Was Sri Lanka Thomas More’s ‘Dream Island’?
When the renowned socialist thinker, Thomas More, wrote his Utopia in 1516, he had a dream island in mind. There are indications that the island in his mind was Ceylon, the present Sri Lanka that he heard from a Portuguese traveller during his time.
Although his thesis on socialism was written as a fiction, as any other fiction writer, he took inspirations from his own experience and what he heard from other people. It is not that More thought Ceylon was socialist or ideal, but he seemed to admire certain life style features and practices that could go along with his socialist dream. Apart from Ceylon, he seemed to have heard about Kerala (Calicut), the Philippines (New Castile) and other Asian countries.
Utopia consists of two books. The story is written in the form of a true narrative when Thomas More meets Raphael Hythloday, the Portuguese traveller, through Peter Giles in Antwerp. The Book I is initial conversation between the Three with strong criticism on the evolving capitalist system in England and Europe during that time. Not only the economy but also the system of governance is criticised.
Thomas More himself is the narrator. Peter Giles and many others are historical characters. But Raphael Hythloday is fictional. The family name Hythloday in Greek means ‘speaker of nonsense.’ Utopia may mean ‘good-place,’ in Greek.
Raphael is introduced as a man “for there is none alive that can give so copious an account of unknown nations and countries as he can do.” What are these nations or countries? He had undoubtedly been to many countries in the East and a particular mention is made to New Castile and that is Luzon in the Philippines. Then he was lost.
After that “by strange good-fortune, he got to Ceylon, and from thence to Calicut [Kerala], where he very happily found some Portuguese ships, and, beyond all men's expectations, returned to his native country."
It is not the mere mentioning of Ceylon that warrants our speculation it as More’s ‘dream island.’ When someone is lost in the high seas in the Indian Ocean, according to More, you get to Ceylon by ‘strange good fortune.’ This is a clear indication that More knew about Ceylon and its strategic importance at least in sea travel.
In Book I of Utopia, there is some description about the Philippines islands. They are all positive. Raphael reportedly travelled with some others. For example, as it says, “After many days' journey, they came to towns and cities, and to commonwealths, that were both happily governed and well-peopled.”
There are certain ‘other things’ that the people of these new countries ignorant of. But they were not averse to learning them from the visitors. “He got wonderfully into their favour, by showing them the use of the needle, of which till then they were utterly ignorant.”
The Book II begins with the description of the island of Utopia. That description matches more or less with the island of Ceylon; taken into account the exact geography was quite unknown during that time particular for a person like Raphael.
It says, “The island of Utopia is in the middle 200 miles broad, and holds almost at the same breadth over a great part of it; but it grows narrower toward both ends. Its figure is not unlike a crescent: between its horns.”
The length of the island is given more or less correctly but not the breadth. The actual size of Ceylon (today) is 268 and 139 miles. The two horns mentioned can be the Northern cone (Point Pedro) and the Southern cone (Point Dondra). It is rather imaginative to consider Ceylon like a crescent. More importantly, there is a harbour described, very close to Trincomalee. The following is the description in three paragraphs.
“In this bay there is no great current; the whole coast is, as it were, one continued harbor, which gives all that live in the island great convenience for mutual commerce; but the entry into the bay, occasioned by rocks on the one hand, and shallows on the other, is very dangerous.”
“In the middle of it there is one single rock which appears above water, and may therefore be easily avoided, and on the top of it there is a tower in which a garrison is kept; the other rocks lie under water, and are very dangerous.”
“The channel is known only to the natives, so that if any stranger should enter into the bay, without one of their pilots, he would run great danger of shipwreck; for even they themselves could not pass it safe, if some marks that are on the coast did not direct their way; and if these should be but a little shifted, any fleet that might come against them, how great soever it were, would be certainly lost.”
One could argue that if More at all took a description from what Raphael said about the East islands, then Utopia could well be in the Philippines archipelago and not Ceylon, because he was reportedly there for a long period. But there are some clear reasons to discount that assertion. First is the following.
“But they report (and there remain good marks of it to make it credible) that this was no island at first, but a part of the continent.”
There is no continent near the Philippines islands, whether Ceylon was ‘first’ a part of the Indian continent or not. It is however believed that Ceylon was well connected to India by land until the 15th century or at least the separation was shallow.
Second, the story that Raphael apparently related is also mixed up with the Vijaya story. Vijaya is considered the founder of Lanka or Ceylon. It goes like the following.
“Utopus that conquered it (whose name it still carries, for Abraxa was its first name) brought the rude and uncivilized inhabitants into such a good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind; having soon subdued them, he designed to separate them from the continent, and to bring the sea quite round them.”
There are of course similar stories to Vijaya in many countries. The legend of William the Conqueror who created modern England is one.
A later socialist thinker, Karl Kautsky, expressed the view that the island Thomas More talked about in fact was England. But England itself is not an island and More would not have selected England as the Utopia for the very reason that he wanted to bring lessons to England and other European countries from Utopia.
It also should be mentioned that More also noted “many things that were amiss in those new-discovered countries.” He didn’t consider any country to be perfect including his imaginary Utopia.
Many of the other European commentators perhaps without much attention to details believed that the description of the island came from one in the Atlantic Ocean. But it is clear from Book I, that the countries that were focused upon in Utopia were the Philippines, Ceylon and Kerala. There is no mentioning of islands in the Atlantic.
There is a clear indication that when it came to social practices, family and community life, and religion, Thomas More expressed very clear admiration for the ‘Eastern’ way of life. In this sense, he must be considered one of the first ‘orientalists.’ Perhaps he was correct and perhaps he was utopian. The following however are some evidence.
There are two aspects to Utopia. On the one hand, it is the first conceptualisation of socialism although the term ‘socialism’ was not used. In conceptualising socialism, perhaps what was dominant was More’s own ideas and theories how the social system should be organized or reorganized. In this respect More was an inventor.
On the other hand, it was an admiration of ‘another system’ which he believed existed, right or wrong, in newly discovered countries primarily in Asia. It is in this sense that he was an Orientalist. If not for this admiration, there was no need for him to bring ‘Raphael’ into the picture or talk about newly discovered countries. He was based on another person’s discoveries. This is the second aspect.
This article does not focus much on the socialist aspects of More’s thesis. It focuses on the argument that Ceylon perhaps was his admiration as an ideal country particularly in social practices combined with the information he received from Kerala, the Philippines and other Asian countries.
When More explained the trades and manner of life, as retold by Raphael, this is what he reported. “Agriculture is that which is so universally understood among them that no person, either man or woman, is ignorant of it; they are instructed in it from their childhood, partly by what they learn at school and partly by practice.” Then came the trades.
“Besides agriculture, which is so common to them all,” he said “every man has some peculiar trade to which he applies himself, such as the manufacture of wool, or flax, masonry, smith's work, or carpenter's work; for there is no sort of trade that is not in great esteem among them.”
With an indication of a loose caste system, very much peculiar to Ceylon, it was said: “The same trade generally passes down from father to son, inclinations often following descent; but if any man's genius lays another way, he is by adoption translated into a family that deals in the trade to which he is inclined.”
The following is what is said about the family life, reminiscent of extended family institution both in Ceylon and Kerala. “Their families are made up of those that are nearly related to one another. Their women, when they grow up, are married out; but all the males, both children and grandchildren, live still in the same house, in great obedience to their common parents.”
“But to return to their manner of living in society,” More reported that “the oldest man of every family, as has been already said, is its governor. Wives serve their husbands and children their parents, and always the younger serves the elder.”
The last chapter of Book II of Thomas More is on ‘Religions of the Utopians.’ This is the chapter very clearly shows that More not only expressed his views through his ‘imagined island’ and ‘imagined people’ of that island, but in fact reported what he actually heard, imprecisely though, about the newly discovered Asian societies irrespective of his personal views.
More was a strong Roman Catholic of that time who was against Protestantism and any kind of religious pluralism. But as a committed intellectual and a man of letters, he was grateful to report what he heard from the person he called Raphael Hythloday of course with his own interpretations. It is extremely possible that the information was sketchy and he opted to brush it with his own imagination. But other than from Ceylon or other Asian countries, the description could not have emerged as it is recorded. Here he goes.
“Threre are several sorts of religions, not only in different parts of the island, but even in every town,” “Though there are many different forms of religion among them, yet all these, how various soever, agree in the main point, which is the worshipping of the Divine Essence.”
He also said “there are no images for God in their temples,” perhaps referring to a Buddhist temple. He also refers to strong God worshiping, obviously referring to the Hindu or Islamic faith of that time. During this period, in Kerala and also in the Philippines, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam were in existence side by side without rancour or conflict. This is apart from Ceylon.
The most interesting is the description of the ‘common temples.’ As he said, “They have magnificent temples, that are not only nobly built, but extremely spacious; which is the more necessary, as they have so few of them; they are a little dark within, which proceeds not from any error in the architecture, but is done with design; for their priests think that too much light dissipates the thoughts, and that a more moderate degree of it both recollects the mind and raises devotion.”
Another reason to speculate that More got some information from Ceylon through ‘Raphael,’ or any other, is some of the following. “All the people appear in the temples in white garments, but the priest's vestments are parti-colored.” This description appears akin to both Hindu and Buddhist practice, perhaps more to Hinduism.
“As soon as the priest appears in those ornaments, they all fall prostrate on the ground, with so much reverence and so deep a silence that such as look on cannot but be struck with it, as if it were the effect of the appearance of a deity.”
‘Falling prostrate on the ground’ is predominantly a South Asian custom. This custom is performed, according to More, not only before priests but also before husbands and parents.
This is how it is said. “In the festival which concludes the period, before they go to the temple, both wives and children fall on their knees before their husbands or parents, and confess everything in which they have either erred or failed in their duty, and beg pardon for it.” Perhaps More mixed up this custom with Catholic ‘confession.’
There is no need to exaggerate that Thomas More fully well knew about Ceylon and admired it as his ‘dream island.’ It is not the case. But there are indications that he came to know about Ceylon and perhaps for reasons of artistic creation used some of the information in describing the island that he called Utopia.
The size of the island, its natural harbour, its closeness to the continent and the legend of Utopus come very close to Ceylon. There is no other island known to me closer to the description.
In addition, there is another indication which was not mentioned before. It is about the history. As More says, “Their records, that contain the history of their town and State, are preserved with an exact care, and run backward 1,760 years.” This is very much closer to the recorded history or the claimed recorded history of Sri Lanka or Ceylon.
The most interesting perhaps is Tomas More’s admiration of social practices and customs of the newfound Asian countries of that time, Ceylon being pivotal, which apparently gave some inspiration for him to visualize a future socialist society.
They include, as discussed above, the family system and the respect for the parents and elders. Among them is also religious tolerance and multi-religious practices. These are unfortunately the vanishing or already vanished practices in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries.
*All references are thanks to Internet Wiretap prepared by Kirk Crady from Thomas More, Utopia in P. F. Collier & Son, Ideal Commonwealths, New York: The Colonial Press, 1991. The author has taken liberty to quote sections omitting others for purpose of clarity and argument.
- Asian Tribune -