By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
“Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)” by Laksiri Fernando
Laksiri Fernando’s recent book titled “Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)” (Createspace, 2014) certainly is one of the most interesting books published due to the fact that it differs greatly from the general line of investigation undertaken by leading contemporary Sri Lankan political scientists. Fernando takes Thomas More’s book, published in 1516 in Latin (English and other language translations were published later) and argues that the island imagined by More in this book was in fact Sri Lanka. The rational is that More took inspiration to his ideal society from a real world example, the 16th century Ceylon.
Fernando enthusiastically introduces Thomas More, who was one of the early socialist thinkers and coined the now very popular term ‘Utopia,’ which means an ideal society or condition. The book entails two major sections: the first section examines More’s ideas from Laksiri Fernando’s perceptions and the section two, is the reproduction of More’s work with some modifications to make the comprehension easier for an unfamiliar reader. This review therefore is concerned with the first section of the book. In this section Fernando: (1) introduces and examines More’s notion of socialism, (2) argues that the utopian island that More talks about in this book was Sri Lanka, and (3) contends that socialism can be the medicine for some of the problems the Sri Lankan society faces today.
Being a left oriented scholar himself, Laksiri Fernando introduces More’s notion of socialism with sort of admiration. It is argued that although More was not the first socialist thinker he was the first to present a “strong critique against the emerging capitalist society in England” in the 15th and the 16th centuries. Fernando, therefore, argues that More was the first “modern socialist thinker” (p. xvii). More’s socialist ideas are discussed under several themes; economy, politics, society and so on. For example, under ‘Utopian Political Economy,’ Fernando points out that it was “a system of agrarian socialism combined with good governance at least in the economic sphere” (p. 27). In More’s Utopia, people work six hours a day and all capable people are forced to work. It is however, imperative to note that Fernando does not indulge in uncritical appreciation of More’s ideas. For example, equality is one of the basic premises of the socialist society More had in mind. Utopians live in similar houses and wear similar garments and Fernando has some harsh words. Fernando points out that “compared with many other sophisticated propositions by More, this appears to be quite immature and stereotypical” and wonders what is wrong with fashion or beauty (p. 48). Fernando further contends that More perhaps was advocating an unnecessary uniformity in his ideal society. Fernando also forcefully refutes the notion that ‘freedom of movement’ should be restricted in his ideal land. Therefore, the book entails a thought-provoking discourse on More’s socialism.
The Utopian Ceylon
The most interesting discussion however, takes place on the thesis that More’s dreamland in fact was Ceylon of the 15th and the 16th centuries. This should be considered the center-piece of the book. While noting that there are other several theories on the possible real world location of More’s Utopia, including England, ‘Atlantis,’ Kerala and the Philippines, Laksiri Fernando argues that the geography, history, politics and society of the then Ceylon fits the description. Fernando believes that More knew about Ceylon and most probably got the idea from a travel narrative written by a Portuguese who was stranded in Ceylon in the eve of the first official colonial arrival in 1505.
More’s information on his dreamland was not first hand. Hence there bound to be inaccuracies and exaggerations. Yet, some of the physical descriptions used by More mirrors Ceylon’s physical and historical features, argues Fernando. For example, Fernando believes that the harbor described in Utopia was Trincomalee, Amaurot, the capital of Utopia was Kotte, river Anider was Kelani (Ganga), and the small river described was in fact Diyawanna Oya. According to Fernando this is how More describes the physical features of his Utopia i.e Ceylon, “the island of Utopia is in the middle 200 miles broad, and holds almost at the same breadth over a great part of it; but it grows narrower towards both ends. Its figure is not unlike a crescent: between its horns” (p. 4). Fernando argues that even the history of the island matches the narrative of Vijaya and his arrival in the island. Utopus, founder of Utopia was Vijaya was the argument.
In relation to this argument Fernando states that “Vijaya is considered the founder of Lanka or Ceylon” (p. 7). It is here some of the contradictions of the book begin to surface. Vijaya is not considered the founder of Ceylon but the Sinhala race. Describing some of the customs of the people in Utopia, More says that “in the festival which concludes the period, before they go to the temple, both wives and children fall on their knees before their husbands or parents…” (p. 11-12). In response, Fernando argues that this and other customs described are “akin to both Hindu and Buddhist practices, perhaps more to Hinduism” (p. 11). In reality however most of the customs depicted are Sinhala and Buddhist. As a custom, the Hindus in Sri Lanka do not “fall” on their knees before their husbands or parents. In Sri Lanka this is typically a Sinhala practice, which exists even today and valued as a great tradition among most of the Sinhala people.
One of the main factors that could cause an intense debate is the imagination that Ceylon was a single political unit in the early 16th century. According to the thesis of Laksiri Fernando, there existed a “good government” in Ceylon and the people were united, their laws and customs were the same and they lived as a “family.” There was also a Supreme Council which consisted of three Senators from each district. Therefore, More and Fernando conceive of a single socio-political unit. However, when the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka, the land was divided vaguely into three independent kingdoms. This was a major feature of colonial history of Ceylon. Also the differences between the Sinhalese and the Tamils especially were very apparent even in this period. Some of the sources Fernando has quoted from the same period talk about “Sinhala traders” and “Sinhala and Tamil houses.” Against this backdrop, imagining Ceylon as a homogeneous society may need some serious convincing. Also this makes the reviewer wonder whether the descriptions of Utopia match Ceylon or Kotte. It is possible that More’s informer had a narrow experience in the South only.
Nevertheless, in his introduction itself the author declares that his thesis is presented as a hypothesis and it is up to the historians to prove or disprove it. The idea remains open to examination, as intended. Historians with strong grasp on global geography will be able to effectively judge Laksiri Fernando’s thesis. Therefore, the book has the potential to ignite a useful debate on the history and society in Sri Lanka.
Socialism as Panacea
One of the points Fernando makes is that socialism could be the answer for many of the social issues facing the country today. He believes that “socialism perhaps is the just and the most rational solution to many of the social ills of our society, … if it could be embedded with liberal values and principles…” (p. xxiv). This perhaps the rational for the whole project. Introducing different notions and dynamics of socialism may help resolve some of the present problems, seems like Fernando’s basic assumption. Given the socialist and/or leftist history and experimentation in the country this assumption looks extremely problematic. Therefore, an in-depth discussion on the subject matter and the author’s proposals are in order. Especially, given the peculiarities of the Sri Lankan society, spelling out of how liberal values could be combined with socialism to seek solutions is important. However, this discussion is missing. Perhaps, Laksiri Fernando may delve more into his proposals in his future writings. In that sense, the book opens up new topics for future research and debate. Political science students, especially those who are interested in socialist ideology and history will find this book extremely useful and thought provoking.
* Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland, USA