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

[Earlier episodes: Part 1; Part 2]

As we’ve seen, there were a variety of lenses through which to read Neville’s novel, from travel account to political parable to biblical allegory to niche pornography. The Isle of Pines’s close attention to population registered differently depending on the lens. To readers who kept a weather eye on London’s mortality tables, like Samuel Pepys, the naturalism of Van Sloetten’s account would have rung immediately false; in an era where the plague was a living memory, smallpox a looming fear, and successful bladder surgery an object of perpetual thanks, no group of Englishmen and women multiplied so fast, lived so long, or suffered so little from disease or premature death. To those versed in the recondite reproductive speculations of chronologists and biblical exegetes, on the other hand, George Pine might suggest a latter-day antitype of Adam or Noah, his island an allegory of the world before Babel or the Flood, and his tawdry family history a darkly Up Pompeii!-ish retelling of its loss. To early geologists or natural historians, finally, the hardy race of English Pines would only make sense as the product of a preternaturally favorable environment, far removed from the state of the world as they knew it.

But not, perhaps, altogether vanished from the Earth. Whatever plausibility The Isle of Pines had as a literal report depended on the very real – and entirely accurate – sense that significant parts of the world were still unknown to Europeans. As travel accounts, natural histories, and statistics accumulated through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, awareness of environmental variation grew, with implications for the laws thought to govern population. Where Graunt had seen the roughly equal numbers of male and female births as nature advocating monogamy, for example, Montesquieu – his novelized critique of polygamy in the Persian Letters (1721) notwithstanding – suggested in The Spirit of the Laws (1749) that different marriage arrangements might naturally reflect different sex ratios in distant lands.[1] And in matters of fertility, the rate of increase in the colonies – specifically, the “doubling period” of the British settlements in North America – became a staple of awed metropolitan comment and incipient colonial pride. In this context, The Isle of Pines might have as much to say about the future as it did about the past.

The big name in colonial ideas about population has long been Benjamin Franklin’s, and in his writing one hears echoes of Pine’s experience.[2] The wittily pro-natalist “Speech of Miss Polly Baker” (1747), purportedly the words of a Connecticut woman hauled into court for bastard-bearing, cited God’s order to “increase and multiply” against the law; a generation later, the 1784 “Information” to would-be immigrants emphasized that “the Salubrity of the Air, healthiness of the Climate, the plenty of good Provisions, and the Encouragement to early Marriages, by the Certainly of Subsistence” made “the Increase of Inhabitants by natural generation… very rapid” and guaranteed demand for labor and opportunities for upward mobility in comparison with a crowded, stagnant Old World.[3] Franklin mused Nevillishly on the degeneracy that plenty produced in certain Europeans and in the wandering nations of “Tartars”, “Negroes”, and “our Native Americans”; how quickly civilization was undone by one “Indian ramble”![4] But he also worried about dumpy Germans diluting Pennsylvania’s Englishness, and he departed from Neville outright on color and race, suggesting bizarrely that engineering a lighter population was America’s cosmic mission:

while we are… Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red?[5]

Phills were not welcome on Franklin’s island.


Benjamin Franklin, by Joseph Duplessis (1785) [PD-US]: Picky about color

What impressed contemporaries most about Franklin’s discussion of colonial population, however, was the rapid growth he described. His 1751 Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind depicted colonial prospects as threatened circumstantially by culturally or racially undesirable immigrants but limited inherently only by the pressures their own future multiplication might produce:

There is… no Bound to the prolific Nature of Plants or Animals, but what is made by their crowding and interfering with each others Means of Subsistence. … This Million doubling, suppose but once in 25 Years, will in another Century be more than the People of England, and the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side the Water.[6]

The figure of 25 years – here, plausible speculation – did yeoman’s work on both sides of the Atlantic as a quotable “doubling period” for the colonies, and a yardstick against which to measure the ancien régime’s shriveled attractions.[7] Franklin pulled it out again himself nine years later, in the context of the Seven Years’ War, to prop up his case for the British annexation of Canada – future living space for teeming American hordes – rather than picturesque but diminutive Guadeloupe.[8] It was in that same context that Franklin’s pen-pal Ezra Stiles returned to Van Sloetten’s account (as he thought) of the Isle of Pines.

In contrast to the globetrotting hair-raiser Franklin, Ezra Stiles – a Congregationalist minister rooted in New England, for whom watching silkworms constituted a big weekend – cuts a drab figure today. Among fans of statistics, however, he was a giant.[9] (When Price and Malthus quoted Franklin, they quoted Stiles in the same breath.) He collected data from across British North America on everything from local births, deaths and disasters, to comparisons of black, white, and Native American populations and religious communities, to estimates of the capacity of the first settlers’ ships, the multiplication of individual communities, and the growth of the colonies as a whole. Several papers in his Itineraries dealt with the multiplication of particular families – such as the “Instance of Extraordinary Increase” related by Newport merchant Archibald Campbell, apparently concerning his own family: starting circa 1725, Daniel Campbell’s four sons and two daughters had by 1760 multiplied to 66 grandchildren and 151 great-grandchildren, “So that in 40 y. 6 fam. have produced 217 Souls.”[10] Not bad for a postdiluvian.


Ezra Stiles, by Samuel King (1770) [PD-US]: Don’t believe everything you read

Stiles put these numbers to use in a sermon given to a clerical assembly in Bristol, Rhode Island, on April 23, 1760, and printed the next year as A Discourse on the Christian Union.[11] A sermon might seem an incongruous place for George Pine’s antics; in fact, Pine’s place in the Discourse was confined to a single footnote. Still, it was an important one. Arguing, like Franklin, for the annexation of Canada, Stiles cited the past multiplication of the colonial population – from 4,000 to 500,000 in 120 years, as his title page blared – and more specifically of Congregational churches, whose number now doubled every 30 years.[12] Comparing this with examples from “other parts of sacred history” (of which “the great errand into America” was a continuation), Stiles guessed that such rapid expansion might naturally last another four centuries – given sufficient space.[13] But how plausible were his projections?

The proofs of Stiles’s Protestant imperialist vision of the future lay not only in the statistics of the present but also in the imagined landscapes of the past, from the Plain of Shinar to the shores of Penis Island. Listing the familiar instances of fantastic multiplication from Jacob’s “colony” in Egypt onward, Stiles argued that doubling periods as short as 14 years had been known to colonies in classical and sacred history and remained plausible in colonial settings now. Indeed, he went on,

The rapidity and greatness of the Hebrew increase in 215 years renders not altogether incredible what is related of the ‘Isle of Pines’ in an account published in London, A.D. 1668 which, like many accidental discoveries, from incredulity and contempt, passed into neglect and oblivion.

Stiles re-told Neville’s story of the Pines, tabulating their growth and estimating their doubling period at 13 years, “which we have seen is possible in the Hebrew posterity.”[14] (He also noted, helpfully, that “One man and four women may be equal to four families for the basis of increase”, and added – perhaps by way of elucidating the significance of the island’s racial mixture – that “The Arabian females are said to have children at 8 Aet.” There’s an article to be written about early statisticians’ fascination with exotic young girls.) In short, the example of the Jews in Egypt showed that Van Sloetten’s story about the English Pines was plausible; both accounts – scriptural and fictional – were then used to support Stiles’s projections of New England’s growth; and those projections, in turn, justified a political demand for the annexation of Canada, all in the context of a providential plot-line that treated the growth of the British Empire as a continuation of sacred history.

Things worked out differently, and it wasn’t long before Stiles, Franklin, Price and like-minded friends were swapping digs at the empire – still, often, couched in demographic language, still using classical and biblical examples to evaluate the present and forecast the future. So far as I am aware, however, The Isle of Pines never again featured as scientific evidence (I’d love to be wrong about this). In one sense, its role in Stiles is an amusing but trivial slip; replace it with a “genuine” travel account, and you have an empirical argument about colonial policy, rather than an evangelical dream of empire resting on a tissue of dystopian soft porn. From another perspective, however, its recurrence reveals the porousness of the boundaries between science, literature, religious scholarship, and political argument in the early modern period; both conceptual frameworks and ostensible facts flowed from each to the others. It might also suggest the power of demographic imaginings then and since, figments wandering the space between idle curiosity, potential resource, and pressing problem: the millenarian patriarch, the centenarian sinner, the libidinous slave, the pregnant eight-year-old; and, if one were to update the list, the anchor baby, the welfare queen, the super-predator – demographic fictions with cultural purchase and political force. Horny old George Pine is still going strong.

[1] Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (trans. Anne M. Cohler, Basia Carol Miller and Harold Samuel Stone), The Spirit of the Laws (Cambridge University Press, 1989), bk. 15, ch. 9, “That, in the countries of the South, there is a natural inequality between the sexes”.

[2] On Franklin’s demographic ideas see Joyce Chaplin, Benjamin Franklin’s Political Arithmetic: A Materialist View of Humanity (Smithsonian Institution, 2006) []; Alan Houston, Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement (Yale University Press, 2008), ch. 3.

[3] Benjamin Franklin (ed. Alan Houston), The Autobiography and Other Writings on Politics, Economics, and Virtue (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 344.

[4] Franklin to Peter Collinson, 9 May 1753, in ibid., 229-30.

[5] Franklin, Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind (1751), in ibid., 221.

[6] Ibid., 220.

[7] See Thomas Short, A Comparative History of the Increase and Decrease of Mankind (London, 1767), iii; Richard Price, Observations on the Expectations of Lives (London, 1769), 34-6; Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (London, 1798), 20-1.

[8] Benjamin Franklin, The Interest of Great Britain Considered (London, 1760), 22.

[9] As far as I know, the most recent scholarly biography is Edmund S. Morgan, The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles (W.W. Norton, 1984). Few histories of demographic statistics mention Stiles; an exception is James H. Cassedy, Demography in America: Beginnings of the Statistical Mind, 1600-1800 (Harvard University Press, 1969).

[10] Ezra Stiles (ed. Franklin Bowditch Dexter), Extracts from the Itineraries and Other Miscellanies of Ezra Stiles, D.D., LL.D., 1755-1794 (Yale University Press, 1916), 107.

[11] Ezra Stiles, A Discourse on the Christian Union (Boston, 1761).

[12] Ibid., 102.

[13] Ibid., 109, 116-117.

[14] Ibid., 106n.


One thought on “Return to Penis Island: Or, the surprising trajectories of early modern population thought (Part 3: Conclusion)

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

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