29 May, 2023


Concluding Chapter On Thomas More’s Utopia: Was It Really Ceylon?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

This is the final chapter of ‘Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)’ where two major conclusions are made. First is the possibility that Thomas More drew his inspirations largely from pre-colonial Ceylon, through a Portuguese travel manuscript, where the social system was akin to what Karl Marx later identified as the Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP). It was an inspiration for More to design a ‘utopian socialist society’ in which people lived collectively and there was no private property.

Second is the possibility of designing a future society, taking inspirations from Thomas More and others, where ‘basic needs of all such as food, shelter, health, education and comforts’ are equally met, as the bottom line, and then ‘allow reasonable social variations based on merit and equal competition’ beyond that threshold. Otherwise, all what we talk about democracy and human rights are not worth of their names.

However, as common to many socialist thinkers, some of Thomas More’s political notions were defective. For example, freedom of expression and freedom of movement were restrictive. This means his ideas should be taken with a critical mind, as of all others. In this case, what might be the best for the future of Sri Lanka or any other country would be ‘socialism mixed with liberalism’ or liberal values in their political sense. This is about ‘liberal socialism’ that I would advocate.

In this series, ‘American’ spelling was used purposely to promote such in Sri Lanka. For a ‘language revolution,’ that would be the best and simpler. Part II of the book, which contains Thomas More’s original ‘Utopia’ (in an edited form for easy reading) is not serialized, but available as PDF from the following link for anyone to read and come to her/his conclusions. Click here.

This series was possible courtesy of Colombo Telegraph and Sri Lanka Guardian. The publication link to the original book is: https://www.createspace.com/4688110 Following is the final chapter.


May Avalokitesvara

Refuge of the Virtuous

Ocean of Compassion

Remove my suffering

He who endeavors, day and night

To deliver beings, plunged in samsara


May this Avalokitsvara

Who has compassion

For the lowly and the poor

Protect thee

Avalokitesvara Stanza[1]

THE ABOVE stanza originally in Sanskrit was supposed to be popular in the 15th century Ceylon especially adoring King Parakramabahu VI (1415-1467) as Avalokitsvara, or bodhisattva, a Buddha to be, who cared for ‘the lowly and the poor’ and who was considered ‘virtuous and compassionate’ by the learned men and priests of the period. Parakramabahu VI was the chief king at Kotte, and according to the tradition and politics of that time surrounded by several Princes governing various parts of the country. There were of course internecine conflicts and even warfare between various rulers or administrators in Ceylon throughout history, but the reign of Parakramabahu, at least at the end, was exceptionally peaceful and tranquil which lasted for 52 years. There were nearly 50 prominent cities or divisions in the country all were well contrived and supplied for.

Thomas Moore the Thinker

Along with the kingship was the priesthood. The Chief Priest, Sri Totagamuwe Sri Rahula was in fact was the king’s close relative and a prominent poet. There were over a dozen of outstanding monasteries, called Pririvenas, in the country in charge of a high priest each. They all were learned men, conversant with several languages and the highest achievement in languages was called Shad Bhasa Paramesvera (doctor in six languages). There were visitors to these ancient universities mainly from India, both as students and teachers. The curriculum of these places were quite vast, giving prominence to the study of Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Magadha, Parsi (Persian) and Saurasini, not to speak of the two local languages of Sinhala and Tamil.[2] The learned also appeared to excel in Astrology, Auyrvedic Medicine etc. The most characteristic intellectual achievement of this period pertained to literature.

The legacy of Parakrambahu which was well-known even during the early 16th century swore that he was a benevolent king. His nephew and famous poet, Sri Rahula, popularized the following poem on his behalf that became popular in every household thereafter.

Where else there is a King

Who calls a toddler like me and

Enquire my grief and joy?

Social Base

The society or polity in the medieval or the ancient Ceylon, prior to the advent of colonialism is of course a long spell to generalize. There had been different formations, ups and downs, chaos and periods of stability, but the general tendency had always been to forge a cohesive society based on a ‘community spirit’ and ‘reasonable living standards’ for every family, on which the society was based. Individualism from the West had not yet invaded. Even in terms of politics, there had been variations, at times the people were cursed with brutal rulers but again the general tendency had been to construct a system of politics with ‘benevolence’ and ‘kindness’ while maintaining customary rules of a disciplined society.

There were advantages of Ceylon being a small island, no ruler being able to aspire for a larger empire. The external invasions that the rulers conducted were either in retaliation to external incursions or injustices that it faced in its interactions with the neighbors in the spheres of trade, religion or other matters.[3] The main thrust by and large had been to defend the unity of the island as a whole; a task in itself was not easy given the political and power fissures that it encountered within the country. Therefore, it was almost imperative for the wise rulers to ‘share power’ with legitimate contenders and there are many examples during the 15th and the 16th century how these ‘power sharing’ measures were implemented.

Ceylon at the turn of the 16th century was not at all an ideal society. But it was not capitalist or commercialized in any great measure. The society also was not a typical feudal system of the European variety that Thomas More detested with pompous ‘noblemen.’ Even Robert Knox who happened to live in Ceylon for 19 years (1660-1679), one and a half centuries after this period, had a difficulty in identifying major classes in the Kandyan society, a society much changed by this time. He said the highest class in society was called Hondrews. But it was an honorific title in addressing gentlemen or even clergy and never was a social class. Knox also said that “Riches are not here valued, nor make any more Honorable.”[4]

The society in Ceylon at that time perhaps came closer to what Karl Marx called in his early writings, the Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP). AMP had the characteristics of (1) the absence of private property of the means of production (2) a collective organization of ruling elite dominating the ideological, political and the cultural spheres and (3) the collective organization of the rule based village communities. Perhaps it was mainly the last element that More came to admire when he came to know about this strange island Ceylon from a traveler or a traveler’s manuscript. On the subject of AMP, the following was what Marx once said in his Grundrisse which closely agrees with both More’s Utopia and the pre-capitalist Ceylon.

“The community itself appears as the first great force of production; particular kinds of production conditions (e.g. stock-breeding, agriculture), develop particular modes of production and particular forces of production, subjective, appearing as qualities of individuals, as well as objective [ones].”[5]

The absence of private property was a major characteristic of the pre-capitalist Ceylon without a landowning feudal class to initiate an enclosure movement like in England which was the main criticism of Thomas More. Anything similar to a major enclosure movement took place in Ceylon only in the mid-19th century under the British to facilitate large tea estates.[6] All land in pre-colonial Ceylon belonged to the king or the state and the people were only temporary users or tenets. Not only the land use but also the dwellings of the people were continuously rotated. Only restriction on mobility was for the people to move from one village to another without permission, which could in fact create disturbance to the pattern of production in the village economy.

Way of Living

If we take the society in Ceylon at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese to be a form of AMP, then it is not surprising that Thomas More was highly elated to see an ‘alternative system’ to the emerging capitalism in Europe in this island which he undoubtedly recreated to form his Utopia. Then he also becomes the first European to identify a sort of AMP in Asia. A reputed historian, Paul E. Pieris, pictured the conditions of living of the inhabitants, as possibly be seen by the Portuguese who came ashore in 1505 as follows largely based on Portuguese sources.[7]

“In this fortunate climate the social scheme was one which was eminently calculated to produce contentment in the majority; everyone had a sufficiency of the land for the maintenance of himself and his family, and there was always an abundance of forest available for the occupation of the more enterprising. Of money there was but very little, and the luxuries which money could procure were few.”

It is also possible that it was the way that Dom Lourenco de Almeida reported to his father, Dom Francisco de Almeida, the Viceroy of India, and through him to the King of Portugal, about the surprising discovery of Ceylon in 1505. The society was a simple social scheme without major social classes. In this ‘fortunate climate’ there was abundance of natural crops (coconuts, jack fruit, green leaves and varieties of plantains) that could appease the hunger of anyone even without engaging in cultivation. But the social organization was geared for agriculture and that was the backbone of the national economy. The political system made sure through the village headmen system that people worked and worked hard to fill the national treasures.

“Towns are the creation of trade or of manufacture on a large scale, but the Sinhalese were never a commercial race, and their manufactures did not rise above the level of handicrafts.”

It was Paul E. Pieris again. About the towns, the literature of the period gave a glorious picture. Sri Rahula of Totagamuwa sang the praise of Galle in his poems “where the shops were resplendent with gold and gems and pearls, as if the depths of every ocean had been searched to procure them.” However, this was an exaggeration. The following was what Pieris said about the period again.

“The house of a Sinhalese [or a Tamil] was little more than a temporary protection against the inclemency of the weather. The houses of the greatest contained no chair or table; the furniture at best would consist of a few stools…One or two of the houses of the great noblemen which he [de Sousa] passed would have two storeys, with narrow balconies and painted walls. The strict sumptuary laws which prevailed there no less than in South India limited the rest of the small populace to thatched roofs and unplastered walls.”

The simplicity of living, contentment of life and the meeting of basic needs of all were the qualities that became apparently appreciated by More in writing his Utopia as an alternative society to the emerging capitalism in the West. Then Pieris referred to the possible reception of Payo de Sousa by the local crowds on the streets of Kotte. There is a similar episode related by More in his Utopia referring to the vast gap between the visiting ambassadors and the local people.

“The courteous but frankly inquisitive crowed which gathered to watch de Sousa’s progress through the town would contain as many women as men, for the Mohammedan habit of seclusion was unknown in the country, except in the case of noble women who considered it a disgrace to be seen by any man but their husbands.”

More important about the description is the simple attire of men and women, common to all ordinary people, it appears, which struck More’s imagination as the symbol of an equal society. Only major difference seem to be that More didn’t mention the ‘hair-knot’ that was also common to both men and women of that time of Ceylon.

“Both sexes wore their hair long and tied in a knot behind, and the ear-lobes of both were bored and weighed down with heavy pieces of jewellery. A cloth wrapped round the waist, whether the coarse product of their own country or the fine muslin of the Indian looms, formed the main portion of the costume of the males. The women wore little more, though all of them were covered with jewellery which varied in quality according to the caste. The little children were, as now, innocent of clothing, save perhaps a silver chain. Most of the girls would have flowers entwined in their black hair, and their faces would be daubed with a paste made of the sweet-smelling sandalwood finely grounded; all of them would be chewing the one stimulant of the Sinhalese, the betel leaf and slice of arecanut.”          


The evidence that I have given so far in this chapter to argue that most probably Thomas More used a travel manuscript of Ceylon in designing his imaginary island Utopia are in addition to the similarities that I have revealed both in Chapter 1 and in other chapters. In those chapters, the similarities given were based mainly on the physical and general features of the country or social and religious practices. But it appears that there was something more to the connection and this connection was in respect of ‘socialism’ and/or ‘simple living and contentment of life’ that More advocated.

It is generally believed that the first arrival of the Portuguese in Ceylon was in 1505 when Dom Lourenco’s fleet was driven by the winds to anchor first near Galle and then sailed to Kolon Tota and that is Colombo. After their contacts with the King of Kotte, and also after making some commercial deals, Lourenco obtained permission to engrave a cross and the Portuguese arms on a boulder like in a Padroes.[8] But strangely in that engraving, the year of Portuguese first landing was dated as 1501 and not 1505. Why? It cannot simple be a mistake.

If More’s story about Raphael Hythloday’s stay in ‘Utopia’ for five years is any indication, there is a possibility that some Portuguese were stranded in Ceylon between 1501 and 1505. This is a matter for the historians to look into. However, it was around 1501 that the Portuguese encountered stiff resistance in Calicut from Zamorin and Arab merchants and some were killed and some others had to flee to nearby countries.[9] It is possible that the travel manuscript that More possibly used came from one of those who were stranded and again had the chance to reach Portugal via Calicut after the Portuguese arrival in Ceylon in 1505. This fits very well with Raphael’s story. If that were the case, that stranded Portuguese (or Raphael?) would also have witnessed Payo de Sousa’s visit to Kotte in 1505.

The discovery of Ceylon was a major event not only for Portugal but also for the Catholic Church. In 1507, King Dom Manuel of Portugal addressed a Letter to Pope Julius II on the discovery of Ceylon.[10] The King also ordered a commemorative painting in Lisbon. At the Papal Court there was a solemn procession conducted in honor of the event.[11] It is likely that several documents describing the Island were available in Papal Rome, accessible to those who were closer to the Church. Some could have been quite intimate, independent and objective, including some historical information, if some Portuguese were living in the country between 1501 and 1505.

There is another possibility. When Dom Lourenco’s fleet left Colombo in 1505, they left behind some Portuguese, with a factory and a chapel built. The purpose of the factory was to collect produce of the island for export to Europe and the purpose of the chapel was so obvious. If there had been a chapel, then there must have been one or two persons with some education and intellectual interest. As More reported, in this island the spread of Christianity had already begun. He also relates a story of one convert to Christianity abusing his place in the Church and explains the traditions of the country related to religious freedom. If not based on a travel report, these details are not relevant, if he were only to design an imagined island.

As recorded by Paul Pieris, the factory at Colombo was not successful and “in a few years the men who had been left in charge were recalled.” This could have been somewhere in 1510 and also fits with Raphael’s five-year stay. It is possible that at their leisure, one of them wrote an interesting account of the island even after studying the country’s language/s. However, they were not ‘stranded’ but stationed. Another intriguing factor is that there is no mentioning of cinnamon or the spices which were the main interests of the Portuguese in Ceylon. There is no possibility of explaining this fact at this stage.

It is an undisputable fact that Utopia was written in a hurry or within a short period. Thomas More went to Flanders in May 1515 in a trade mission and the mission was suspended unexpectedly in July. Then he went to Antwerp on the advice of his friend Erasmus to meet Peter Giles and started writing Book II in Antwerp and that was about the Island. Book I was completed after he returned to London, in the following year, almost like an afterthought.[12] It is unusual for a scholar to undertake such a study however capable he is, during a suddenly postponed diplomatic mission, unless something comes across suddenly. There is no indication however that the writing of Utopia was in More’s mind before although some of the ideas of a better commonwealth or a society was in his mind for a long period. There is the great probability that there was a travel monograph in Antwerp perhaps written in Portuguese, for the understanding of which some other’s assistance was necessary. Antwerp those days was a center of travelers and transnational trade. Portuguese travelers of various walks used to visit the place very often.

I am apparently is not the only person who has observed the similarity between the island of Utopia and Ceylon. Quite independently, Elton John has come to a similar observation and the following is what he has said.

“Utopia is an Island nation, vaguely reminiscent of Ceylon, constituting of fifty-four cities organized hierarchically in units.”[13]

While his observation is a casual comment, the present exposition was an attempt to argue that there is a great possibility that Thomas More used a travel monograph based on Ceylon in designing his Utopia both in form and also in content, at least to some extent.


The possible connection of Utopia to Ceylon is not the only or main merit of Thomas More’s discourse. Utopia should be admired or appreciated for its own merit. It is a discourse on socialism and some of the issues of the present day society could be addressed based on that discourse in a humanitarian manner. ‘Ceylon’ in this discourse is not ‘Ceylon per se’ but about mainly the Asian or Asiatic societies.

It is clear that at the time of transformation from feudalism to capitalism in Europe, people like Thomas More became immensely disturbed not because of the disappearing feudalism but because of the disappearance of some of the universal values with it; the community cohesion and family in general and the care for the poor in particular. This is exactly what has happened or happening in Asia or Sri Lanka today in the guise of development or mere economic progress. There is no question that More’s vision was much more, and more profound. He was visualizing a society without social classes, without poverty or scarcity, where all basic needs of all people are met through a well-planned economy and society. It may be true that his scheme of society is too mechanistic or stereotypical. No society might be able to have such a simplistic scheme completely disregarding the evolution of the (capitalist) economic system during the last five centuries.

However, it might be possible to redesign our societies in which all basic human needs of all people such as food, shelter, health, education and comforts are equally met as the bottom line and then allow reasonable social variations based on merit and equal competition beyond that threshold. Otherwise, all what we talk about democracy and human rights are not worth of their names. The vision of Sama Samaja (equal society) is not at all a bad idea in Sri Lanka although its meaning has faded away in the course of events and circumstances. There has been a terrible failure of good governance and what More talked about as the ‘best conditions of the commonwealth.’

There are other worthwhile merits and conclusions deriving from More’s vision. All just societies should be multi-religious and multi-cultural, and ethnic differences should not interfere, of the majority or the minority, although More did not directly talk about the ethnic issue. Agriculture should be preserved as a safety net of the economy and society, and the environment should be protected as a major priority including the well-being of other animal species. The balance between the country and town should be maintained including the balance in population distribution. Thomas More gave priority to health and education and advocated euthanasia. His notion of family was flexible enough to accommodate modern notions. He admired a system of law with least coercion and legal enactments.

His notion of the best commonwealth is a devolved political system where all units are similar giving priority to what can be called today, horizontal democracy. Inequalities between the units are mediated by the center through the redistribution of wealth and income. Of course there are unacceptable notions of his political discourse. Although he gave priority to freedom of conscience, his notion of freedom of expression was restrictive. Freedom of movement also was the same perhaps giving priority to work commitments. All should live in transparency without much concern for the imperatives of privacy. More also could not think beyond a monarchy, however popular based it was, and slavery also approved as a criminal punishment.

What all these good points and bad ones signify is that even Thomas More’s Utopia should not be considered sacrosanct. It should be taken with a critical mid. What might be the best for the future of Sri Lanka or any other country would be socialism mixed with liberalism or liberal values in their political sense.

[1] This is an adapted version of Paranavitana translation cited by John C Holt, Buddha in the Crown, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 110.

[2] Apart from W. I. Siriweera and J B Dissanayake, late historian R. A. L. H. (Leslie) Gunawardana was one who highlighted the importance of this period in terms of multiculturalism although his works are not cited here for practical reasons.

[3] The descriptions of war that Utopians conducted according to More resonate some of the wars during the 15th century Ceylon. See W. I. Siriweera, History of Sri Lanka, Dayawansa Jayakody, Colombo, 2002, pp.82-83.

[4] Robert Knox, An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon in the East Indies, London, 1681, p. 66.

[5] Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political economy [New Left Review translation], Pelican Books, London, 1973, Book V p. v.

[6] Waste Land Acts (1848/49) were the main instruments of these enclosures of land which created similar calamity to what More talked about in England.

[7] All relevant following quotations on Ceylon for the period are from Paul E. Pieris, Ceylon and the Portuguese, 1505-1658, American Ceylon Mission Press, Jaffna, 1920, pp. 26-28.

[8] Padroes were some stone pillars that the Portuguese carried in their voyages to set up in their newly discovered countries.

[9] Zamorin was the royal title of Hindu Kings of Calicut on Malabar Coast of that time, now Kerala.

[10] C. R. de Silva (Ed.), Portuguese Encounters, Ashgate Publishing, Burlington, 2009, p. 2-7.

[11] Pieris, op. cit. p. 32.

[12] For a detailed analysis of these circumstances see my “Ceylon, The Likely Blueprint of Thomas More’s Utopia” University of Colombo Arts Faculty Journal, No. 1.

[13] Elton A. Hall, Teachers of the Eternal Doctrine: From Tsong-Ka-Pa to Nostradamus, Theosophic Trust, Lincoln, 2006, p. 159.


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Latest comments

  • 2

    Dr. Laksiri Fernando,

    RE: Concluding Chapter On Thomas More’s Utopia: Was It Really Ceylon?

    Thank you , you finally finished Thomas More. Congratulations.

    Now can you start o the Common Sense Pamphlet for Ceylon, Sri Lanka, the Land of Native Veddah Aethho?

    This Phamplet , similar to the one by Thomas Paine for America, is solely needed now.

  • 7

    Finally !
    I am glad I lived long enough to see the end of this saga. I feared that I will not and it might be my grandchildren who will read the final chapter.

  • 2

    I did not know that verse was by Totagamuwe Sri Rahula. Here it is recited by a child but there is no mention of the King. Are there several versions of it? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zd4OBP59KzY

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