Utopian Dreams

Note 6: Thomas More: A Utopian Colonization of the Other. 4/1/99

Thomas More's Utopia was animated in part by the fact that Europe had (dis)covered the existence of a heretofore unknown continent on the western shore of the Atlantic ocean just twenty-four years before he wrote the work for which he is best remembered. Precisely why such a discovery would stimulate the production of a fabulous account of a nation that was perfect in every way that Europe was not is probably impossible to determine with any degree of certainty. One possible explanation rests on the notion that the Garden of Eden was supposed to be located in the western ocean off the shore of England and, since the Americas proved not to be India or China, as everyone expected a land mass located out there to be, and because what had been found was completely unexpected, mysterious, and unknown, people may have been led by hope of a better future to believe that (wo)man had finally found a place where Eden could have remained hidden for all the millennia that had passed since they were expelled from the Garden. Furthermore, since Providence (God's will) was thought to direct all human activity, the discovery of a place that might conceal Eden would have been perceived as a sign in itself that God had finally relented in his punishment of (wo)man for her/his original sin and was willing to allow humanity to recover what had been lost by the original pair of human's responsible for everyone's suffering and mortality. If all anyone needed to do to get back to paradise was endure a voyage of several months on the open sea, who among us would even think twice about the risks that might be involved in such a journey?

After a quarter of a century, however, considerable doubt about that interpretation of the newly (dis)covered world seems to have entered nearly everyone's mind. This fact, or possibility, can be deduced from More's account of Utopia, since it was one of the earliest literary uses of the discovery itself, on the ground that he was very circumspect in how he went about identifying the location of his perfect kingdom. There is only one explicit statement in the text that suggests More was thinking about the Western hemisphere as a possible location for his vision of a perfect nation:

"You will not easily persuade me," said Peter, "that any nation in that new world is better governed than those among us. For as our understandings are not worse than theirs, so our government, if I mistake not, being more ancient, a long practice has helped us to find out many conveniences of life: and some happy chances have discovered other things to us, which no man's understanding could ever have invented."

Peter, of course, is the individual who brought More and Raphael together in a context where the author of Utopia could learn the details of the kingdom. One could certainly suggest that More's Peter is meant to be the same person who keeps the Gates of Heaven and that Raphael is the same as the Angel who goes by that name, which would add weight to the notion that the Americas are the same as Eden, but the real point here is to pay close attention to the fact that More makes no other effort to identify the place where Utopia is beyond this single reference to the New World. He certainly never attempts to explain where precisely in the new continent one can go to reach paradise. Another clue relating to More's perception of America as Eden occurs in this same passage when he refers to the notion that the New World is somehow less ancient than Europe. Francis Bacon, in The New Atlantis, which appeared in 1626, pursues this idea more explicitly than More does here and reaches the general conclusion that Atlantis, which is definitely not America in his account, is just as ancient as Europe, though he also suggests that the New World, or its people, are considerably younger (by at least a thousand years) than Europeans are. For his part, More takes this opening in a slightly different direction than the one Bacon pursues by having Raphael explain the difference between Europeans and Utopians in this way: "I do not deny but we are more ingenious than they are, but they exceed us much in industry and application." To illustrate his point, Raphael tells the story of an ancient shipwreck that occurred on Utopia's "coast 1,200 years ago," and makes note of the fact that

"some Romans and Egyptians that were in the ship, getting safe ashore, spent the rest of their days among them; and such was their ingenuity, that from this single opportunity they drew the advantage of learning from those unlooked-for guests, and acquired all the useful arts that were then among the Romans, and which were known to these shipwrecked men: and by the hints that they gave them, they themselves found out even some of those arts which they could not fully explain; so happily did they improve that accident, of having some of our people cast upon their shore."

The most interesting feature of this passage concerns the fact that the Utopians, who had managed to build a perfect nation, were actually not able to do so without the accidental help of "some Romans and Egyptians" who were "happily" shipwrecked on the beach of Utopia. One is tempted to say that even when Europeans give credit to the other for the creation of something Europe could not make itself, that credit is rescinded afterwards by virtue of the fact that some Europeans happened along by accident and made this or that unspecified contribution to the realization of the perfect state. Europeans may not always produce perfection but they do have some "useful arts" that the other cannot do as well without. This kind of auto-reflexive arrogance, for lack of a better terms, seems to kick in whenever a Euro-thinker catches him/herself on the verge of admitting the vaguest possibility any other race of human beings have accomplished something that might challenge the notion of Eurocentric superiority.

What may be the most unusual aspect of Utopia is the inclusion of a detailed description of the Utopian policy of colonization. That seems odd because at such an early date (1516) one would not expect England, in the person of Sir Thomas More, to be thinking already about the advantages of sending settlers to America. America had to be the destination he had in mind too because there was no where else to send them. That raises a number of questions. Were conditions in More's England so difficult that the wisest course of action seemed to be to advocate resettlement of the fruits of overpopulation to a continent that had hardly been explored at the time? There is a discussion prior to the exposition on colonization about the problems associated with converting farmland to pasture for the production of wool instead of food, a problem mentioned by Raphael in quite passionate terms. English cities and towns, from this and other documents, seem to have been flooded with idle workers who were causing considerable unrest. This same issue, however, was still being discussed as late as 1582 in Sir George Peckham's exhortation to Elizabeth I about the potential for sending these idle workers to America to remove whatever threat they were perceived as posing to the crown.

More begins his account, in the voice of Raphael, of the need and methods used in Utopia for colonization with the note that excess population was the cause of the exodus to the neighboring continent:

"if there is any increase [in population] over the whole island, then they draw out a number of their citizens out of the several towns, and send them over to the neighboring continent; where, if they find that the inhabitants have more soil than they can well cultivate, they fix a colony, taking the inhabitants into their society, if they are willing to live with them; and where they do that of their own accord, they quickly enter into their method of life, and conform to their rules, and this proves a happiness to both nations; for according to their constitution, such care is taken of the soil that it becomes fruitful enough for both, though it might be otherwise too narrow and barren for any one of them."

More does not tell us what happens if the colonists discover, after they arrive, that there is no extra land for the Utopians to appropriate but I suppose it would be safe to assume that such a condition never occurred. The significant feature of the exposition is the description More fabricates for the assimilation of the indigenous people of the continent into the society of the Utopians. That these invaded people rarely resist the opportunity to become "Utopians" themselves goes almost without saying because it is clear from everything said that a person would have to be crazy or stupid or both to pass up the chance to become a citizen of a perfect political and economic state. Another odd fact is the notion that the soil itself, which might be too barren to support one segment of the two groups of people making up the colony will do just fine and even better when both the colonizer and the colonized are forced to share it together. It is "fruitful enough for both" even if it might not support only one of them adequately if they remain divided. I suppose the implication is that the Utopians are such accomplished husband-persons, in comparison to the natives, that their work will always already double the amount of food the original inhabitants are able to coerce from the soil.

This, in fact, seems to be the sense More was working to express because in the continuation of his description he discusses the consequences to the natives if they decide to resist the benevolence of the invaders:

"But if the natives refuse to conform themselves to their laws, they drive them out of those bounds which they mark out for themselves, and use force if they resist. For they account it a very just cause of war, for a nation to hinder others from possessing a part of that soil of which they make no use, but which is suffered to lie idle and uncultivated; since every man has by the law of nature a right to such a waste portion of the earth as is necessary for his subsistence."

What a chilling statement that is. If an indigenous population sets aside an area of their own land, as a sacred burial ground say, and do not use it the way Europeans think it should be utilized, raising sheep on it or strip-mining it for coal or uranium, then by "the law of nature" Europeans (Utopians every one) have the right to seize it and do to it whatever they want. A prescription, as it turns out, for every bit of brutality England meted out against the Other everywhere its empire spread across the face of the earth. Natives never utilize the land as efficiently and as destructively as invaders do. Strip-cutting a forest in order to export the lumber for profit, and then converting the cleared land to farms, or more pastures for English sheep and wool producers, may seem to Europeans a better and more efficient use of someone else's land, land taken by force and certainly not purchased, because, hey, if people of color resist the whiteman's colonization and force becomes necessary to impose the will of the master race on people too stupid and lazy to destroy their own homeland themselves, then so be it--that action is "the law of nature" and therefore God-ordained. And hey, if you have to destroy an entire race of human beings in the process, so what? Thomas More seems perfectly comfortable with the prospect of genocide in his account of the perfect nation since Utopians, just like the English apparently, counted it a natural law to seize whatever "waste" land was available for appropriation. America was a wasteland by Eurocentric measures because native Americans had maintained it in its natural state and had not turned it into a place that could no longer support its own indigenous population.

One odd note that can be added to this discourse in general concerns the fact that Frederick Engels, in his discussion of the Iroquois federation in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, reports that the Iroquois themselves persued precisely this same policy of "Utopian" colonization against their neighbors in the seventeenth century. Engels notes that "[w]hen, about the year 1651, the Iroquois had conquered the Eries . . ., they offered to accept them into the confederacy on equal terms; it was only after the defeated tribes had refused that they were driven from their territory." One would almost have to believe that the Iroquois had read and studied More's prescriptions for political expansionism very carefully in order to have utilized his program of genocide so well and effectively. On the other hand, of course, it is quite possible that Engels simply appropriated More's perception of Eurocentric colonization as a means of explaining a native American cultural phenomenon that had nothing to do with territorial or political expansionism or colonization of someone else's land or property. Reducing the other to your own terms of behavior is often the only way he/she can be explained and (dis)missed effectively.

Even if Europeans do not know, or admit, what actually happened in America, native Americans do; and we are the only ones who need to know and understand the meaning of things called Utopian.

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