Islands have long been perceived as sites of potential. Mythologies from across the world have denoted islands as spaces of idyll, paradisiacal by the paradox of their estrangement. The majority of these utopian myths have been borne of a nostalgic view of a supposedly less complicated past, and the possibility for a better future. While Thomas More’s Utopia, as a suggestion of a new sociopolitical order, is perhaps also a kind of paradise, it also represents, by nature of being an island, a disconnection from other societies. The spiritual disconnection is always accompanied by a physical one; notions of utopia are characterised by their notion of being set apart from the “other” - a sense of “better than”, or “different from” an established order, and therefore ideal.
By setting his Utopia upon an island, More positions it as a fragile entity, to be both protected from and defended against reality. This deliberate isolation of a place that was once connected to the mainland - Utopus has a channel fifteen miles wide dug between the two - establishes it as a new territory. More’s vision of Utopia as described in his 1516 book, is derived from the Renaissance model of thought which emphasises humanist principles and civic virtue. It has been argued that Utopia generated further impetus to discover new lands and lay claim to new territories.
With the advent of colonial expansion throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, perceptions of world geography and the potentiality contained therein shifted greatly. One of the first world maps, known as the Mercator projection, was created to aid sailors in plotting a straight-line course from their point of origin to their destination by transforming the curved lines of the Earth to straight ones that could be read from a flat map. First published in 1569,
Gerardus Mercator’s mapping of the world also included the first map of the northern polar regions, showing four complete islands with a solid coastline situated around a central magnetic rock. Perhaps still influenced by More’s vision of Utopia as an island, Mercator based his North Pole mapping on the Inventio Fortunata, written by an English friar “pushed on further by magical arts”. The centrepiece of Mercator’s map is a massive rock located at the pole, labelled “Black, Very High Cliff”. According to Mercator, all currents across the world were pulled northward to this rock, meeting in a giant whirlpool, thereby forming a powerful centralising point. The currents separate the four islands, one of which is inhabited by small “pygmies”. The division of the polar region into islands lays the basis for potential territorial claims upon the region.
Mercator’s map was based on neither factual evidence
nor exploratory reconnaissance, instead, it was a projection of an imaginary geography. The distribution of territory into an archipelago allowed for a greater potential for claims to be made upon the land by foreign sovereign powers. Mercator’s vision of the North Pole was as mysterious and broken, and thus nebulous from the very beginning. Similarly so, the concept of utopia is itself ambiguous: it is ideal in two senses; first, that it is perfect and desirable, and second, that it exists only as an idea. In utopia suggesting a radical departure from the existing sociopolitical order, and as Mercator’s islands re-shape the potential structure of a geography, both prove themselves to be fragile - and almost entirely fictional - in their formation.
More, T. (1516). Utopia. Habsburg: Thomas More.
Mercator, G. (1569). Mercator Projection, Map of the World.