Thursday, March 24, 2005


Both Columbus and Magellan had set courses toward a destination linked with ancient legends. Their quest was one written of since the dawn of history. For the first time though documented in a clear fashion.

In 1516, Thomas More wrote the novel Utopia, three years before Magellan would set out on his historic voyage. More actually coined the phrase "utopia" for this work.

Utopia was located evidently somewhere between the mythical Castellum in the newly-discovered land of South America, and Taprabone. In More's time, Taprabone (Taprobane) probably referred to Sumatra rather than Sri Lanka due to the testimony of Nicolo de Conti.

The book tells of the travels of narrator Hythloday who is said to be a companion of Amerigo Vespucci, and to have completed the latter's aborted fourth voyage around the world. In essence, Hytholday anticipates Magellan's own circumnavigation. En route he spends more than five years in the mysterious Utopia.

Romuald I. Lakowski believes the writings of More's brother-in-law John Rastell offer clues on the former's geographical thinking.

Rastell wrote The Interlude of the Four Elements in 1517-1520 shortly after More's Utopia. He gives a short description of the world's geography starting with the journey to the "New World" in the West. Then Rastell describes the classic voyage to the East starting from Jerusalem.

Loo, estwarde beyonde the great occyan
Here entereth the see callyd Mediterran,
of two thousand myle of lengthe.
The Soudans contrey lyeth here by,
The great Turke on the north syde doth ly,
A man of merveylous strengthe.
This sayde north parte is callyd Europa,
And this south parte callyd Affrica,
This eest parte is callyd Ynde [Indies],
But this newe landys founde lately
Ben callyd America by cause only
Americus dyd furst them fynde.
Loo, Jherusalem lyeth in this contrey,
And beyonde is the Red See,
That Moyses maketh of mencyon
This quarter is India Minor
And this quarter India Maior,
The lande of Prester Johnn. (829-46)

The land of Prester John sits at the extreme East and north of it is the kingdom of the "Cane of Catowe" generally seen as hearkening back to the old "Khan of Cathay" in Yuan dynasty China.

From these eastern lands, Rastell followed the geographers of his day in greately underestimating the distance from the fabled East eastward to Britain, which he claims is a "lytell paste a thousande myle."

The land described by More, unlike the destinations of Columbus and Magellan, may have been located in the southern hemisphere. Possibly he was following Vespucci's Quattuor Navigationes in this regard. This thinking might be related to older geographies like those of Ptolemy that tended to place the most eastern ports, like that of Cattigara, south of the equator.

Also, ancient legends of the Saturnian Isle of the Greeks, where the Golden Age continued and where Kronus rules, often thought of the location as antipodean in both the east-west and north-south directions. A number of scholars believe More's work shows influences from Macrobius' Commentary on the Dream of Scipio and Saturnalia, which delve into the lost Golden Age of humanity.

More indicates that Utopia was inhabited by 'gymnosophaon/gymnosophan' or "philosophers" similar to the yogis of India. The book also gives examples of the Utopian "alphabet."

The cities were limited to no more than 6,000 families and the househould consisted of the extended rather than the nuclear family.

Trade and navigation were important to the Utopians and were pursued with energy. Foreigners, especially those of honor and ability, were welcome.

If any man was to go among them that had some extraordinary talent, or that by much travelling had observed the customs of many nations (which made us to be so well received), he would receive a hearty welcome; for they are very desirous to know the state of the whole world. Very few go among them on the account of traffic, for what can a man carry to them but iron or gold or silver, which merchants desire rather to export than import to a strange country: and as for their exportation, they think it better to manage that themselves than to leave it to foreigners, for by this means, as they understand the state of the neighboring countries better, so they keep up the art of navigation, which cannot be maintained but by much practice.

Utopia was viewed by More and those who borrowed his mythical land as a type of ideal society located in an Indian Ocean island (the Pacific was still unknown), a remnant of the Golden Age.

Magellan had identified the golden destination as "Tarsis and Ofir" in his own writing referring to the legendary Biblical lands. Columbus was heading toward Cipangu, and he may have been carrying Behaim's Globe which also identifies this island in the legend as Ophir.

Quests for the Golden Land had driven history for ages, and were for the first time coming into much clearer view than ever before.

The Pertotum Circulum of 1440 using archaic geography shows lands in the east far below the equator. Notice in the farthest east just below the equinotical line, on the mainland is the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve inset in a square. In the southeast corner, east of Tabrobane (Taprobana) is Curiga an island of the "sunrise" associated with Prester John.

Paul Kekai Manansala