Yesterday I began discussing Hyde Clarke’s 1885 paper on Atlantis, and today we’ll turn from some of his more general ideas about ancient history to his specific claims about Atlantis. These begin, as all Atlantis theories must, by trying to establish which parts of Plato’s Timaeus and Critias to accept and which to reject, since it is universally acknowledged that nothing matches the description Plato gave in those fictional dialogues.
Like most fringe writers of today, Clarke assumes there is a kernel of truth beneath the story’s surface, but unlike Ignatius Donnelly and his followers, Clarke rejects the idea that there ever was an Atlantic continent. Donnelly suggested that the mid-Atlantic ridge had once been a continent (something geology later disproved), but Clarke cites claims by Čedomilj Mijatović, the Serbian ambassador to the United Kingdom, to the effect that the Greeks mistook the Sargasso Sea for the remains of a sunken continent: “The navigators would naturally think that the weeds grew at the bottom of the sea, and consequently in mud, forming a serious impediment. This story got tacked on in due course to the tradition of Atlantis.”
Having asserted this, Clarke then is able to declare that the Americas must be Atlantis. He cites Plato’s description of the continent and adds, in true rationalizing fashion: “Elephants may be regarded as tapirs, horses as llamas.” May they? Anything becomes possible when we can rewrite words at will. To support this, Clarke begins to pick and choose his details. In reviewing the Timaeus, he decides to accept Plato’s claim that the Atlantis story came from Egypt and referred to a proto-historic era at the very founding of Athens, and the then takes as true Plato’s claim that Atlantis ruled the Atlantic and the western Mediterranean. Consequently, by accepting Plato’s description of Atlantis’s dominions, Clarke is able to point to an oddly specific location for the great citadel of Atlantis:
My comment on this is that the head seat of the great king was possibly in the Caribbean Sea; it may be in St. Domingo. It is to be noted, however, that at the Spanish invasion this island was under the Caribs, whose language is traced there. Consequently the relics of the former civilisation in this and the other islands was lost.
That’s one I hadn’t heard before. It probably goes without saying that archaeology has found no trace of the capital of Atlantis in those parts, though it is suspiciously similar to modern claims that such a city could be found off the coast of Cuba, not to mention Gómara’s identification of Atlantis with the West Indies in 1552.
Turning to the Critias, Clarke is much less accepting. He dismisses much of this dialogue as fiction, but he discovers what he believes to be a core of truth within it. He notes that other Atlantis investigators have dismissed much of the dialogue because it refers to elephants in Atlantis, but by identifying the elephant with the tapir Clarke is able to salvage it as factual! But even he can’t explain how Atlantis could have horses if horses didn’t exist in America, so he helpful decides that Plato has confused the European territories of Atlantis for the American! He does not explain, however, how Atlantis could have a sophisticated shipping and trading network but never moved a horse across the sea.
Clarke betrays his reliance on Donnelly in using him as his source for Classical passages referencing Atlantis and other Atlantic islands. However, since all of these passages are of later date than Plato’s, they cannot serve as independent confirmation of the lost continent, either in Donnelly’s literal form or Clarke’s American one. Similarly, his discussion of medieval legends of the antipodes and mysterious islands are no evidence of events many millennia earlier. He also suggests that the civilization of Atlantis was destroyed by a volcano, another detail cribbed from Donnelly.
But Clarke descends into racism to explain how it is that Europe “recovered” from the fall of Atlantis to produce Greece and Rome and then the Victorians, while the Americas languished in barbarism. Get a load of this:
The effect of the stoppage of the navigation would be to deprive the ten kingdoms of the Atlantic of their supply of trained Iberian civilians, warriors, navigators, and merchants, leaving the half-caste and native elements to acquire numerical preponderance. In fact, then, by the cessation of Iberian immigration, would occur what happened in our days by the rupture of intercourse with old Spain after the wars of independence. The migration of Spaniards ceasing, we have seen Indian blood assuming preponderance; and although the people still speak Spanish, and observe outwardly the new religion, the rulers of many republics are men of whole or half Indian blood, as well recognisable by their features and their characters as by their histories. It is because history repeats itself that we can from comparative history, too much neglected from our incomplete knowledge, obtain a better and more exact explanation of what we regard as events and facts.
America, colonized from Europe, ceased progress when its supply of Old World people ceased—which, of course, is the underlying assumption of so many Atlantis and lost civilization theories, when you get down to brass tacks. But Clarke is different from his contemporaries, for he does not ascribe to white people magical powers of progress. Indeed, he sees the Atlantis as a pre-Aryan and pre-Semitic civilization, not (as Donnelly would have it) the land of white gods. Therefore, he says that America was “protected from Semites and Aryans” and retained more not less of the culture of Atlantis—though at the cost of the progress that led to modern Europe.
It’s a cute idea to explain why the Americas were still at a Bronze Age level of civilization when the conquistadores came calling, but it blends together too many historical eras into one.
The remainder of the article is concerned with fanciful linguistic claims, insupportable even in his era. He claims that Atlantis was not a place but a person (like El Dorado), a title for the King of the West, i.e. America. He says that the first languages, in the primitive age of Atlantis, were of signs and gestures, not words. Speech came later, with new invaders:
The effect of introducing speech language was to produce in the world a psychological revolution, and this appears to be represented in the legends either as the creation of man or as the second creation of man, and in the legend of the ark when new men were carried over the waters (commonly called the deluge legend).
The same legend of the Ark that Donnelly takes to be proof of Atlantis’s destruction in the Flood, Clarke instead takes as proof of a memory of a post-Atlantis invasion of Old World people bringing spoken language!
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