Return to Penis Island: Or, the surprising trajectories of early modern population thought (Part 1)

Henry Neville (1620-94) was a republican political thinker in an era of civil war, regicide, constitutional experimentation, and resurgent monarchy; he translated Machiavelli’s works and traced republicanism’s heritage back to Moses. He is now better known, however, for a short work of faintly pornographic utopian fiction, The Isle of Pines. Couched as a Dutch sea-captain’s account of a vaguely-located Indian Ocean island, the book purports to describe how five Elizabethan-era castaways, sole survivors of a shipwreck – one Englishman, three English women, and one enslaved woman named Philippa, variously described as a “negro”, “Black”, and a “blackamore” – multiplied themselves into a society of nearly two thousand in the space of eighty years.

There’s a lot to pick apart in the book, starting with the title, which the public-fornication-with-multiple-partners-centric plot invites one to reread as “Penis Island”, and proceeding to a series of puns both verbal (the Dutch witness is Henry Cornelius Van Sloetten – a hairy, horny observer of sluts, perhaps) and visual (at one point our castaways all ride the ship’s bowsprit up an inlet). Then there is the racial dimension: while the male castaway, George Pine, cajoles first the two maidservants and then the captain’s daughter into sexual relations in broad daylight, he is half-tricked into intercourse with Philippa, and is only ever able to “stomach” it by night. Again, the three white women become his “wives”; Philippa remains merely “the Negro”. Ultimately, the four women are all buried by George’s side, in a kind of rank-order. The children that result from these relations, meanwhile, are all apparently “fine white” ones. When the time comes, George marries them to each other – necessity being the mother of incest.

As a sex fantasy this may seem rather baroque, but in fact much of Neville’s focus – and Pine’s – falls on the growing size of the population. From a starting point of five in 1589, the date of the shipwreck, George’s progeny increases to forty-seven in twenty years, reaching 560 (counting children and grandchildren) by 1629, and an impressive 1,789 in the year 1649 – when George himself is eighty years old. This speed partly reflects George Pine’s unusual quota of four sexual partners; but, interestingly, each new generation also has three girls for every boy. Scarcely less interesting than their numbers are their fecundity and longevity. George himself finally dies at age ninety-four; the first of his wives at sixty-eight, having borne him thirteen children; the second, presumably of similar age though having borne just seven, a year later; and the captain’s daughter, mother of fifteen, another twelve years after that. Only Philippa – the first to go after twenty-two years on the island, and twelve children – seems to have died young, by seventeenth-century standards.

Neville also details how rapid multiplication brings not only freedom from certain necessities – such as sibling marriage, now banned – but also the potential for degeneracy and the threat of new disorders. Emulating his patriarchal forebears Noah and Abraham, Pine divides the island among four “tribes” (named English, Sparks, Trevors, and Phills, after their founding mothers). But land is only part of the problem. The island’s lustful history catches up with it in a rash of adultery and rape, culminating in the rebellions of Philippa’s son John Phill and later, in the presence of Van Sloetten, his brother Henry. Both are executed, in the manner of Roman traitors, by being thrown off a cliff. The new order that emerges from this crisis in Eden – like “wholesome corn” from “stinking dung”, as Neville has it – is a rigid one, including grisly punishments for blasphemy, adultery, rape, injury to persons or property, treasonous speech, and failure to attend monthly Bible readings. Thus do “bad manners produce good and wholesome laws for the preservation of society”.

Neville’s pamphlet (the first edition was just nine pages long) was widely read, but not widely believed. In her contribution to a special issue on The Isle of Pines in the journal Utopian Studies (2006), Gaby Mahlberg notes that the Oxford scholar Anthony Wood scrawled in his copy: “when this was first published, ’twas looked upon as a sham.” (Though she also points out that both Wood and surreptitious sex enthusiast/naval administrator Samuel Pepys bound their copies with other, more veracious travel accounts.) One particular reason for disbelief, Mahlberg shows, was the idea that a single man, even with four young, healthy and fertile women at his disposal, could live to see 1,789 of his own descendants roaming the earth. This was an age of strange discoveries, colonial projects, and an expanding slave trade; shipwrecks happened; castaways wrote books. But people did not multiply at anything like the rate Neville’s narrative (Van Sloetten’s report) required. Or might they?


General bill of mortality for 1665

Six years before Neville’s story appeared, a London tradesman named John Graunt had published a longer and much less racy book, Natural and Political Observations… upon the Bills of Mortality. Graunt was an anomaly: the only tradesman among the early Fellows of the Royal Society, he produced a work unlike any before it and, for that matter, unlike much else for two or three decades afterward. (He was destined for a sad fate. Losing his shop and most of his property in the Great Fire of 1666, he also lost most of his friends by converting to Catholicism, and died in 1674.) An early fan of “big data”, Graunt recognized a massive, unexploited source of quantitative information in the weekly bills of mortality. These bills, which listed causes of death and numbers of dead by city parish, had been printed in London since the 1590s; used chiefly as conversation pieces, they were popular indices of the progress of plague that told the poor when to pray and the rich when to get out of town. (Pepys watched them carefully during the plague of 1665.) Now, Graunt set out to mine them systematically for natural and political knowledge.

The resulting book was a curious mixture, but as far as knowledge of demography went it was the state of the art. Some of it reads like an early “freakonomics”. Graunt noted that “few” starve in London, compared to the “many” that beg, and commented on people’s disproportionate fear of certain kinds of death (leprosy, for example) given the infrequency with which these actually struck. Combining the mortality bills with parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials (kept in English churches since the Reformation) he also noted striking regularities in population. One was that the ratio of male to female births was usually nearly even, at roughly 14-16 males to 13-14 females. This sex ratio seemed providential: a natural surplus of men made handy fodder for wars and other risky business, leaving the others free for monogamy. (So unnatural was polygamy that even Muslim societies that allowed it, Graunt thought, “gelded” most of their males, as intercourse with multiple men made women barren.) As for population growth, Graunt – who assumed that the Earth was just over 5,600 years old – suggested that Adam and Eve might only have “doubled” every 64 years. Modern nations took much longer.

So readers of the Natural and Political Observations would have had trouble swallowing The Isle of Pines. Its unheard-of sex ratio, its “natural” fitness for polygamy, its prolific fornication, and not least (for Graunt also produced a sobering table of life expectancy) its seeming exemption from premature death were all radically unlike contemporary experiences and interpretations of the way population worked. But there was another way of thinking about human multiplication that made Neville’s account both more plausible and more relevant to at least some parts of the modern British world than Graunt: biblical history.

Find out how that figures in part 2 of “Return to Penis Island”…

2 thoughts on “Return to Penis Island: Or, the surprising trajectories of early modern population thought (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Return to Penis Island: Or, the surprising trajectories of early modern population thought (Part 3: Conclusion) | memorious

  2. Pingback: Return to Penis Island: Or, the surprising trajectories of early modern population thought (Part 2) | memorious

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