Utopia and Malabar

I am sure many will wonder what earthly connection Utopia and Malabar would or could ever have had. Admittedly, Kerala is quite literate according to many indicators and is/was a model state and so on, but with the news that can be read on today’s newspapers and seen on TV, many would agree that Kerala is now trending in the negative direction. Anyway instead of digressing, let me get back to the topic which is - the connection between Utopia and Malabar, and before you curl your brows in a quizzical look, there was apparently one (I should admit right at the outset that this is a quick and superficial study).

But before we dive into the topic, what is Utopia? In principle it is Greek for ‘Good place’. The literary term Utopia was coined from this Greek word by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, an earthly paradise. It is supposedly an egalitarian place like John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ portrays, where there is total harmony between humans and nature, where mankind had few needs and small desires, where there was no war or oppression, is filled with simple and pious people, with little hard labor to endure, where men and women were equal… well, let me put it this way, a place you can’t even think of or dream of, today. In summary, the current use of the word Utopia, referring to an ideal place or society, was therefore inspired by More's description of a perfect place to live.

Where did this 501 year old concept come from and which locale provided fodder for More’s fictional utopia? To get an answer to the question, you have to meet Raphael Hythloday (“Hythloday” is Greek for “speaker of nonsense”). In 1516, More published his book in Latin titled (translation) ‘A truly golden little book, no less beneficial than entertaining, of a republic's best state and of the new island Utopia.’ Many question why More wrote it and many scholars opine that the book was a criticism of the evils of European society of his times which are detailed in Book I and potential solutions being provided in some way in Book II.

In the book, Thomas meets Raphael who had returned after a sojourn to the east during which he stayed five years at the idyllically perfect island of Utopia. Of course Raphael is a fictional character, and in the book some real people are also interspersed to lend credibility to the prose and hold the readers interest. The voyage mentioned is Amerigo Vespucci’s 4th voyage and Raphael was one of the 24 who supposedly went with him.

Let’s now step back in time and look at that era. I have written much about the Portuguese travelers and discoveries, covering Vasco Da Gama, Cabral, Magellan and so on and their travels to India. Summarizing it in a paragraph is quite tough, but then again let’s try. The lure of spices coupled with the missionary zeal of the Spaniards and the Portuguese started it all and with some difficulty, Vasco Da Gama discovered the sea route to Malabar from Lisbon, landing in Calicut just before the monsoons of 1498. He had a rough time during this visit, but went back telling tall tales and excited his king into starting a series of new voyages to Malabar with an intent to corner the spice trade and decimate the Arab stronghold in the spice market. The second armada led by Cabral arrived in Calicut in 1500 and many others followed.

But something interesting happened in this Cabral voyage. In the Cabral ship that departed Cochin on 10th Jan 1501 was the 40 year old Joseph, ‘a man with a benevolent reception’ and his brother Mathias (Mathai). Fr Joseph was a St Thomas Christian Nazrani who hailed from Cranganore (Kodungallur). Mathias died enroute (or at Lisbon). After reaching Lisbon in June 1501, and meeting King Manuel, he stayed in Lisbon for 6 months as a royal guest (as the first Indian Christian to visit Europe) before proceeding to meet Pope Alexander VI in Rome. He then left for Venice in 1502 and remained a guest of the Signoria of Venice and from there went on ‘probably’ to Jerusalem and Persia (Aramea and Babylon). Some say he came back to Lisbon from Venice. The various interviews he gave at Venice, Lisbon and Rome became known as the ‘Narratives of Joseph the India’, the very first accounts of India by an Indian.  Bits and pieces of his accounts of Malabar, the Mahabali epoch and the advent of Parasurama in its reclaiming perhaps crept into More’s creation of Utopia. Joseph Minattur was the first to do a brief study in this matter and his paper is somewhat illuminating. It could also have been comments by Manuel, the converted Nair who became a fidalgo in Portugal, but suffices to note that one of these native members provided fodder for the novel in question.

Whatever happened to Cabral? Because of the great loss of lives on the voyages, especially the loss of Bartolomeo Dias who went down with his ship off the Cape of Good Hope, it was not a happy homecoming for him. King Manuel I greeted Cabral with kindness, but the two of them were in disagreement because Vasco da Gama had been chosen to lead the next expedition. Cabral never returned to the King’s court. He got married, had six children, and lived near the Tagus River until his death around 1520.

Before we get to the book, let us look at one more character, the Italian Amerigo Vespucci. He did not ever visit Malabar, though he made many claims and is the person after whom America got named eventually. Initially he worked for the Spanish crown, but later in 1500, at the invitation of King Manuel I of Portugal, Vespucci participated as observer in several voyages that explored the east coast of South America until 1502. He is said to have participated in four voyages, a matter still disputed, but then letters ascribed to him were accounts which connected his name to many discoveries, including America. His second and third voyage sailed eastwards and the third voyage occurred in 1500-1501 where he met Cabral’s above mentioned armada returning from Malabar. In a letter from Cape Verde, Vespucci says that he hopes to visit the same lands that Álvares Cabral had explored, suggesting that the intention is to sail west to Asia, as on the 1499–1500 voyage. In 1508, the position of chief of navigation of Spain (piloto mayor de Indias) was created for Vespucci after his becoming a Spanish citizen, with the responsibility of planning navigation for voyages to the Indies.

Their accounts provided a base for More’s creation of the fictional island sometime during 1515. In context it is important to note that Barbosa’s detailed account was published only in 1518, so one could assume that the Joseph accounts were the only first account ones available to More, other than Varthema’s accounts published in 1510-11. The book has been analyzed by philosophers, historians and all kinds of specialists to study the far reaching and somewhat opposing ideology projected by More, at a time when he was considered to be more of a conforming catholic. Was he trying to show what the opposite could be? Or was he musing of a ‘what if’ imaginary scenario of a perfect world? 

Why would he implant inputs from far away eastern lands? At that time, all strange lands to the west and east of Europe were potentials, with America being considered as the Garden of Eden. Researcher Yeter Caglar analyses it thus - The word ‘utopia’ derives from two Greek words ‘eutopia’ meaning good place and ‘outopia’ meaning no place. Thomas More is the creator of the work, Utopia. He combined ‘ou’ negative prefix with ‘topos, a place in order to produce the title of the book. It has two diametrical meanings: nowhere and perfect place. Utopia can be defined an ideal and perfect place that does not exist anywhere on earth. But is it right? Did the lands in the east possess any of the required criteria and was Malabar a potential?

So I guess, it would make some sense to now amble across and see what the Utopia book was all about. Set in Antwerp, Netherlands, Raphael Hythloday the Portuguese, Peter Giles one who was dealing commercially with the Portuguese, and Thomas More sit down outside the beautiful church of Notre Dame to discuss the Hyhloday’s travels. Note here that More Is real, so is Giles who was the son of the Assistant Treasurer of Antwerp and a Chief Secretary, a classical scholar and a jurist. Hythloday apparently was one who had accompanied Vespucci in the American voyage and subsequent trips to the east during which he pauses to spend five years in Utopia, visiting Malabar and Trapobane (Ceylon) on the way. In the Quattuor Navigationes Vespucci gives Malacca and Calicut as his ultimate destinations, so that Hythloday can be said to have completed Vespucci's abortive "Fourth Voyage." He was left behind in what is now Brazil, though More does not mention it by name. Somehow, from there he managed to get to Calicut from where he sailed back to Europe.

Let us look at some if the characteristics of Utopia, an island in the oceans somewhere between South America and Malabar. The island of Utopia is in the middle just 200 miles broad, and holds almost at the same breadth over a great part of it; but it grows narrower towards both ends. Smewhat similar to Ceylon, More goes on to describe it as - its figure is not unlike a crescent: between its horns, the sea comes in eleven miles broad, and spreads itself into a great bay, which is environed with land to the compass of about five hundred miles, and is well secured from winds.

It is an island with no private property and with goods being stored in warehouses, people request just what they need. Houses are not locked, and Agriculture is the main profession where men and women work. They all wear simple clothes, work just 6 hours and all households have two slaves (these slaves are foreigners or Utopian criminals - released at times for good behavior). It is a welfare state with free hospitals, where even euthanasia is permissible, where priests are like normal people allowed to marry  where divorce is permitted, but where premarital sex is punished by celibacy and adultery punished by enslavement.

Identity documents are important in the island, for some peculiar reason, and this demonstrates that visitors from other places are perhaps common. Travel on the island is only permitted with an internal passport and any people found without a passport are, on a first occasion, returned in disgrace, but after a second offence they are placed in slavery. Rules of law are simple and well understood by all. All kinds of religions are permitted, there are moon-worshipers, sun-worshipers, planet-worshipers, ancestor-worshipers and monotheists, but all of them tolerate the others. But then again, atheists are despised (but allowed) in Utopia, as they are seen as representing a danger to the state: since they do not believe in any punishment or reward after this life, they have no reason to share the communistic life of Utopia, and will break the laws for their own gain.

Even though wives are subject to their husbands and husbands are subject to their wives with women restricted to conducting household tasks but also undertaking training in military arts, interestingly gambling, hunting, makeup and astrology are all discouraged in Utopia. In Utopia, it is believed that animals also have immortal souls. Utopians do not like war, but do provide military aid to friendly countries

The first hint of Indian lands being somewhat of a base for this fiction is evidenced by More’s attribution of Utopia’s characteristics to Gymnosophy. I wonder if you recall an earlier article of mine relating to Calanus and Alexander. Gymnosophia was the philosophy of the Brahmans who, it was always felt by the Greeks, lived in a commonwealth ruled through ancient laws and culture was devoid of lust, pride, and greed.

The language of Utopia is another which has been analyzed and oft talked about, concluding it to be composed of many tongues and entirely imaginary. Some scholars (Darrett, Lach) opine it to be closer to Malayalam, samples of which script More obtained from returning Portuguese travelers who had been collecting Malayalam words from the first voyage of 1498.

Joseph Minattur’s study is interesting, and he opines that much of the input came from Malabar. He is convinced that the words of Joseph the Indian were the main source, even though Joseph himself was somewhat critical of Hindu thought and religion. He suggests that More heard of the Parasurama legend and reversed it. While Kerala was reclaimed from the sea by Parasurama in the legend, Utopia was formed off a portion of the mainland. He opines that the family size of 40 and two slaves is similar to a Malabar tharavad. The fact that both men and women partake in military training is equated to kalaripayattu and the kalari schools of Malabar.

But the most and the wisest part (rejecting all these) believe that there is a certain godly power unknown, everlasting, incomprehensible, inexplicable, far above the capacity and reach of man’s wit, dispersed throughout all the world, not in bigness, but in virtue and power. Him they call the father of all. To him alone they attribute the beginnings, the increasings, the proceedings, the changes and the ends of all things. Neither they give divine honours to any other than to him. Yea all the other also, though they be in diverse opinions, yet in this point they agree all together with the wisest sort, in believing that there is one chief and principal God, the maker and ruler of the whole world: whom they all commonly in their country language call Mithra. Joseph equates Thampuran to Mithra.

He believes that clinching evidence comes from the discussion of a Christian bishop. Quoting the text - Yea, they reason and dispute the matter earnestly among themselves, whether without the sending of a Christian bishop, one chosen out of their own people may receive the order of priesthood. And truly they were minded to choose one. But at my departure from them they had chosen none. This incidentally was an issue which the Syrian Christians of Malabar did face in the 16th century. He also believes that Utopia arises from the name of Joseph which was actually Utup (Father Utup or Utupacchan).

In conclusion, Joseph Minattur says – The points of similarity noted above may be sufficient to indicate that Saint Thomas More most probably had the people of Kerala in mind when he delineated the Utopians the way he did. There is express statement in the prefatory verses that Utopia was based on gymnosophy. More’s circumstances indicate that he had access to information about Malabar, and some of the details in the picture appear to be reflections of life in Kerala. A few of the change from Kerala life envisaged in Utopia could be due to More’s espousal of Christian ethics, for instance insistence on monogamy and the mention of severe punishments for conjugal infidelity. When More attributed a communal way of life to Utopians, he was probably reviving for them a way of followed by Christ’s disciples ‘which had been pleasing to Christ’. The saint that he was, More may have been prophetic when he envisaged some form of ‘communism’ in the land of Utopus or Utupaccan.

But then again, one should also look at the age old reign of Mahabali in Kerala when life was considered Utopian. The song sung during the Onam festival typically, went thus ( loose translation provided)

Maveli Naadu vaanidum kaalam, Manushyarellarum onnu pole, Aamodathode vasikkum kaalam, Aapathangarku mottilla thanum. Trans - When King Mahabali was ruling our country, All men lived    alike, it was a time of joy, and no danger for anyone.
Aadhikal vyaadhikal onnumilla, Baalamaranangal kelkkanilla, Dushtare kankondu kaanmanilla, Nallavarallathe illa paaril… illa paaril. Trans – No suffering, no disease nobody had even heard of infant death, and there were only good people in that world.
Kallavumilla chathiyumilla, Ellolamilla polivachanam… polivachanam Vellikolaadikal naazhikalum, Ellam kanakkinu thulyamaayi… thulyamaayi. Trans – No theft, no cheating, no lying about weights and all balances were accurate
Kallapparayum cherunazhiyum, Kallatharangal mattonnumilla, Kallavumilla chathiyumilla, Ellolamilla polivachanam… polivachanam Trans - No cheating with inaccurate balances, no other kind of lying, even a grain of sesame was weighed correctly.

Did a gist of this age old ballad end up with More? We do not know, but Utopia the book was begun while More was an envoy in Flanders in May 1515, Erasmus published the book in Leuven in 1516, but it was only translated into English and published in his native land in 1551 (16 years after his execution), and the 1684 translation became the most commonly cited.

I must also add that inhabitants of Ceylon see a depiction of their island in More’s work. Prof Laksiri Fernando has researched this subject in depth, Elton John has also opined so and the work of Prof Laksiri presents many an argument supporting his case.

Saint Thomas More, was an English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman and a noted Renaissance humanist. More opposed the Protestant Reformation, in particular the theology of Martin Luther and William Tyndale. More also opposed the King's separation from the Catholic Church, refusing to acknowledge Henry as Supreme Head of the Church of England and the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. After refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, he was convicted of treason and beheaded.

It was much latter that JH Lawrence wrote The Empire of the Nair’s. I had written about the work and the author, some years ago..

By the way, there is a place in Texas, America called Utopia. The citizens of the earlier settlement of Waresville renamed their city Utopia after finding "Montana, Texas," had already been taken. About 200 people live in this tranquil city.

A comparative analysis of Thomas More’s Utopia and Plato’s republic in the enhancement of teaching language procedure - Yeter ÇAĞLAR
Thomas More and Joseph the Indian - J. Duncan M. Derrett

Portuguese Armada - By Walrasiad - Own work, CC BY 3.0,