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3.1: Colonialism

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    Cultural Context: Colonialism

    Introduction & Background

    The Age of European Expansion–the period of European discovery and expansion during the 16th century– sets the stage for Sir Thomas More’s philosophical and humanist text, Utopia. The culturally relevant ideas of exploration, travel, and colonization greatly informed More’s creation and development of Utopos, the fictional island at the center of this work. As European explorers such as Christopher Columbus and John Cabot began voyaging westward, previously undiscovered lands came into view of European leaders. The desire for expansion and power, in tandem with these so-called “new” lands, created an ample opportunity for European leaders to utilize– and exploit– new commodities, resources, and peoples. 

    According to Richard Hakluyt, a 16th-century English writer, the reasons to support colonialism and colonization outweighed the risks. For instance, in a 1584 document addressed to Queen Elizabeth I, Hakluyt argues that allocating additional money and resources to English colonies in the Americas will benefit England for several reasons. One such reason, according to Hakluyt, is that colonization will lead to a spread in Christianity and will “be greatly for the enlargement of the gospel of Christ” (Hakluyt). Additionally, he asserts that English colonization has economic prospects that “will yield unto us all the commodities of Europe, Africa, and Asia, as far as we were wont to travel, and supply the wants of all our decayed trades.” Moreover, author Jill Lepore– in her 2018 historical text These Truths– probes and scrutinizes traditionally accepted views of colonialism and the United States’ origins. She points out that, if we are to trace the history of the United States back to 1492, it must be viewed as a product “of staggering cruelty, conquest and slaughter, [and] the assassination of world” (Lepore 3). The potential for new markets and economic advancements, which spearheaded this Age of European Expansion, would eventually lead to the displacement and massacre of many indigenous cultures. 

    Many written records reveal that the locating of new lands and indigenous communities was met with condescension and sanctimony rather than consideration for the lands upon which explorers tread. For instance, in 1493 letter, Columbus writes that natives are “by nature fearful and timid.” He also reveals that he “took by force some Indians from the first island, in order that they might learn” from his European way of life (Columbus). Such written records allow modern audiences and historians to critically examine the circumstances under which colonialism thrived. By downplaying the independence and abilities of these indigenous peoples, explorers such as Columbus were able to rationalize exploitation in the name of exploration. 

    Thomas More’s Utopia, then, is profoundly influenced by this Age of European Expansion. Raphael Hythloday’s discovery of a perfect society on the island of Utopos both affirms and rejects traditional Eurocentric views of the “New World.” Hythloday, a fictional explorer in More’s Utopia, upholds the notion that lands west of the Atlantic are considered undiscovered until explored by Europeans. On the other hand, Hythloday does not speak of Utopos as a land to be cultivated or re-civilized for the economic benefit of European nations, as was often the case during the rise of colonialism. More describes Hythloday as a man “driven by a desire to see the world,” rather than someone driven to conquer it (More 25). Moreover, Hythloday states that he remained in Utopia “for over five years, and would gladly never have left except to reveal that new world to others” (More 53). Hylthoday’s respect for the Utopian culture opposes the impertinence with which many explorers met indigenous peoples. 


    Vespucci's_first_voyage,_from_Letter_to_Soderini woodcut 1505Amerigo Vespucci’s Letters

    Amerigo Vespucci was a prominent 16th-century Florentine explorer and navigator. Operating under the patronage of the Medici family, he made at least two voyages to what is now South America. Unlike Columbus, who believed he had landed in Asia, Vespucci concluded that these western lands were an entirely new continent. Based primarily on letters to his patron Lorenzo Medici, The Four Voyages is a dramaticized account of Vespucci’s expeditions. “The First Voyage” relays the findings of his 1497 trip to South America under the patronage of Ferdinand, King of Castile. In this first section of The Four Voyages, Vespucci details his encounters with the indigenous peoples of South America. He recalls the “hordes of naked people running along the shore,” whom the explorers enticed with “little bells and mirrors and pieces of crystal” (Vespucci 2). Such a description elicits an air of condescension; the explorers handed the natives trinkets in a manner similar to how an adult might hand a child a toy. Vespucci continues with descriptions– and at times, judgements– of these indigenous tribes, ranging from their marital practices to eating habits.

    Because of his detailed descriptions, More likely used Vespucci’s “The First Voyage” as the foundation upon which to build the Utopian culture. Many details included in Book Two of Utopia mirror those included in “The First Voyage.” For instance, Vespucci writes that this culture does “not value gold, nor pearls, nor gems, nor such other things as we consider precious here in Europe” (Vespucci 4). Likewise, Hythloday– the narrator for Book Two– explains that the Utopians “contrive in every way to bring gold and silver into low esteem,” often using these metals as physical restraints for their enslaved population (More 76). There are also many details in Utopia that conflict with Vespucci’s account of the New World. Where Vespucci describes the liberal sexual practices of these indigenous tribes, More explains that the Utopians “are the only people in that part of the world to be strictly monogamous” (More 93). More draws upon specific details from “The First Voyage” and the New World while still outfitting Utopos with many of his own beliefs and values. By even creating a fictional ideal society, More acknowledges that aspects of his own sociopolitical environment are flawed. Utopia hinges on this fusion between indigenous, New World customs and traditional Eurocentric systems.


    Colonialism in Utopia

    More’s Utopia is best understood within the historical context of 16th-century colonialism. At a time when exploration and colonization reflected a nation’s power and status, a fictionalized account of such topics is nothing if not felicitous. Given that he was a close advisor and friend of King Henry VIII at the time of publication, More had both personal and political motives for writing Utopia. Within the first sentence of Book One, More references “the most invincible” King Henry, the ruler who had authority over English exploration and colonization (More 23). By commending Henry VIII’s reign at the very start of the text, More orients the reader towards life under the British Crown; Henry VIII holds the power to fund expeditions and establish English colonies. This reflects the complexity of European colonialism. While Raphael Hythloday is the one to “discover” Utopos, King Henry VIII would be the one to decide whether or not to colonize it. Likewise, More is the one to write down and disseminate information regarding this fictional land. Each of these aspects reflects the multifaceted nature of this so-called “Age of Exploration.” 

    Colonialism is a thematic thread that ties together both books of Utopia. While Book One focuses on the aforementioned British colonialism under King Henry VIII, Book Two makes note of the Utopians’ own colonialist practices. Hythloday explains that, when the Utopians find a nearby state with more soil than they can cultivate “they establish a colony subject to their own laws on the neighbouring mainland, [and] those who refuse to live under their laws the Utopians drive out”” (More 68). Given that they are making good use of otherwise idle soil, the Utopians argue that both parties benefit from such a large increase in crop production. More’s inclusion of such details highlights the profundity of colonialism and the “New World” during the 16th century. Perhaps More is arguing that if Utopia– the ideal society– practices colonialism, then other, less-ideal nations are warranted in their colonialist pursuits.


    By Tess Diamond

    3.1: Colonialism is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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