Monarchy, Disorder, and Politics in the Isle of Pines

By Stillman, Peter G. | Utopian Studies, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Monarchy, Disorder, and Politics in the Isle of Pines


Stillman, Peter G., Utopian Studies


Henry Neville lived through the extensive political, social, and cultural turbulence of seventeenth century England. He was a stalwart advocate of republicanism against the protectorate of Cromwell and the monarchy of Charles II, active in politics and noted for his writing, including acerbic pamphlets and an important republican tract, Plato Redivivus. He also wrote The Isle of Pines in 1668, a short pamphlet about a man and four women who are shipwrecked on a hitherto unknown island in the Indian Ocean and then discovered by a Dutch ship. Written in opposition to the tyranny of the 1660s, with its repression of political dissenters, internal problems of governing, and failing foreign policy towards (as well as military defeats by) the Dutch, Neville's Isle contains a republican treatment of rule and misrule, political pornography for a dissolute time of blatantly sinful sexual behavior by royalty, a re-examination of patriarchal rule in the Bible and the present, the portrayal of a state of nature, and a story of colonial plantation and reproduction, complete with issues of race and miscegenation.

This essay focuses on The Isle of Pines as a political and utopian text. As a political argument, The Isle of Pines engages in a discourse that addresses the contemporary philosophical arguments and popular polemics of Filmer, Harrington, Hobbes, and innumerable other pamphleteers on the origin, structure, and exercise of political power, the relation of politics to religion, the widespread arguments and concerns about monarchical rule, and the day-to-day issues of the morals and practices of the current king, Charles II, and his brother and heir apparent. As a utopian text, The Isle of Pines is arcadian, utopian, and dystopian. (1) The island is an arcadia when the five English survivors land an idyllic island where an abundant nature can supply their every want, with no need for them to labor, suffer, or plan. Soon, however--at least by the time that George Pines is imposing sexual rotation to fit his purposes--the inhabitants' attitudes and behaviors are such that they cannot successfully live in that bountiful setting without civil strife that must be suppressed by rules and constraints. Even though nature remains plenteous, arcadia gives way to utopia. Once George Pines imposes regulations on his wives--and especially when laws and government are established by Henry Pines after George's death and the Dutch use violence to suppress another revolt--the societies on the isle resemble early modern utopias: attempts to establish good or ideal societies that take into account the fallibilities of human beings by establishing institutions to accommodate, constrain, or render superfluous anti-social attitudes and behaviors. In early modern utopias as on the isle, human beings have needs and wishes that do not allow them to live peacefully within the resources of their locale but compel them to order their political life if they are to survive and flourish. On the isle, defective political arrangements decline into conflict, bloodshed, and civil war, as utopias dissolve into dystopias; and then new attempts are undertaken to establish different good societies.

The Story

The story's outline can be readily recounted. The ship India Merchant sails from England in 1569 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth but founders in a storm in the Indian Ocean. George Pines and four women--the ship's captain's daughter, two maidservants, and a Negro slave--by good fortune make it ashore on an obscure island. They settle into a luxurious and leisurely life. George eventually fathers 47 children; by the time he has been on the island 59 years, he has 1789 descendants. By George's own written history of the settlement, life in his little society appears easy and idyllic. (2)

George's eldest son, Henry, marries George's eldest daughter and half-sister, the child of the ship captain's daughter. To him, George gives his Bible, the written narrative of his experiences, his position as "chief Governour and Ruler," and his charge to remember the Christian religion and the customs of Europe (16).

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