. Lambert’s Islands of Refreshment were, and are, the most distant habitation on the planet, laying 2,166 miles from the Falkland Islands, 1,511 miles from Cape Town, South Africa, and 1,343 miles from St. Helena where lonely Napoleon Bonaparte would soon expire. And for the whaler’s sake, Lambert’s new home was 10,649 miles from Salem, Massachusetts.

Parliamentary records quote Lambert as claiming that he had “the desire
and determination of preparing myself and family a home where I can enjoy
life.” Here on the Islands of Refreshment, where he subsisted on the greasy
blubber of elephant seals, Lambert prayed that he would be “removed beyond the
reach of chicanery and ordinary misfortune.” As it was, all utopias are deigned
to fail sooner or later, and ordinary misfortune was precisely what would end
Lambert’s life, the experienced sailor drowning five months after arriving,
such final regicide belonging to the sea.

Four years after Lambert’s drowning, the British navy claimed the Islands of Refreshment for king, England, and St. George, hoping to prevent the use of the archipelago by either the Americans (whose ships trolled those waters during the War of 1812) or any French who wished to launch a rescue mission for their imprisoned emperor those 1,343 miles north. And as Tristan de Cunha was folded into that realm, so it remains, now administered by the office of the British Overseas Territory, joining slightly more than a dozen colonies from Anguilla to Turks and Caicos that constitute all that remain of the empire upon which it was said that the sun would never set. As of 2019, Lambert’s ill-fated utopia remains the most solitary land mass on Earth, some 250 hearty souls in the capital of Edinburgh-of-the-Seven-Seas, as far from every other human as is possible on the surface of the planet, and a potent reminder of the meaning of islands. An island, you see, has a certain meaning. An island makes particular demands.

In trying to derive a metaphysics of the island—a poetics of the isle—few square miles are as representative as Tristan de Cunha. A general theory could be derived from Lambert’s example, for failure though he may have been, he was a sort of Prospero and Robinson Crusoe tied into one. Maybe more than either, Lambert’s project resembles that of Henry Neville’s strange 1668 utopian fantasy The Isle of Pines. Neville’s arcadian pamphlet was a fabulist account by a fictional Dutch sailor who comes upon an isle that had been settled by an English castaway named George Pine and four women from each corner of the world, whose progeny populate that isle three generations later.

Lambert drowned before he had opportunity to be a George Pine for the Islands of Refreshment, but the one survivor of his original quartet, at Italian named Tommaso Corri, has descendants among the populace of Tristan de Cunha today. Neville’s account is significantly more ribald than what we know of Tristan de Cunha’s peopling. The Isle of Pines is a psychosexual mine-field ripe for Freudian analysis, where the phallic anagram of Pine’s name makes clear the pornographic elements involved in a narrative of a castaway kept company not by Friday, but by four women. Pine’s account includes such exposition as “Idleness and Fulness of every thing begot in me a desire of enjoing the women…I had perswaded the two Maids to let me lie with them, which I did at first in private, but after, custome taking away shame (there being none but us) we did it more openly, as our Lusts gave us liberty.”

Imaginary islands often present colonial fantasy, an isolated Eden ready for exploitation by an almost always male character, where the morality of home can be shuffled off, while those whose home has been violated are not even given the dignity of names. Such is in keeping with the pastoral origins of the island-narrative, the myth that such locations are places outside of time and space, simultaneously remote and yet connected by the ocean to every other point on the globe. This is the metaphysics of the island, for they may be sun-dappled, palm-tree-lined, blue-water isles many fathoms from “civilization,” but by virtue of the ocean current they are connected to every other location that sits on a coast. By dint of that paradoxical property, islands are almost always the geographic feature with which utopias are associated, for paradise is not paradise if it’s easily accessible.

The Isle of Pines is an example of the utopian genre that flourished in early modern England, and includes Francis Bacon’s 1627 science fiction novel New Atlantis and James Harrington’s 1656 The Commonwealth of Oceana. Writers popularized the idea of the New World island; authors like Richard Hakluyt in his 1600 Principle Navigations and Samuel Purchas in his 1614 Purchas, his Pilgrimage collated the fantastic accounts of Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, Thomas Harriot, and Martin Frobisher, even while those compilers rarely ventured off another island called Britain. Renaissance authors were fixated not on river or lake, isthmus or peninsula, but on islands. Not even the ocean itself held quite as much allure. “The Island” was that era’s geographic feature par excellence.

Islands have of course been the stuff of fantasy since Homer sang tales of brave Ulysses imprisoned on Calliope’s erotic western isle, or Plato’s account of the sunken continent of Atlantis. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values explains that the “island seems to have a tenacious hold,” arguing that unlike continental seashores or tropical forests, islands played a small role in human evolution, and that rather their “importance lies in the imaginative realm.” But it was the accounts of the so-called “Age of Discovery” that endowed the geography of the island with a new significance, a simultaneous rediscovery and invention of the very idea of the island. We’re still indulging in that daydream.

Scholar Roland Greene explains in Unrequited Conquests: Love and Empire in the Colonial Americas that the island took on a new significance during the Renaissance, writing that the geographical feature often signified a “figurative way of delimiting a new reality in the process of being disclosed, something between a fiction and an entire world.” Knowledge of islands obviously existed before 1492, and earlier stories about them even had some of the same fantastic associations, as indicated in the aforementioned examples. But unlike the Polynesians who were adept navigators, Europeans had to anxiously hug the coasts for centuries. Improvements in Renaissance technology finally allowed sailors to venture into the open ocean, and in many ways the awareness that on the other side of the sea was a different continent meant the discovery of something that people had travelled on for millennia—the Atlantic Ocean. And the discovery of that ocean invested the remote and yet interconnected island with a glowing significance.

It’s not a coincidence that Thomas More’s Utopia was printed in 1516 only 14 years after the navigator Amerigo Vespucci argued that the islands off the coast of Asia which Christopher Columbus had “discovered” were continents in their own right—though in many ways the Americas are islands off the coast of Asia, even if the scale and distance are larger than might have been assumed. More’s account of an imagined perfect society as narrated by yet another Dutch sailor has occasioned five centuries of disagreement on how the tract should be read, but whether in earnest or in jest, Utopia’s American location and its status as an island “two hundred miles broad” that holds “great convenience for mutual commerce” is not incidental. If the sandy, sunny island took on new import, it’s because the isolated hermitage of the isle made the perfections of utopia seem possible.

So powerful was More’s tract that later colonists would pilfer his utopian imagery, conflating real Caribbean isles with the future saint’s fiction. Such was the magic of what Tuan describes as the “fantasy of island Edens” that Ponce de Leon assumed a place as lovely as Florida must be an island, and for generations cartographers depicted California as such, as they “followed the tradition of identifying enchantment with insularity.” Utopias, paradises, or Edens have no place in a landlocked location. Tuan explains that the island “symbolizes a state of prelapsarian innocence and bliss, quarantined by the sea from the ills of the continent,” and that in the early modern era they signaled “make-believe and a place of withdrawal from high-pressured living on the continent.” Watch an advertisement from the Bahamian travel board and see if much has changed in that presentation since the 16th century, or spend a few days on a carefully manicured Caribbean beach in the midst of a cold and grey winter, and see if you don’t agree.

Such were the feelings for the crew of the Sea Venture bound for Jamestown in 1609, finding themselves blown by a hurricane onto the corrals off an isolated isle whose eerie nocturnal bird-calls had long spooked navigators, known to posterity as Bermuda. Historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic write that Bermuda was a “strange shore, a place long considered by sailors to be an enchanted ‘Isle of Devils’ infested with demons and monsters… a ghoulish graveyard.” During that sojourn, many of the Sea Venture’s crew came to a different conclusion, as Bermuda “turned out to be an Edenic land of perpetual spring and abundant food.”  

A gentleman named William Strachey, dilettante sonneteer and investor in both the Blackfriars Theater and the Virginia Company, would write that Bermuda’s environment was so ideal that it “caused many of them utterly to forget or desire ever to return…they lived in such plenty, peace, and ease.” Silvester Jourdain, in his 1610 A Discovery of the Bermudas, Otherwise Called the Isle of Devils, claimed that contrary to its reputation, this island was “the richest, healthfullest and pleasantest they ever saw.” Trouble in this paradise, as Strachey reported, for so pleasant was Bermuda that many of the shipwrecked sailors endeavored never to continue onto Virginia, for on the continent “nothing but wretchedness and labor must be expected, with many wants and churlish entreaty, there being neither that fish, flesh, nor fowl which here… at ease and pleasure might be enjoyed.”

The Virginia Company could of course not allow such intransigence, so while those 150 survivors made do on Bermuda’s strand for nine months, the threat of violence ensured that all the sailors would continue onto America after two new ships were constructed. For a pregnant year, the survivors of the Sea Venture sunned themselves on Atlantic white-sand beaches, nourished by the plentiful wild pigs, coconuts, and clean fresh-water streams, while in Jamestown the colonists resorted to cannibalism, having chosen to hand their agriculture over entirely to the cultivation of an addictive, deadly, and profitable narcotic called tobacco. When the Sea Venture’s crew arrived in Jamestown, including Pocahontas’s future husband, John Rolfe, they found a settlement reduced from more than 500 souls to fewer than 60, while the Bermudian vessel lost only two sailors whom history remembers as Carter and Waters, the pair so enraptured with this Eden that they absconded into its internal wilderness never to be seen again.

William Shakespeare’s sprite Ariel in The Tempest refers to the isle as the “still-vex’d Bermoothes,” and for a generation scholars have identified Strachey’s letter as source material for that play, the two men having potentially been drinking buddies at the famed Mermaid Tavern. Long has it been a theoretical point of contention as to if The Tempest could be thought of as Shakespeare’s “American play.” Excluding Strachey’s letter, the plot of this last play of Shakespeare’s is arguably his only original one, and though geographic calculation places Prospero’s isle in the Mediterranean, his concerns are more colonial in an American sense, with Ariel and the ogre Caliban being unjustly exploited. The latter makes this clear when he intones that this “island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother/Which thou tak’st from me.” In a disturbing reflection of actual accounts, the working-class castaways Trinculo and Stephano (Is that you Carter and Waters?) conspire to exhibit Caliban in a human zoo after plying him with liquor. 

If America has always been a sort of Faustian bargain, a fantasy of Eden purchased for the inconceivable price of colonialism, slavery, and genocide, then The Tempest offers an alternative history where imperialism is abandoned at the very moment that it rendered Paradise lost. As Faustian a figure as ever, the necromancer Prospero ends those revels with “As you from crimes would pardon’d be/Let your indulgences set me free.” And so, the Europeans return home, leaving the isle to Ariel and Caliban, its rightful inhabitants. Something unspeakably tragic, this dream of a parallel universe penned by Shakespeare, an investor in that very same Virginia Company. Shortly after The Tempest was first staged, Bermuda would be transformed from liberty to a place “of bondage, war, scarcity, and famine,” as Linebaugh and Rediker write. But even if such a terrestrial heaven was always the stuff of myth, in the play itself “something rich and strange” can endure, this place where “bones are coral made” and there are “pearls that were his eyes,” and were “Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell.”

This is the island of Andrew Marvell’s 1653 poem “Bermudas,” an archipelago “In th’ocean’s bosom unespied,” until religious schismatics fleeing for liberty come “Unto an isle so long unknown, /And yet far kinder than our own.” In their “small boat,” the pilgrims land “on a grassy stage/Safe from the storm’s and prelates’ rage.” God has provided in these fortunate isles fowls and oranges, pomegranates, figs, melons, and apples. On Bermuda cedars are more plentiful than in Lebanon, and upon the beaches wash the perfumed delicacy of ambergris, the whale bile that Charles II supposedly consumed alongside his eggs. For these Englishmen, they sing a “holy and a cheerful note, /And all the way, to guide their chime, with falling oars they kept the time,” for Bermuda itself is a “temple, where to sound his name.” In Marvell’s imagination the islands are a place where the Fall itself has reversed, where the expulsion from Eden never happened, here on Bermuda where God “gave us this eternal spring/Which here enamels everything.”

While Strachey wrote of their nine-month vacation of indolence, sensuality, and pleasure, islands have also been feared and marveled at as sites of hardened endurance. If utopian literature sees the island as a hermitage, then its sister genre of the Robinsonade sees the isle as a prison, albeit one that can be overcome. That later genre draws its name, of course, from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 classic Robinson Crusoe. Greene notes that “shipwreck become a locus for the frustrations of conquest and trade,” and nowhere is that clearer than in Defoe’s book. The titular character remarks that “We never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries, nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.” In the fiery cauldron that is the desert island, we’re to understand that the hardship and isolation of Crusoe’s predicament will reveal to him (and us) what he actually is, and what he should be. Defoe concludes that the proper state of man should be defined by industry, imperialism, Puritanism, and an anal-retentive sense of organizing resources, time, and our very beliefs.

Robinson Crusoe was written when the relationship between travelogue and fiction was still porous; readers took the account of the sailor shipwrecked on an isle at the mouth of Venezuela’s Orinoco River as factual, but the character was always the invention of Defoe’s mind. Defoe’s novel, if not the first of that form, was certainly an early bestseller; so much so that Robinson Crusoe endures as an archetypal folktale, the narrative of the castaway and his servant Friday known by multitudes who’ve never read the book (and perhaps still don’t known that it was always a fiction). Living on in adaptation over the centuries, its influence is seen everywhere from the Robert Zemeckis film Cast Away, to the television series Lost and Gilligan’s Island. With what we’re to read as comfortable acclimation, Crusoe says that he “learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition, and less upon the dark side.” Whether Crusoe is aware of that dark side or not, he very much promulgates a version of it, the castaway turning himself into a one-man colonial project, ethnically cleansing the island of its natives, basically enslaving “my man Friday” after converting him to Christianity, and exploiting the isle’s natural resources.

With more than a bit of Hibernian skepticism towards the whole endeavor, James Joyce claimed that Crusoe was the “true prototype of the British colonist” (and the Irishman knew something about British colonialism). Joyce sees the “whole Anglo-Saxon spirit in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” Something appropriate in the Robinsonade using the atomistic isolation of the island as a metaphor for the rugged individual, the lonely consumer, the lonelier capitalist. Crusoe spent three decades on his island, from 1651 to 1686, but unbeknownst to him, half-way during his seclusion the Second Anglo-Dutch War settled a few small issues of geography not very far from Crusoe’s natural anchorage. When that war ended, the English would trade their colony in Suriname, watered by the tributaries of the Orinoco, in exchange for an island many thousands of miles to the north called Manhattan. That colder bit of rock would be much more associated with capitalism and rugged individualism than even Crusoe’s.

Innumerable are the permutations of utopia’s hermitage and the prison of the Robinsonade. Consider the kingdoms of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 Gulliver’s Travels; the pseudonymous Unka Eliza Winkfield in 1767’s The Female American, with its tiki idols talking through trickery; Johann David Wyss’s wholesome 1812 Swiss Family Robinson; Jules Verne’s fantastic 1874 The Mysterious Island; H.G Wells’s chilling 1896 The Island of Dr. Moreau; William Golding’s thin 1954 classic Lord of the Flies (which has terrified generations of middle school students); Scott O’Dell’s 1960 New Age Island of the Blue Dolphins; Yann Martel’s obscenely popular 2001 Life of Pi; and even Andy Weir’s 2012 technocratic science fiction novel The Martian. All are Robinsonades or utopias of a sort, even if sometimes the island must be a planet. Once you start noticing islands, they appear everywhere. An archipelago of imagined land masses stretching across the library stacks.

Which is to remember that islands may appear in the atlas of our canon, but actual islands existed long before we put words to describe them. There is the platonic island of the mind, but also the physical island of reality, and confusion between the two has ramifications for those breathing people who call the latter home. Both utopias and Robinsonades reflected and created colonial attitudes, and while it’s easy to get lost in the reverie of the imagined island, actual islanders have suffered upon our awakening. Island remoteness means that one person’s paradisiacal resort can be another person’s temperate prison. So much of the writing about islands is projection from those on the continent, but no true canon of the island can ignore those who actually live there, so that we can study “utopian literature,” but there is no literature from a real Utopia, rather we must also read poetry, prose, and drama from Jamaica and Haiti, Cuba and Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

We must orient ourselves to not just the imagined reveries of a Robinson Crusoe, but the actual words of Franz Fanon, C.L.R. James, V.S. Naipaul, Jamaica Kincaid, Derek Walcott, Marlon James, Junot Diaz, Claude McKay, and Edwidge Danticat. Imagined islands can appear in the atlases of our minds, but real islands have populations of real people. An author who refused to let his audience forget that fact was the Martinique dramatist Aimé Césaire’s who, in his 1969 play Une Tempête, rewrote the cheery conclusion of Shakespeare’s play so as to fully confront the legacy of colonialism. If Shakespeare gave us a revision before the facts of imperialism, then Césaire forces us to understand that Prospero has never been fully willing to go home, and that for Caliban and Ariel happy endings are as fantastic as utopia. Yet Césaire’s characters soldiers on, a revolutionary Caliban reminding us of what justice looks like, for “I’m going to have the last word.”

What is the use then, of an island? We may read of Utopia, but we must not forget the violent histories of blood and sugar, plantations and coups, slavery and revolution. Yet we must not abandon “The Island” as an idea in our sweltering days of the Anthropocene, with Micronesia and the Maldives, the Seychelles and the Solomon Islands threatened by the warm lap of the rising ocean. In Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, the poet John Donne wrote that “No man is an island,” but viewed another way, everything is an island, not least of which this planet that we float upon. I’ve claimed that islands are defined by their parallel remoteness and interconnectedness, but even more than that, an island is a microcosm of the world, for the world is the biggest island on which life exists, a small land mass encircled by the infinite oceanic blackness of space.

As the astronomer Carl Sagan famously said in a 1994 address at Cornell University, “Our planet is a lonely speck… it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot.” On Christmas Eve of 1968, the astronaut William Anders took the first photograph of the entire planet as it rose over the dead surface of the dusty grey moon. In that photo we see all islands, all continents, all oceans subsumed into this isolated, solitary thing. Islands are castles of the imagination, and as thought got us into this ecological mess, so must it be thought that redeems us. Hermitage or prison? Can such an island ever be a utopia, or are we marooned upon its quickly flooding beaches?

Image credit: Unsplash/Benjamin Behre.

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