“You would have blessed yourself to see how the naked islanders flocked unto us, so wondering at our ship as if it have been the greatest miracle of nature in the whole world.”
— Henry Cornelius Van Sloetten
Truthfully, trying to work out the religious implications of The Isle Of Pines is as difficult as trying to work out Henry Neville’s own religious attitudes. We do know that he scorned the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, and that he was charged with atheism and blasphemy, although his accusers couldn’t make it stick. We also know that while in exile in Italy, he became close friends with Cosimo III, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, with whom he held a long correspondence; and that when he returned to England, even while involving himself in the Exclusion Crisis, Neville campaigned for greater tolerance for English Catholics and an end to the scapegoating of the Catholics by the government.
The deployment of religion in The Isle Of Pines seems finally more about Neville’s attitude to monarchy and governance than it does about religion itself. Under the benign, unstructured “rule” of George Pine, there is peace on the island. There may or may not be religion: it is not mentioned until near the end of George’s life. At that time he institutes monthly (not weekly) Bible readings, but not until he has already ordered the dispersing of his descendants to all corners of the island, so we may infer that not everyone is receiving instruction. While overtly this dispersal is partly to do with the increasing population, and partly to work against the continuance of incestuous relationships, there is also an amusing sense of “hey, you kids, get off my lawn!” about it, with an ageing and cranky George Pine commenting, “I liked not the wanton annoyance of young company.”
But in fact, George has always been about leaving his children to fend for themselves, even from a scarily young age: the first babies born to him and his “wives” are simply abandoned, with George explaining, “When they had sucked, we laid them in moss to sleep, and took no further care of them; for we knew, when they were gone more would come.” This hair-raising attitude to parenting is, I think, best read metaphorically: Neville was against an absolute monarchy and in favour of power being dispersed amongst the people, who he believed to a large extent should be left to govern themselves. Thus, under the indirect and unstructured rule of George Pine, the island flourishes; but with the passing of control to “King Henry” Sparks Pine, everything starts to go wrong.
While George Pine exhorts his children to follow the tenets of Christianity, it is a very Old Testament set of laws finally introduced by King Henry. It was upon the authority of the Old Testament that England’s monarchs made their claim for a Divine Right, and based their refusal to recognise any earthly bounds to their power. Here, Neville seems to be offering a sardonic reminder that, after all, a king is just a man: even backed by the Old Testament, the power of the island’s monarchy grows ever weaker, as we see in the unexplained descent in the status of the ruler from “king” to “prince”, and in the fact that ultimately, Prince William cannot control his people, but must beg help from outsiders.
The Isle Of Pines must be read in the context of the humiliations suffered by the English at the hands of the Dutch. Whatever pretexts were found, the wars between the two nations were all about dominance in trade and colonisation. Henry Neville was, in this respect, very much a man of his time: he was all for an aggressive foreign policy and the expansion of England’s territories, by force of arms if necessary, and he despised Charles II for what he perceived as his failures and weaknesses in this respect.
However, within the text of The Isle Of Pines we find evidence that Neville recognised that certain dangers were inherent in being a colonising nation. The most unpleasant aspect of the story is its handling of Phillippa, the slave – which becomes no less unpleasant if viewed as a manifestation of “coloniser’s anxiety”. There’s no work to do on the island, so Phillippa is technically no longer a slave. Nevertheless, she is treated at all times as a thing apart, something less human than the island’s other denizens. Their first night on land after the shipwreck, while the white people fall into an exhausted sleep, Phillippa is left to keep watch – “the blackamore being less sensible than the rest”. Later, it is she who pursues George for sex, and although she is referred to as one of his wives, he treats her as he would an animal, mere breeding stock. Always resorting to the cover of darkness to quell his disgust at sleeping with her – otherwise, “my stomach would not serve me” – George has sex with Phillippa less often than any of the others, since she invariably gets pregnant after one coupling, and he doesn’t touch her while she is. She suffers no pain at all during her labours. Over time she bears George twelve children, but as soon as she reaches menopause, “I never meddled with her more.” All of this is capped by Phillippa’s casually abrupt dismissal from the story: “After we had lived there twenty-two years, my negro died suddenly, but I could not perceive anything that ailed her.”
The most curious aspect of Phillippa’s story is that her children are white – at least on the outside: her first is “a fine white girl” who is “as comely as the rest”. But throughout the story, it is Phillippa’s overtly white, covertly black descendants who are responsible for the island’s violent and sexual upheaval – or who are blamed for being so. In the time of King Henry, the island is beset by “whoredoms, incests, and adultery”; and although the transgressions are widespread, the only guilty party named is, “John Phill, the second son of the Negro-woman”. Convicted of rape, he is executed. That being done, “the rest were pardoned for what passed”. A generation later, Prince William must beg for Dutch help to quell a rebellion led by, “Henry Phill, the chief ruler of the tribe or family of the Phills”, who has betrayed the authority granted him by his monarch, under which he is meant to be keeping order amongst his people and ensuring that they practise their religion, and has “ravished the wife of one of the principal of the family of the Trevors”.
There is something more here, I think, than just the usual racist slurs about sexually insatiable black men with a yen for white woman. The point is that you can’t tell the Phills from anyone else, except by their actions. This seems to be an expression of the dangers of colonisation, whereby “superior” English blood might be diluted – polluted – resulting in a people that look English but whose “inferior” native blood will inevitably betray them. If colonisation is to succeed, then, the local population must be separated, contained and ruled; there cannot be integration.
There are many ambiguities in The Isle Of Pines, but the aspect of the story wherein there is no question whatsoever of Henry Neville’s intentions is the involvement of the Dutch. Written in the wake of the humiliating conclusion of the second Ango-Dutch war, the tale is a clear denunciation of the direction of England under the Stuart monarchy.
Such is the bounty of the island that George Pine and his descendants do nothing to cultivate it further. They never explore their surroundings, or domesticate the wildlife, or attempt to grow crops. They make use of the supplies tossed ashore by the shipwreck and when they are gone, simply do without. By the time the Dutch get there, the Pines have become a race of English-speaking savages, running naked on the shore and gaping in astonishment at the Dutch ship. “You would have blessed yourself to see how the naked islanders flocked unto us, so wondering at our ship as if it have been the greatest miracle of nature in the whole world,” comments Henry Cornelius Van Sloetten.
And it goes from bad to worse. The Dutch end up treating the Englishmen exactly as they did the native population of St Lawrence, making them gifts of implements such as knives, shovels and axes – “Of which we thought they had great need,” observes Van Sloetten. He’s right: the axe salvaged by George Pine has since been cast aside as useless, with no effort made to resharpen it. Burial on the island consists of covering the body with rocks, as no tool has been fashioned for digging the soil. Although living on an island, the descendants of George Pine have no idea what a ship is – they’ve never conceived of such a thing. (And George, we infer, content in his sexual paradise, didn’t bother to teach them.) The whole is a picture of sloth and degeneration.
In contrast, the technologically advanced and efficient Dutchmen spend their time on the island doing what civilised people are supposed to do. They communicate with the locals through a translator and learn the history of the island, obtaining George Pine’s account of its founding in the process. They think about how the land might be cultivated. They explore and map the island, taking inventory of its flora and fauna. In the process, they frighten the natives by shooting one of the small, goat-like beasts. “These poor naked unarmed people, hearing the noise of the piece and seeing the beast tumbling in his gore, without speaking any words betook them to their heels, running back again as fast as they could drive,” reports Van Sloetten. We have all of us, of course, read and seen in movies any number of scenes that played out just like this, the superior white people terrifying and bewildering the ignorant savages with their advanced technology and greater intelligence. Such scenes, we imagine, were nothing new even in Henry Neville’s day. What is new is that the “ignorant savages” are Englishmen.
The final humiliation comes with the rebellion of Henry Phill. Prince William is powerless to deal with the situation, finding “his authority too weak to repress such disorders”, and he must beg the Dutch for their help. The Dutch, ready to depart the island, duly arm themselves and go back ashore to intervene. The rebellion is quelled in a matter of moments – “For what could nakedness do to encounter with arms?” Van Sloetten shrugs. Henry Phill is captured, tried, and executed by being thrown off a cliff, this being “the only way they have of punishing any by death, except burning.” It seems that even when it comes to carrying out judicial sentence, the English are embarrassingly backwards.
No, there’s not much doubt about what Henry Neville intended by all of this. The Isle Of Pines is a dire warning about the fate of England should the country continue on its Stuart-(mis)guided path, and of the extent of the threat posed by the Dutch to English commerce and expansion. (Neville’s admiration for the Dutch is evident, even as he recognises the danger they represent.) The question is, rather, whether Neville’s intention was clear to the first readers of his pamphlets. I can find little evidence that it was so. Under the laws of the day there was a real danger to Neville in publishing at all, and it was to get around the laws and to protect himself that he disguised his cautionary tale as a sexually-charged travelogue. He may have disguised it too well: the first pamphlet caught public attention by its sexual situation, and the whole was recognised soon enough as a sham – but upon being so, it was apparently tossed aside in disappointment. As far as it was analysed by its readers, The Isle Of Pines seems to have been perceived only as a crude joke, one probably perpetrated by the Dutch themselves, insult added to injury in the wake of the Battle of Medway. As far as we can tell, Henry Neville’s warning missed its mark altogether.
Of course, the real joke here is the ultimate survival of The Isle Of Pines, which out-lived countless thousands of contemporary publications and finally reached an audience capable of reading the text as Neville intended – a few centuries late, granted, but better late than never. The irony is that what hid Neville’s purpose in the pamphlet’s own time, the daring central premise of George Pine and his “several wives”, is also what ensured that the story would still be finding readers more than three hundred years later.
It’s kind of sad, when you think about it.