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The Last Days of Matti Kurikka's Utopia. A Historical Vignette*

John I. Kolehmainen

The motives leading the Finns to Harmony Island in British Columbia had been diverse. There were, inevitably, the hungry, the defeated, the exploited, who had been dealt rough blows in the Old World. There were the restless in spirit, who had not found peace of mind; the adventure-starved, to whom this undertaking spelled high excitement. Above all, there were the crack-pot, pseudo philosophers: theorists who wanted to reorganize the social fabric once a week; many varieties of anti-religionists, theosophists, and spiritualists; anarchists who wanted the freedom to be completely impractical. They were skilled in expounding on what seemed to them the mysteries of the universe, but they exhibited a singular disinterest in and ineptitude for hard work. Their slogan was: "Of course we'll work, but not today and not this kind of work."

There were, to be sure, a number of decent, hard-working settlers whose idealism was happily tempered by common sense. But a kind of Gresham's Law drove out the better elements and left the colony at the mercy of second-rate creatures.

Only too frequently, men and women behaved ignobly after the thin veneer of initial devotion to exalted ideals wore off. Private interests engulfed the common good; the golden calf had more followers than the Nazarene.

This was made evident in many ways. Communal property was neglected and abused, leading some critics to assert that "one man's dog lives; a dog owned by two men soon dies". The oft-professed maxim, "distribution according to need", proved impossible to achieve in practice. If a new shirt, a pair of trousers, and work shoes were issued to a settler whose clothing had been reduced to tatters by long and arduous toil in the woods, his recently-arrived companions, who had scarcely unpacked their suitcases, demanded the same. It was not safe to dispense any feminine raiment until there was enough for all.

Controversies arose. While the members had pledged to arbitrate their differences - on the grounds that "our out-look is thoroughly alien to the notions of justice prevailing in British Columbia, and outsiders do not understand the new principles now emerging among us" - acrimonious wrangling was carried to the provincial courts.

The presence of women proved to be a disruptive factor. As a matter of fact, several men expressed their preference for an all-male utopia. One of them grumbled: "I came to Harmony Island to seek refuge in the arms of nature. I hoped to be freed of the world's meaningless bustle and fuss, to live in a tent or under a tree, eat potatoes, clams, and berries. I thought that women would remain far away. But what happened? I had scarcely arrived here, when a lady came from New York, another from Pori, a third from St. Petersburg. And now there are many dozen of them. Of course, they must have knives and forks, sheets and linens. Oh, the banefulness of this world! Is this the way to get back to nature?"

On the other hand, the pro-bachelor case was laid to rest by the observation, "What kind of a social order would it be without women?" They were, God bless them, indispensable, but at the same time they were more prone than men to grumble at tent life and the lack of conveniences and food; their tempers flared. easily, and petty squabbles often disturbed the peace of the common kitchen and mess hall.

Moreover, had the woman-haters had their way, the discussion of free love undoubtedly would have remained academic and anemic. As it was, a mighty altercation arose over the issue that quickly became an international scandal.

Kurikka, whose Old Country matrimonial venture had terminated in separation, took it upon himself to theorize on the problems of love and marriage and to offer guidance in this dangerous, if alluring field.

Now it must be admitted that some of his comments made sense. He pleaded for a fuller understanding of man's sexual make-up. He insisted that sexual desire is natural and desirable, and denounced those who argued that man's greatest triumph came with its suppression. He criticized the inhumanity and injustice of existing marriage and divorce codes and heaped scorn on a system that compelled women to marry just to escape the pitfall of economic insecurity. He championed the cause of love rather beautifully:

What should bind woman to man?
Love, and nothing else.
Can that love be chained, imprisoned?
Nay, any attempt is doomed to fail.
For love can be given freely,
It cannot be commanded or coerced.

Yet he did not condone promiscuity, warning, "It is better that a millstone be tied around the neck of a man who lightly indulges in sexual relations, and that he be drowned."

In this characteristic and deplorable fashion. Kurikka compounded and confused his valid contributions with hazy, fantastic, and sensational theories that he picked up from untrustworthy German and English sources. A few of these nonsensical views may be cited: persons who live together should be discouraged from having sexual relations with each other; the father of a child should be a man who has not resided with the mother; a home should be established for pregnant women, which they could enter without being questioned about the paternity of their unborn children.

These were not only dubious, but dangerous doctrines. To not a few in the colony - men who had left their wives in the Old Country, single men willing enough to experiment in this most tempting realm - such teachings were like nectar to bees, catnip to tomcats. To them, Kurikka's words constituted an amazing proclamation of the jubilee: old marriage ties were to be dissolved, and all were free to begin a new under the urgings of "natural love".

As was to be expected, Kurikka and his knights-errant were vigorously opposed by a majority of the settlers, who had come to Harmony Island with the old-fashioned notion that past bonds would be maintained and new ones entered into only when the normal circumstances of life required.

The melee gave outside detractors an unexcelled opportunity, and poetic darts soon flew from all directions.

And thus spoke Kurikka, the crooked hat,

So argued the wise crooked chin:
A girl is foolish,
A ridiculous wench,
If she enters wedlock and
Signs the kind of bond
The church requires,
It condemns her to slavery
For the rest of her mortal days.
Far better for her to choose
A man here, a second there,
A third still more handsome,
A fourth more amorous.
Among these her love can be shared,
Her affections dispensed.

Like their mothers, the colony's children became a bone of contention. Kurikka began to press for the construction of a common home for the thirty or so youngsters, where they would be housed, clothed, fed, and, of course, educated in the great teachings of the New Order.

"What does he know about raising a family", demanded a group of irate mothers, "that man whose marriage ended badly and who has no children of his own?"

But Kurikka was unabashed and put up a clever defense:

"What is it that teaches one to bring up children? Is it the fact that one bears them, gives them birth, nurses, washes, and fondles them? Even a cat does that for its kittens, and I have never heard of the cat as being held up as a model educator.

The argument that only a mother is capable of educating her children is foolish talk. If a hen makes her nest in a dangerous place and you attempt to bring her flock to safety, what does she do? She screams, pecks, and in every way tries to prevent you. And this she does from motherly love.

A mother's love can blind her to the needs of her children. It leads her to pamper them; it drives her to make them over in her image; it stifles their individuality, curiosity, and playfulness.

How much better for the children of Harmony Island would be a teacher - a wise teacher - who would love every child, who would recognize the child's need for affection, his yearning for knowledge, his instinctive groping for goodness and happiness."

Kurikka won a partial victory when a children's home was opened in the spring of 1904. Many mothers, however, refused to surrender their offspring.

These disputes intensified the tensions that had been developing since the tragic holocaust of early 1903, when the first really serious rupture occurred between the Kurikka-led forces and their opponents.

Kurikka, disdainfully rejecting the suggestion that more individual family units be constructed, had bulldozed the colonists into erecting a large, three-story building of newly-cut, unplanned logs, which his critics promptly dubbed "The Barn." The first two floors, partitioned into rooms, were used as a dormitory; the third floor was made into an assembly hall.

On the blustery night of January 29, 1903, a meeting was in progress in the new building. Suddenly the agonizing cry rang out: "Fire! Fire has broken loose!"

Pandemonium ensued as children and grown-ups crowded the single stairway and leaped from the windows, frantically trying to get out of the building that was blazing like a barrel of tar.

Eleven persons, of whom eight were children, lost their lives, while many others were severely burned. Thirty occupants lost all their personal belongings; the records of the company were likewise consumed in the inferno. Property losses exceeded $ 10,000.00.

Sometimes a great calamity unites sufferers in a common sorrow, binds together the grief-stricken. But not at Harmony Island. The conflagration released hellish rumors and recriminations, repressed fears and suspicions, which raged unabated six months after the fire.

There were a few persons who did not join in the screaming and denouncing - notably the man who had lost his wife and four children. "I cannot add my voice to the great disorder, the hatreds, the clamor, which now sweep over Harmony Island", he said. "My own loss is great, I know that. If Finland were to disappear, if all Europe were engulfed by a mighty tidal wave, still these events would be as nothing compared to the loss of my beloved wife and all my children, who now rest with the others in a common grave. Into that tomb went all my joys, all my future hopes. When a catastrophe of such proportions strikes, many individuals are prompted to search for secret meanings and supernatural explanations. But for me, there is no higher unseen power to whom I could pray, in front of whom I could weep, or whom I could threaten or curse. Rather than leading me back to God, this fire has consumed forever my faith in the existence of any supernatural being or force. I have also learned that. man, in the moment of tragedy, is alone. Man is born for himself; he lives for himself; he undergoes his sorrow alone. All our hopes for a brotherhood of spirit, a common sharing of joys and sorrows, have left me. What shall I do? I am resigned to my fate: I shall not denounce it, I shall not seek revenge, I shall not weep. No words of hate, suspicion, or accusation shall cross my lips. Never!"

Not many others, however, felt that silence was golden, but eagerly put their tongues to the service of nasty insinuations, imputing that Kurikka had known the building was a fire-trap but had done nothing about it because he wished to destroy the company's records and hide his gross mismanagement of its affairs. Did not his flippant consolation, "Let us not be heart-broken, misfortunes often are blessings in disguise", reveal his guilt?

There were other petty censures. One of his antagonists called him "an audacious man who dares to stay in good hotels as he travels about the country and even goes to the theater, while his comrades sleep in tents and live on salted fish".

Kurikka was not one to yield supinely. With magnificent eloquence he pleaded his case before a meeting of the members. He castigated the rumormongers as "horned devils, hairy snipers, villains poisoning the peace of the community with their fantastic lies. He found hot words to upbraid the innocent colonists for not rushing to his defense, charging that they had foolishly accepted the resist-not-evil injunctions of Tolstoy and Järnefelt. "I certainly will defend our principles", he shouted, "I will fight for the good name of Harmony Island".

"It doesn't matter much to me what the American Finns think, say, or write about me", he concluded, "as long as my ideological followers here are clear about the kind of persons we must drive out from our midst. The issue is patent: Do we wish to achieve a full measure of brotherly love and sisterly joy? Or do we want to end our treating each other with open heart and friendly hand as in a great family, and engage in war against the other? This I must know, for on your answer depends my attitude toward Harmony Island. Let my detractors come forward with their charges and proof, and if I am guilty, I am ready to leave the very clothes I am wearing to the colony and depart, never to be seen or heard from again. I can wait twenty years for the harmony for which my spirit thirsts, but I do not intend to be a party to any step that takes us a single inch in the direction of discord."

Kurikka's aggressive apologia won him the support of a large majority of the settlers present at this gathering. The worst offenders soon left the colony, but continued their insidious campaign of slander in the receptive world outside. In this connection, it might be mentioned that Kurikka sought the opinion of an American lawyer as to the feasibility of bringing legal action against the culprits. He got the shocking advice: "In the New World leaders must expect to be criticized, even vilified. It's an everyday occurrence. We rely on our fists and a revolver, not the law, in dealing with such problems."

The leader's victory, however, proved short-lived. Economic matters became progressively worse. Dissension, momentarily checked, began again to cut deeper across the few remaining bonds that held Harmony Island together.

Disillusionment and cynicism became fashionable. The dream of golden pheasants and richly-colored birds of paradise gave way to the reality of noisy, quarrelsome crows and screeching, grasping sea gulls. An impenetrable, forbidding entanglement of brush and giant trees took the place of the longed-for green lawns sheltered by groves of white birches. Heaven was transformed into an appalling prison.

The last days were at hand. Creditors in Vancouver attached and sold for one-third its value a shipment of lumber products. Kurikka finally resigned on October 10, 1904. The members convened for the last time on May 27, 1905, to accept the report on the liquidation of the Kalevan Kansan Colonization Company.

Thus perished Harmony Island after a short life span of forty-two months. Not many tears were shed. Everyone seemed to have had enough of utopia.

*) The definitive history of Matti Kurikka's utopian venture, variously known as Harmony Island, Malkosaari, Sointula, and Kalevan Kansan Colonization Company, remains to be written. Among preliminary studies, see this writer's "Harmony Island: A Finnish Utopian Venture in British Columbia". The British Columbia Historical Quarterly, V (April, 1941), p. 111-123.

Published in Turun historiallinen arkisto 31(1976), p. 388-396.

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