No place

The Yucatan peninsula: More’s model for Utopia?

Lorainne G Stobbart Utopia, Fact or Fiction?
The Evidence from the Americas  Sutton Publishing Ltd 1992

It is 1492, when Columbus sails the ocean blue. Though it is that tipping point when the European consciousness is suddenly expanded by the knowledge that it has genuinely discovered a New World, it takes Columbus until 1498, when on his third expedition, to realise that he has touched on the mainland of ‘a very great continent, until today unknown.’ He explores the Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad and the shores of Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama before his death in 1506.

But he is not the only explorer. In 1499 a former captain of Columbus, Alonso de Ojeda, arrives on the Guyana coast. Searching for pearls he travels north to Venezuela (‘little Venice’), while another member of the same expedition, the Italian Amerigo Vespucci, travels south to discover the mouth of the Amazon.

In 1502, Vespucci follows up earlier Portuguese expeditions and explores the coast of Brazil. In 1507 German geographers suggest that the new continent should be named after Amerigo Vespucci, who has written prolifically about his ‘discovery’ of what is now South America. Vespucci dies in 1512 and is buried in Florence.

It is now 1516. In England, Sir Thomas More publishes a book in Latin. He writes about a Portuguese who sailed with Vespucci and travelled widely in this New World. In particular, this Portuguese describes a land in which he had lived for more than five years. This land was originally a peninsula, not an island, but a channel was cut through the isthmus. There are 54 towns, regular in plan and sited at convenient distances apart. This civilisation has a distinctive political organisation, and its social customs (including population control and slavery), trade, warfare and religion are carefully described. Though this account is given sympathetically, it cannot really be said to be a description of an ideal society, either Platonic or Christian.

Stobbart’s study claims to have identified this civilisation. The Mayan society, as we know from other scientific disciplines, shares most of the points noted in More’s account. We know that the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico was believed to be an island for much of the 16th century, even appearing such on maps. A few Europeans are known to have lived there before Hernan Cortes’ marauding expedition passed by in 1519 on its way to gold-rich central Mexico, there to destroy the Aztec Empire. But the Mayas were, for the time being, spared.

Now Utopia, the tradition goes, was a fiction from Thomas More’s mind, an imaginary island where everything is perfect, all the better to contrast with contemporary European societies. And yet the title page of the first edition readily identifies itself as ‘a really splendid little book, as entertaining as it is instructive’. Among More’s jokes about the Utopians is the Portuguese traveller saying, ‘I can’t halp thinking they must be of Greek extraction, since their language, though otherwise more like Persian, contains some traces of Greek.’ This explains the name Utopia, derived from Greek ou, not, and topos, place. Well, that’s clear then. Utopia is Nowhere. The book is an elaborate pun, a successor to Plato’s Republic, and forerunner of various science fiction scenarios.

But, seen with the innocent eye, it is possible to take, as Stobbart suggests, ‘at face value More’s claim in his letters and text that he was writing of an actual society in the New World.’ Stobbart ‘could see the similarities in some of the more obvious customs, such as the priestly feather-embroidered cloak. The only thing that puzzled me was which of the three advanced societies More was describing: the Inca, Aztec or Maya.’

In view of some of the difficulties scholars face in neatly pigeon-holing More’s work (as philosophy or early SF, for example) this classically simple theory has much to commend it, and Stobbart offers some ideas on why More might have chosen to hide a mostly factual account under a fictional guise. This review first appeared in 1992; I was almost but not quite persuaded then, and remain open-minded now.

13 thoughts on “No place

    1. More’s purpose in writing Utopia has been hotly debated over the centuries, but some time I’m going to add my thoughts to the mix! Not sure when though, but the 500th anniversary of its publication is coming up in a couple of years…


  1. Much of the debate seems based in that extraordinary human characteristic of seeking absolutes. Things must either be black or white. I think More was probably indeed primarily engaged in a report on an actual society, but used the opportuniy to inject a number of personal ideas and theories.


    1. I agree. I suspect that More drew on travellers’ tales as one source of inspiration — who at the time couldn’t be affected by the mindshift required following the discovery of a new world? — but that, as a Catholic philosopher, he was exploring deeper issues and, as a lover of puns and wordplay, he aimed to indulge himself in a bit of brain exercise. Whether those travellers’ tales included reports on the Yucatan may be ultimately unfathomable.


  2. What a great review. I had no idea where the word Utopia originated, so thank you for that. For me, the problem with the concept of a Utopia is: a Utopia for who? That’s where the theory breaks down – unless you have a society of consistently like-minded people, either through honest belief or indoctrination – but it is also where the fun for a writer starts.


    1. Thanks! Actually there’s debate about whether he had a double pun in mind — Ou-topia meaning, effectively, Nowhere and the similarly pronounced Eu-topia “Good Place”. If the latter is implicit then he may be covertly indicating Europe (though this has an entirely different etymology) as the object of his satire.

      A utopia for who? Good question — just hoping you’re not expecting an authoritative answer from me!


  3. The question for me is why would Moore write such a book? In the early 1500’s books were not wildly popular among the masses We know many “travel” books from this period were filled with untruths and distortions. . Was Moore looking to fill in the blanks of stories he had heard?
    Now all these years later is seems Stobbart is doing the same.


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