Utopia in Portugal, Brazil and Lusophone African Countries

by Francisco Bethencourt (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection VIII, 314 Pages


This book studies the history, literature and culture of Portuguese-speaking countries through the lens of utopia. The role of utopia in Portuguese literature is the object of fresh analyses ranging from Camões to Gonçalo M. Tavares, and António Vieira to José Saramago. The chapters on Angola and Mozambique show how national identity received a major boost through utopian literature – Pepetela is the anchor in the former case, while dance is used as a crucial metaphor to reveal the tension between the colonial and postcolonial gaze in the latter case. The visions of paradise in Tupi tradition and missionary doctrine inform the approach to Brazil, developed by the study of the utopian dimension of the revolts of Canudos and Contestado. Regional contrasts and the quest for Brazilian national identity underlie the chapter on the cinema of Glauber Rocha and Walter Salles. These political and cultural acts can be compared to the strange case of Sebastianism in Portugal, here studied across four centuries of adaptation and transformation. Anarchist, Communist and Catholic political projects are analysed in the context of the early twentieth century to complete this evaluation of the uses and effects of utopian visions in these countries.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • The Power of Utopia
  • Part I: The Long View: Myths, Literature and Politics
  • Utopia and History: Camões’ Os Lusíadas and Tavares’ Uma Viagem à Índia
  • The Unstable Status of Sebastianism
  • António Vieira’s Utopian Kingdom of Christ on Earth
  • Colonial Utopias: Between Indians and Missionaries
  • Part II: Modern Frameworks: Cultural and Literary Developments
  • Utopia in Brazilian Cinema: From Black God, White Devil to Foreign Land
  • Elephants All the Way Down: Utopia and Dystopia in Hélia Correia’s Insânia and José Saramago’s As Intermitências da morte
  • From Utopia to Prophecy: The Meanderings of the Heterotopia of Nation in African Literatures
  • Utopia in Angolan and Mozambican Literature: Material Futures, Dialectical Dances
  • Part III: Modern Frameworks: Literature and Politics
  • Utopia and Science in Portuguese Communism
  • The Utopian Unconscious: Literary Utopias and theRefashioning of Political Identities in 1920s Portugal
  • Everyday forms of Utopia: Anarchism and Neo-Malthusianism in Portugal in the Early Twentieth Century
  • From Canudos to Contestado: Disputed Utopias
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index

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This book started with a symposium at King’s College London, to which a multidisciplinary group of scholars, working on issues and approaches directly or indirectly related to utopia, was invited. Fruitful areas of dialogue and overlapping interests emerged. Paulo de Medeiros and Cláudia Pazos-Alonso, editors of this series, quickly contacted me with a proposal to publish the contributions as a book.

The contributors responded extremely well to this challenge. They agreed to develop their research within the theoretical framework and possibilities opened up by the notions of utopia and dystopia, engaging with recent and not-so-recent reflection. The result is a significant volume drawing on the cultures and histories of Portugal, Brazil and Lusophone Africa. The purpose is not to offer a comprehensive approach, but to open up new insights through the analysis of a significant number of case studies interconnected through similar theoretical concerns.

I thank the anonymous peer reviewers, who significantly contributed to improving the text. Helen Hancock played an important role as a reliable and competent copy editor, since the majority of the authors are not native English speakers. The series editors provided the necessary support to carry the elaboration of this complex project to its conclusion. Finally, I would like to thank the Camões Institute for its support of the initiatives connected to the Charles Boxer Chair, particularly the symposium on utopia and the production of this book.

Francisco Bethencourt

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The Power of Utopia

Utopia is a noun coined in 1516 by Thomas More to refer to a remote, imaginary island where an alternative society had materialized. This fiction of an ideal society finds its remote predecessor in Plato’s Republic: the purpose is to criticize the author’s own society, with its flaws, injustices and incoherencies. Utopia explicitly plays with the Greek language and the ambiguities of its translation into Latin, since ‘eu-topos’ would mean good-place and ‘ou-topos’ no-place. More’s main character is a Portuguese sailor called Raphael Hythloday, a name that plays with the Hebrew Raphael, ‘God’s physician’ or ‘the salvation-bringer’, contradicted by Hythloday, which mixes the Greek words for ‘nonsense’ and ‘knowing’, meaning ‘learned in non-sense’.1 The Utopia he describes would not have been imaginable without the contemporary news of Portuguese and Castilian maritime expansion: the first travel accounts of the New World and of India had been recently compiled by Montalboddo, while the letters of Columbus and Vespucci were circulating through Europe.2 But neither would it have been imaginable without the playfulness with languages and ideas allowed by the Renaissance’s knowledge of Greek, Latin and Hebrew, brought about by the extensive recovery of classical texts. ← 1 | 2 →

Plato (c. 424–347 BCE) had imagined a society ruled by philosophers, freed from factional fighting triggered by private property and allegiance to lineage. A wise government was based on shared property and family, with women and children in common. The traditional hierarchy between men and women was also tackled, since women would have some involvement in public affairs, namely through participation in warfare. However, this was a project of political harmony among the elite, supposing a tri-layered society, with farmers and artisans’ access to property and slaves providing the basis of the system. Plato’s reflection on the sinews of conflict and radical solutions for political problems would resurface in Western political thought at different historical moments, mainly during and after the Renaissance. The philosopher structured the dialogue of Critias around the legendary island of Atlantis; but his ideal societies, outlined in the Republic and in Laws, were not located in distant or imaginary places.3

The extraordinary explosion of oceanic exploration and travel writing in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries provided the background for Thomas More’s projection of an alternative society in a distant part of the world. This connection with travel writing, permeated by references to the Golden Age and Arcadia of classical literature, created a new literary genre that would last until the present day, although, as we shall see, with significant changes in its nature and purpose. More’s Utopia reflected the contradiction between the Old and the New Worlds, the crucial moment in which Europe was confronted with its own past and with its future. The text simultaneously fills an empty space and bridges the abyss between different times.4 ← 2 | 3 →

More took on board Plato’s reflection on the sinews of political conflict, namely his critique of inequality in wealth as socially divisive; but he showed a different ambition concerning the eradication of poverty. The ideal society, in his view, should be based on work for all and shared wealth, except for a minority of slaves. More excluded not only private property but also money from Utopia, considering this the only way to avoid the exploitation of poor people by the rich. The latter were defined as depraved creatures moved by insatiable greed and self-interest who would betray the commonwealth and permanently conspire to promulgate laws that would transform their perversion into justice. Political harmony did not concern only political and social elites; it should be based on the whole free community’s shared wealth. More implicitly rejected Plato’s communality of women and children, which had been criticized by Aristotle. He also advocated an elective monarchy based on the representation of the population at different levels, from the farms to the cities, with a moderate ruler for life and offices filled by merit. Praise of work, general education, exclusion of idleness, and refusal of greedy, unproductive and useless rich people are the values of his utopian society, partly inspired by early Christianity. War is abhorred but when fought for defensive reasons the only aim is to restore peace. Bondage is never the outcome of war, but the penalty reserved for criminals. The status of women is also addressed: they participate in war and can be elected priests in a monotheistic and tolerant religion. Social order is based on fixed ages for marriage, reproduction of professions, diffusion of education and sumptuary laws to regulate consumption.5

Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun, written in Latin in 1602 and published in Frankfurt in 1623, followed by many editions and translations, also sets out an alternative model of society. Plato’s influence is here even more visible, with collective property and communal management of women and children. A critique of private wealth that highlights the miseries of greed, self-interest, insolence and disloyalty to the community is complemented by a critique of poverty as theft, deception and dishonour ← 3 | 4 → and as disruptive to the community. In this vision, absence of poverty is equated with absence of conflict, underlining the ideal of shared wealth. The exclusion of slaves and foreigners is justified by the threat of bad habits. The theocratic society imagined by Campanella, partly inspired by the monastic model, was based on a naturalistic religion that revered the universe as the image of God. It was structured by three functions: power, wisdom and love. Military exercise and discipline would be complemented by the development of science and education. The third function meant guided reproduction to serve the interests of the community, based on the centralized selection of partners to obtain balanced matches and healthy, intelligent and diligent offspring, in a process explicitly compared to animal breeding. The oppressive or dystopian side of the ideal society, already present in Plato’s model, is here developed. It would have an enormous influence in the following centuries.6

The small scale of the city and its immediate environment defines Johann Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis, published in 1619. This is an integrated society without orders, castes, serfs or slaves, based on collective property and the exclusion of money, except for external trade. Inequality between rich and poor is explicitly condemned, although there is some space for private ownership. Inheritance of titles and noble rank simply do not exist. The government of the city is in the hands of a triumvirate controlling religion, justice and knowledge. The death penalty is considered a last resort. The family, unlike in Campanella’s society, is the basic social unit. The exclusion of dowries is related to a common course of studies for boys and girls. Domestic duties are shared between men and women, since there are no servants. Work is considered dignifying, not degrading; and all members of the community, defined as free citizens, combine their professions with scholarly interests. There is an extraordinary investment in scientific institutions: laboratories, observatories and museums. Spiritual welfare is considered superior to material welfare, although there is a guaranteed sustainable living without poverty for all the community, based on the egalitarian distribution of goods. The city is based on uniformity of ← 4 | 5 → buildings (three-storied houses), a regulated size for streets, gardens, and access to fresh water.7

Scientific research at the core of the ideal society is also developed by the anonymous author of the Histoire du grand et admirable royaume d’Antangil, published in 1616, which features an extraordinary academy, responsible for an extensive educational programme.8 This topic is developed in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, an incomplete manuscript published posthumously in 1627. Here, the island of Bensalem is placed in an unknown area of the Pacific. The society is depicted as chaste, incorruptible and orderly, based on patriarchal family and lineage, respectful of king and hierarchy. It has been the recipient of a supernatural diffusion of the message of Christ, although there is religious toleration. The House of Salomon is the learning institution, responsible for scientific research and education in all areas of knowledge.9

Religious, cultural and economic developments in Europe explain the diffusion of this literary genre, in which new political and social ideas were tested through the projection of alternative societies. Literary creation or political reflection can be directly related to particularly disruptive events, such as the English Civil War, which brought with it the execution of the King and a temporary change of regime. This period saw an extraordinary flourishing of pamphlets, particularly from the Levellers, the Diggers and the Fifth Monarchists, while there was innovative reflection on republican regimes within the utopian tradition. This is the case with James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), which mixes historical analysis and projection into the future of a new model of society based on a change of balance between the different orders (or estates) in favour of democracy, an idea inspired both by Plato and Machiavelli.10 The originality ← 5 | 6 → of this text is to develop in great detail a political treatise projected into the future of England. Contrary to previous utopias, the displacement does not concern space but time. Harrington refuses not only the stereotype of a distant and unknown island, but also the fictional narrative, preferring to imagine the future political system of his own country.

Imaginary lands could serve purposes other than the construction of ideal societies. This is exactly what feeds the debate on the frontiers of the utopian genre. Moreover, authors could use the literary genre to challenge the very idea of an egalitarian society. Mundus Alter et Idem, published in 1605, translated as Another World and Yet the Same, and attributed to the bishop, Joseph Hall, is a case in point. Different countries are imagined in Terra Australis, following the recent postulation of the existence of a continent next to the southern pole. These countries, which are identified on a world map, are outrageously (and amusingly) organized around gluttony, drunkenness, folly and duplicitous behaviour, which create inverted systems of values. They favour men (or women) excelling in those defects, while abstemious or sober behaviours are persecuted. Satire is here extensively practiced against bodily pleasures and material possessions, but there is also a critique of political order based on egalitarian democracy and a permanent parliament, linked to the reversed rule of women over men pushed to extremes, which expresses the recurrent anxieties of patriarchal society.11

This strand of literature concerning imaginary lands built on scientific discoveries and speculation on populated alien worlds had classical precedents, particularly in the work of Lucian of Samosata (c. 115–200).12 The seventeenth century created a fertile field for these developments, which drew on the work of Galileo and Kepler, among other authors. ← 6 | 7 → Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, published in 1638, staged a flight to the moon on geese by a Spaniard, Domingo Gonsales, who found an anthropomorphic and socially organized population there, and eventually returned to pagan China on earth. The idea of a plurality of worlds had an obvious theological impact, since it challenged the idea of the uniqueness of human beings and the biblical narrative of God’s creation. But reflection on an ideal society ceased to be the main purpose of this new literary development: scientific discussion and reflection on the nature of man became its main objects.13

Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’autre monde. Les États et Empires de la Lune. Les États et Empires du Soleil, published posthumously in 1657 and 1662 (second part incomplete), is arguably the most exciting text of this new trend. Jacques Prévot rightly questioned the utopian status of this text. A flight to alien planets is used to imagine dialogues which challenge all theological certainties, including the existence of God, while the neo-Epicurean vision of the philosopher Gassendi is mobilized to oppose the traditional scholastic vision based on Aristotle or to suggest the infinity of the universe. The author’s method can be defined as the constant reversal of statuses and hierarchies, for example between the moon and the earth (paradise is placed on the moon), between men and animals (rational birds persecute men), between young and old people (beaten up and admonished), or between men and women (now the predators). Persistent mockery on solemn issues, such as funerals, is crowned by a last journey and dialogue with Campanella on the way to the Province of Philosophers, an amusing re-enactment of Dante’s voyage with Virgil to the realms of the dead in the Divine Comedy.14

Margaret Cavendish’s The Description of a New World Called the Blazing World, published in 1666, follows similar lines in imagining another ← 7 | 8 → world, in order to reflect on scientific issues and the human condition. This time the imagined world is populated by rational animals that behave like humans and specialize in different fields of knowledge. The book’s political order reflects the monarchical views of the author, exiled in Paris with Queen Henrietta Maria, although the absolute role attributed to the Empress and the casting of herself in the role of secretary to the Empress introduce a playful note of female empowerment.15 Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, later known as Gulliver’s Travels, is built upon this tradition. Published in 1726, these travels play with the theme of encounters with societies in distant and strange places, such as islands floating in the air, with different sizes of human beings, miniscule or giant. These encounters challenge, reverse or deride the human condition, with its habits, knowledge and social order, including the status of the nobility. The moral critique of evil customs among human beings is pushed to the extreme in these travels, mainly in the last narrative, which recounts a visit to the country of the Houyhnhnms, run by rational, virtuous horses, and based upon the slavery of abject humans named Yahoos.16

Denis Veiras (or Vairasse), a French Protestant who lived in London in the 1660s and 1670s, published in 1675 and 1677 The History of the Sevarambians, placed again in Terra Australis. The influence of the debate on polygenism is visible here: during the flood the earthly paradise had been transferred by the angels to its southern location, followed by the creation of a new and better-built couple, who created ‘another stock and generation of men’, sober, hardworking and moral. This race was respectful of other races but opposed miscegenation. Mixed couples, handicapped people and criminals were sent to peripheral areas. This dystopian side, ← 8 | 9 → based on precocious eugenics, was combined with theocratic rule by a high priest of the sun. An expressive sudden deformity of the body afflicted the population in the case of sin. The Sevarambians favoured religious tolerance and liberty of conscience, while denying miracles. The communities did not use money; and precious metals and precious stones had only ornamental value. The issue of property is not directly mentioned, but there are references to private estates. The second edition, published in 1738, is entirely different, probably written by another hand. The kingdom is now described as resulting from the conquest of the land by a Persian king, Sevarias, the lawgiver. The population of Persian conquerors has mixed with the natives, which means that the ideal of pure race has disappeared. The King has excluded privileges and abolished private property to create an abundant and orderly society.17

Ludvig Holberg’s A Journey to the World Underground, published in Latin in 1741, adds another crucial layer to this fiction of imaginary lands: the exploration of a subterranean world that supposes the hollowness of the earth and the existence of a reduced solar system inside it. In this case the explorer meets a society of rational trees that can move, work and build cities, living in harmony and religious tolerance, without privilege but under a monarchy. The hero, considered at the beginning as incapable, ends up involved in a war that allows him to build a considerable empire, before defeat, due to vanity, cruelty and greed, causes him to fall back to earth. The author mocks the pretensions of this ‘founder of a fifth monarchy’, a topic that will be appropriate for our book.18

The Enlightenment brought new developments to the utopian genre, as we have already seen. Morelly, whose identity is disputed, published Naufrage des isles flottantes ou Basiliade du célèbre Pilpai in 1753, a manuscript allegedly found in India. It describes a distant, fortunate land, where people live in happiness and truth, innocent of the perversion of crime and ← 9 | 10 → oppression triggered by private property. They share agriculture, do not eat meat, practice divorce, and enjoy the balance of a perfect equality. They are not aware of arrogance, brutality, pomp, imposture, slavery or tyranny. The monarch pursues the nation’s happiness and eschews enterprises of conquest. The European empires are criticized as greedy and disruptive of the natural order.19 This book was published two years before Rousseau’s Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes, which is based on a similar radical critique of private property.

The interplay between literary experiments and political theory knew a new intensity before and after the French Revolution. In 1771, Louis-Sébastien Mercier published L’an 2440, in which he proposed to reflect on a new society in Paris almost seven centuries later. The displacement in time is not new (see Harrington); but the available technology does not allow radical departures, being concentrated on the provision of hospital care, urban planning and bigger houses. Absolute monarchy has been abolished in favour of representation of the general will. The critique of despotism does not dispense with monarchy, but society is now ruled by a philosopher-king, who refuses pomp and privilege. The absence of poverty is obtained by reduction in taxes, the eradication of debt and credit, and the imposition of sumptuary laws against luxury as the source of inequality. A new status for women has been promoted by the abolition of the dowry and women’s free choice in marriage. The decline of metaphysics has gone hand in hand with the decline of history, due to the bad examples of persistent despotism and misery in the past. The abolition of censorship has promoted universal authorship. The end of slavery has brought with it the end of colonialism, with the ascent of countries like China and Japan. The dissolution of the Catholic Church and the ruin of Versailles were poor prognostics, but the total destruction of the Bastille and the opening of the Tuilleries to the people were to have an impact. Mercier ← 10 | 11 → also predicted the fall of the Ottoman Empire, followed (two centuries later) by the creation of a republic.20

The idea of equality permeated this period, while the ideal of a benign king soon declined in this literary genre.21 The emergence of anarchist and socialist currents would make the field much more complex. Étienne Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie, published in 1848, expresses the new values of a peculiar blend of Christian socialism. History is again considered an obstacle to the future, since it shows only wars, massacres, crimes, disorders and vices, due to the unequal foundations of society, and contrary to the lessons of Christ. The book describes how a large nation can progressively transform itself into a community. Equality is equated with abundance, although there is distinction through merit, based on work shared by all human beings, men and women. There is no private property or money, all services are free, and the democratic state regulates the community of goods, so that there is no poverty, crime, or prisons.22 The author was a lawyer, prosecutor and radical member of parliament in France, who tried (and failed) to implement his model of workers’ cooperatives in the United States, thus linking literary utopia and social experiment.


VIII, 314
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Utopia Lusophone literature African lusophone utopian literature Mozambique Angola postcolonial Portuguese literature Brazil
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 314 pp., 3 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Francisco Bethencourt (Volume editor)

Francisco Bethencourt is Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College London. He is the author of Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century (Princeton, 2013) and The Inquisition: A Global History, 1478-1834 (Cambridge, 2009). He co-edited Frontières religieuses à l’époque moderne (Paris, 2013), Racism and Ethnic Relations in the Portuguese-Speaking World (London, 2012), Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400–1800 (Cambridge, 2007), Correspondence and Cultural Exchange in Europe, 1400–1700 (Cambridge, 2007), L’empire portugais face aux autres empires (Paris, 2007), and História da Expansão Portuguesa, 5 vols. (Lisbon, 1998–1999). He obtained his PhD at the European University Institute and his MA at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. He was director of the National Library of Portugal and of the Gulbenkian Foundation Cultural Centre in Paris.


Title: Utopia in Portugal, Brazil and Lusophone African Countries