Freeland: A Social Anticipation, 1889

Theodor Hertzka (1845-1924), trans. Arthur Ransom

I characterize the utopian novels I read as either “romance” or “treatise.” In utopian romance—in the 19th century sense of the term, though there’s often the other kind too—the perfect society is illustrated through the eyes of individuals on the ground, often an observer from our own time or place, following a plot heavy on melodrama. Descriptions of the society are imparted through dialog, usually between the visiting protagonist and an endlessly patient companion with enthusiasm for talking about their society. Unveiling a Parallel is one such utopian romance; other examples include Herland and A Crystal Age.

A utopian story heavy on treatise uses the novel form only as a vehicle for thought experiment: “If my perfect society were to exist, it might happen like this.” Bellamy’s Looking Backward has a romance as a framing story but the bulk of the book is treatise. King Camp Gillette wrote a very shouty treatise called World Corporation. I tend to find the romances more readable as they’re closer to how modern novels are structured, but treatises are where it’s at for more serious considerations of other ways to live.

Freeland, the 1889 novel by Austrian economist Theodor Hertzka, is very much a treatise, and as happened with Looking Backward, enthusiastic readers around the globe came together in “associations” to discuss its ideas and whether they could be effected in real life. The British Freeland Association eventually tried, arranging travel to East Africa for a motley group of international criminals and fools—with disastrous results.

The novel

“Before my mind’s eye arose scenes that the reader will find in the following pages: tangible, living pictures of a commonwealth based upon perfect freedom and equity, and which needs nothing more to convert it into a reality beyond the will of a number of resolute men.” (xxi)

Freeland, English translation

Dr. Theodor Hertzka, Viennese economist and social commentator, situated his perfect society in Kenya, in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. His main character is Dr. Karl Strahl, a far-seeing idealist (and obvious stand-in for Hertzka) who conceives of a colony of Europeans who travel to Africa to found a society in relative isolation.

Freeland espouses a kind of hybrid libertarian-socialism, where free access to capital and rapid technological growth allow the colony to thrive. Hertzka’s state owns all the land and the interest rate is fixed at zero. There is a strong social safety net. Suffrage is offered to the literate, immigration is unrestricted, and foreign trade is open. All businesses are worker-owned, but not state-controlled, and this latter precept appealed to aspiring middle class Europeans who flocked to the Freeland associations.

Theodor Hertzka, 1896

To use modern terms: Hertzka believed that real-time access to market data would be the great leveler of his society. A central bank would continuously publish commodity prices and the economy would be in a constant state of self-correction. His self-employed free actors would note any overproduction or scarcity and pivot accordingly.

Though Hertzka refers to Eden Vale, the land occupied by the Freelanders, as wild and empty, it is of course neighbored by Africans, who Hertzka does not recognize as fully human. Maasai and other indigenous groups are treated as simpletons, though his colonists deal with them in an even-handed and mostly non-violent way. (The real-life Freeland expedition would have a much poorer record here.)

Hertzka’s treatment of women throughout is peculiar bordering on hostile. Maasai women are aggressors, tempting the white male colonists who have difficulty turning away their advances. The white women who join Freeland are not free in any meaningful sense—their professions are restricted to a limited set of feminine pursuits, and they are expected to marry and make way for “fresh successors.” One of the few women mentioned by name is a broadly-drawn character who tames elephants for sport and is framed as ridiculous.

After a spectacular rise and a largely bloodless battle with the Ethiopian army, Freeland achieves global recognition as a nation-state. At the close of the novel, a proto-United Nations debates whether Freeland was too successful, positing that if not enough people are starving the world will become a Malthusian nightmare. (The conclusion is that we will all moderate our natural fecundity and that Freeland should be a model for all economies.)


The English-language press was not especially kind. The Saturday Review (1891) objected that the colonization process goes too smoothly to be believable: “The expedition proceeds to do everything which has never been done in Africa before.” The reviewer went on to complain that “not a person out of his hundreds of thousands is ever killed” and cited one brief moment of hope that maybe something exciting might happen:

“A mad rhinoceros charges down the main street and into a courtyard where the schoolchildren are at play. The reader, satiated with the bloodless serenity of the story and its absolute innocuousness, now congratulates himself: several of these innocents will surely be sacrified! True enough, a little girl is tossed by the infuriated monster. We turn the page, refreshed by this timely fatality, and presently throw the book from us with disgust. The little girl was absolutely unhurt.

“Personally we hope we shall be dead before these dreams of a dreadful millennium are realized.”

The expedition

Of the many organizations that sprung up in the wake of his book and its sequel, Hertzka found the most traction with the British Freeland Association. Alfred Russel Wallace and others lent their name and credibility to the effort, which sought to send adventurous and skilled colonists to British-occupied Kenya to realize Hertzka’s dream. Hertzka’s role was that of an inspirational figurehead during the planning stages, but once the expedition reached Africa he was intended to be the point person coordinating the delivery of additional funds and personnel.

The prospectus for the colony claimed that the highlands of the region had the climate of spring-time Europe and that the land was fertile, rich, and, most importantly, unoccupied. The expedition would be made up of, ideally, brilliant technocrats, agricultural experts, and scientists—or, barring that, anyone with 50 pounds to spare and a reason to flee Europe.

Charles Dickens, in his capacity as a journalist, wrote about the expedition and cited four fundamental problems with the scheme:

  1. The highlands of Mount Kenya were neither fertile nor uninhabited.

  2. The river Tana which the colonists intended to traverse by steamship was simply “not navigable”.

  3. The colonists came from five different countries with competing value systems and spoke four mutually unintelligible languages.

  4. Lack of roads to the site would make it impossible to import the necessary earth-breaking machinery to establish a self-sustaining colony with so few founders.

“A more dissolute, low lot one could hardly get together.”

Undeterred by their total lack of skill and experience, in the early winter of 1894 two dozen people signed on for the initial expedition—nearly all men but at least two women—from England, Denmark, Germany, and Hertzka’s native Austria. Hertzka himself, like his fictional counterpart, would remain behind, but he appointed his countryman Julius Wilhelm, a chemist, as the party leader.

They were intended to assemble temporarily on the island of Lamu in Kenya, then as now occupied by Muslim Swahili people, before setting out for the interior. In 1894 the region was part of Britain’s “sphere of influence”—a softer form of power than full colonization, but a colonial dominance nonetheless—which had been ceded to the Crown by Germany as part of a confusing exchange called the Heligoland-Zanzibar treaty. Britain was keen to prevent Austria, not otherwise a colonial power, from asserting any foothold in British-controlled Africa; field agents quickly concluded that the Freelanders were politically inept but threatened regional stability through that ineptitude.

Detail from a British colonial map of East Africa from The Edinburgh Geographical Institute, circa 1895.   The island of Lamu and the River Tana can be seen in the middle right.

Members arrived in two waves: a group of mostly German speakers who departed from Hamburg—given first, second, or third-class berths based on their contributions to the Socialist cause—and a smaller group of British citizens who arrived later. Once in Kenya the groups split into language-based factions but were otherwise indistinguishable: some true-believers in socialism or anarchism, some freeloaders who’d convinced other Association members to sponsor a junket to Africa, and some latent psychopaths seeking an opportunity to shoot big game or other humans with minimal oversight. Despite these delightful commonalities, the German-speakers and the English-speakers hated each other, and while the German group had the numbers, the English had the implicit trust of the British colonial authorities.

Lamu was meant to be a jumping-off point for a steamship voyage up the Tana River to Mount Kenya, but the group missed their departure window and were stranded by the monsoon season. They settled into a sprawling communal home and Wilhelm, their leader, scribbled “Freeland House” on the front door while he attempted to arrange for supplementary funds from back home.

Lamu, circa 1880, by C. S. Joux

The first point of contention with their British hosts was the enormous weapons cache the group expected to haul with them to the interior. “It is not improbable that the expedition will have with them machine guns,” the Foreign Office was warned. Officials questioned “the wisdom of permitting a body of armed whites to obtain a settlement in British African territory, unless all necessary guarantees have been taken that these newcomers will respect native life and property.” Henry Morton Stanley, writing in the British press, added, “I have not heard that they are provided with return tickets, which, in my opinion, they are likely to need.”

The British Freeland Association expedition lasted from early spring through July of 1894, and in the end consisted only of a few poorly-staffed trips halfway up the Tana River. Each stalled out due to inadequate supplies, transportation, and illness. Most of the expeditionary team spent the duration drunk in Lamu, harrassing locals and brawling with other members. There were shootings, thefts, and deaths by misadventure and suicide. No utopia was even attempted.

“I can hardly find the time to write about these wretched people.”

Extant first-person accounts of the party’s stay in Kenya are surprisingly numerous, but deriving an objective narrative from them is impossible. Most everyone involved was morally, ethically, or ideologically compromised and their motives should be considered suspect. The one thing they tended to agree on was that Hertzka was a fool: “a visionary and unpractical idiot” whose “ignorant imbecility caused this great ignominious collapse.”

It’s unclear if Hertzka had outlined a practical plan for what would happen when they arrived in the Mount Kenya highlands. Even in the best case in which they had located uninhabited, fertile, temperate farmland, no one in the party had agricultural experience sufficient to bootstrap a self-sustaining settlement. Possibly they could have survived on their many enthusiastic big game hunters and used huge amounts of ready cash to set up supply lines with local people. But the Freelanders were cash poor after paying for travel, lodging, and supplies, and stymied by weather and geopolitical intrigue. Had they ever reached the highlands, of course, they would have found nothing like what Hertzka had imagined.

Peder Brønnum Scavenius, in an undated photo

Peder Brønnum Scavenius (1866-1949)

Son of a wealthy Danish landowner and politician, at the time of the expedition Scavenius was a 28-year old former merchant marine. He published his account in The Freeland Expedition: Its Origin, Course, and Downfall just three years after the event. (His book has no English translation and the OCR-to-Google Translate pipeline is a little suspect, but quotes below are my best effort.)

Scavenius admits that for him, this was a convenient opportunity for an adventure to Africa, but he did find Hertzka to be an inspiring speaker. “We are only mortal people who will turn to dust,” Scavenius quotes Hertzka, “but the big, true ideas never die. In a hundred years the whole earth will belong to us. To Freeland!”

The German-speaking group bonded during the long journey (Scavenius traveled First Class) and arrived in Lamu to await Wilhelm’s group journeying from England. “Dr. Wilhelm was pretty young, weak and red-nosed, with a morbid anxiety about women,” Scavenius writes. “He was devoid of the most important ability for a leader: to take the initiative when the situation demanded it.” But he had “fanatical enthusiasm,” and, more importantly, “11,000 marks.” Scavenius took an immediate dislike to him because upon arrival in Lamu, Wilhelm retired to his study to catch up on his correspondence instead of fraternizing with the expedition, though his correspondence was directed at a desperate attempt to drum up enough funds for them to progress to the interior. Then the seasonal rains came.

An indolence fell over the group, and Scavenius writes that people began to believe “the whole enterprise threatened to go to pieces not through a violent, sudden disaster, but through a continuing dissolution that seemed endless.” Familiarity bred jealousy and contempt. Their machine guns were wisely seized by the British and the cranky Freelanders asked if their dinner forks would also be confiscated. And no help at all was forthcoming from the great mastermind, “the good Hertzka who seemed to believe that one could create African expeditions for free,” as Hertzka repeatedly rebuffed Wilhelm’s requests for more money.

Peder Brønnum Scavenius, in an undated photo

Scavenius saved his greatest scorn for the “intolerable” condition of Freeland House. There was no indoor plumbing and on-site toilets were just two holes in the masonry floor that led to a cavity under the living space; the smell seeped up into the sleeping quarters, which he also hated. “Mattresses were considered an unnecessary luxury for the Freeland expedition, and the dormitories stank like a hospital with gangrene patients.” There were no chamber pots either, so the Europeans’ “great merry sport” was to urinate out of the upper-storey windows onto passing Africans, whose curses provoked laughter among the Freelanders. The city’s natives asked in turn whether there had been a great famine or rebellion in Europe which forced these sad, dirty, drunk men to invade their island. Scavenius remarked that officials were “all too aware that the British reputation with the indigenous people of the region was suffering by the presence of this whole gang of shabby-looking people without a dime in their pockets.”

The beginning of the end

On May 21, 1894, the ultimatum from British officials came: if the Freelanders could not begin their expedition immediately, they would have to return home. There was simply no money of that scale available; what Wilhelm had received for all his entreaties was a fraction of what was needed. “The rain whipped throughout the day in torrents,” Scavenius recalled, “and transformed the narrow streets into tearing, dirty-yellow streams. It penetrated through the surface of the barracks, leaky roofs, and filled the filthy camp beds of the Freelanders.” It continued to pour into the house all through the tense breakfast meeting—Wilhelm told servants to fetch him a new plate four times as it kept filling with rainwater.

Wilhelm, by fiat, announced that the Freeland Expedition was at an end—this formality mattered to him because it marked the cessation of his fiscal and reputational responsibility for the group. He blamed Hertzka for failing to provide adequate funds (though in a letter to Hertzka, he would blame British officials for stonewalling them instead) and told everyone they should pursue their own prospects from here on out.

Addressing the group only in German, he suggested a postscript—a brief exploratory expedition up the Tana before they departed, so they could say they got something out of the whole sorry deal, and promised to use his personal family fortune to fund it. “We could not get out of our heads that Wilhelm had a very rich father, so we listened to his siren song,” Scavenius wrote.

The Englishmen, puzzled by the sudden change in tone, waited for someone to translate, and then erupted in protest: British officials had granted permission only for the British Freeland Association expedition, not some ad hoc safari led by Austrians and Germans, and they immediately left to inform on the group. Scavenius noted astutely that on that day, everyone believed they were victorious—the British, because surely the expedition was now over, and the Germans, because they saw themselves as finally taking control.

The Pioneer Expedition

With Wilhelm’s financial support, the Germans had only enough funds to undertake a lightweight exploration of the Tana with a small contingent of hired workers, rather than a large party of porters, who in this time and region were likely to be enslaved. But after first agreeing to a short trek, Wilhelm appeared to change his mind, demanding they follow their original course to Hertzka’s promised land: “All or nothing, we must reach Mount Kenya!” Scavenius was frustrated by his indecisiveness.

In reality, Wilhelm was stalling, as in parallel he was negotating with British authorities to start a British-lead expedition to the interior. To effect this plan, he sent Scavenius and the other rabble-rousers on an errand to Kipini, a neighboring coastal village where adventuring supplies had been kept in storage. “While in town I asked some Swahilis who they liked best—the Germans or the English. They shrugged and replied they had been happy when they got rid of the Germans, and still they should be happier if they could get the cursed ‘Inglesis’ out too. But otherwise they considered this foreign dominion as a trial, a penance that Allah in His unfathomable wisdom had imposed on them.”

Wilhelm got the go-ahead from authorities. Four people, mostly British citizens, set out on what the English called “the Pioneer Expedition” and the Germans called sedition, but the expedition was a flop. One member got ill, the rest stalled on the Tana and quickly ran out of food. They left behind one member too sick to travel at a local mission and returned to regroup.

Out of Africa

The final disagreement was over how to fund everyone’s return, because more than a month after the expedition had been formally dissolved, most of Freeland House was still occupied. Nothing in their written agreement stipulated a roundtrip ticket, though Scavenius insisted that Hertzka had promised as much. The money was there—on behalf of the dissolved expedition Wilhelm had sold their steamships and much of their gear—but the German faction was also demanding their deposits be returned. The Germans and English groups were no longer on speaking terms, with the English having overtaken the more desirable first floor of the house (one wonders why, given the sewage situation) and installed two cheerful African guards to keep the Germans out. A brawl broke out one night—one man was hit with a broom, who then retaliated by breaking a bottle of Cognac over the attacker’s head. It was agreed that they would resolve this issue with a duel; Scavenius, one of the seconds, chose pistols, then loaded them with blanks. In the end a judge ordered Wilhelm to pay out an equal, modest sum to all the remaining Freelanders, enough to book a ship home.

On his first and only adventure, Scavenius accompanied Wilhelm on an escapade to the interior to retrieve the Freelander who had been convalescing at the mission, and he had his opportunity to travel up the Tana River at last:

“Freeland” and “Tana”, “Tana” and “Freeland”: two concepts that could not be separated. The ingenious plan of the whole Expedition was based on Tana. It was its fiery flowing waters that—if all had gone well—should have led us forward to that Wonderland, where the Rebirth of the World was to begin.

Scavenius saw that their huge steel-sided steamships could never have navigated what amounted to a meandering and frequently narrow waterway, surrounded on both sides by enormous rice paddies with “ingenious” irrigation and drainage systems (he marveled that these were built by the “ignorant” Pokomo people). Several miles further up-river he found one of the Freelanders’ small boats, “half out of the water, full of bird droppings and dirt and encrusted with green algae.” It had been abandoned by the Pioneer Expedition. Scavenius took it with him, sold it, and returned to Europe, with most of the German group, in July of 1894.

Francis Sandys Dugmore (1839-1898)

Captain Dugmore was a retired British army officer and an erratic, violent man, who settled in East Africa when he had nowhere else to go. His personal politics were situational; a Conservative and notoriously combative falconer, he experienced a bout of populism when in 1882, he was arrested for exhorting Irish tenants to withhold rent. He ended up at Freeland House not as a paid member but as an informer to the British Crown. Though he had no specific assignment or salary (his army pension was suspended after his arrest) he wrote frequent and voluminous letters reporting on the Freelanders’ activities, often with two or three postscripts. His characterizations of other colonists was largely hostile; he considered every one of the non-English participants to be dangerous and unstable.

Francis Dugmore’s summation of his fellow colonists, in a June 1894 letter to British officials

Scavenius hated him on sight. Dugmore arrived at the Lamu house with a menagerie: a cheetah cub, a cantankerous bulldog, a monkey, and a pair of meerkats. (The cheetah cub had a “bloodthirsty nature” and a habit of racing into the kitchen eating everything it could snatch.)

For sport Dugmore would lean out the window of the compound with his revolver and shoot holes through the water jugs that local women carried on their heads to their homes. “It was a joy to the old man to see the girls’ insane fright when water and jar shards rained down around their ears at the sound of the gun firing,” Scavenius wrote, adding that Dugmore accidentally shot the women three times. Dugmore called this charming activity “black game shooting” and wrote, “True, it costs a little for perforated chatties [water jugs] and damages to hands that get in the way and are hit accordingly, but on the whole, I get splendid value for my money.”

Dugmore himself was finally ejected from the house on June 27, 1894 when Scavenius accused him of disloyalty in front of the entire party. Accounts vary at this point but the British group threatened to shoot anyone who removed Dugmore by force; Wilhelm settled the matter by asking Dugmore to remove himself voluntarily, knowing by then that the man was a British spy.

After most of the Europeans left Lamu in July, Dugmore and Thomas joined the remaining Englishmen in the interior. In October the group defended a Swedish-American mission from a raid by Ogaden Somalis under the command of Hassan Barjin. Dugmore followed the Somalis back to their camp and killed many of them in their sleep. The Englishmen “rescued” some women and children who may have been captured by the Somalis, but Dugmore admitted he accidentally shot one of them. In his report to British officials, Dugmore claimed their force of five Europeans had repelled 1,500 Somali soldiers, but warned no one would find the bodies because Somalis customarily “carried off the killed and wounded.” Alexander Stuart Rogers, administrator of the British Protectorate of Witu, was unconvinced: “I am of the opinion that Captain Dugmore’s estimates of the casualties is very much exaggerated.”

Kenyan officials encouraged Dugmore to join his son, a Lieutenant in the British army, in Uganda. Once there his behavior became even more erratic (he once arrived at a dinner party with an elephant’s foot as a table setting). Paranoid that his position was being threatened by a young officer, Dugmore shot the man with his own rifle, then hung himself with his bootlaces while awaiting trial on November 10, 1898. He is buried in Mombasa. There is a plaque commemorating him in St. Peter’s Church in Dorset, England, which reads, “Worn out by the hardships of the Uganda Campaign. RIP.”

Gustav Maria Rabinek (1863-1901)

Gustav Maria Rabinek

Rabinek was a native of Bohemia, and the only Freelander who was at all familiar with Africa and could speak Kiswahili. Scavenius was fond of him: “Rabinek showed himself more capable than anyone of dealing with the demands of our situations.” Dugmore sniffed that he was of “doubtful antecedents”, likely meaning he was Jewish.

Rabinek was especially loyal to Wilhelm and so was placed in charge of the Pioneer Expedition, the one and only trip up the Tana that was undertaken by the British faction of the Freelanders. British officials, suspicious of his fraternity with the native peoples, dug up an eight-year old Baccarat debt Rabinek incurred in Poland, and coerced Wilhelm into recalling him on the pretense of “poor character.” Rabinek read the letter demanding his return and later told Scavenius he’d been betrayed, by a man he’d thought a friend.

After his expulsion from the Freelanders, Rabinek made a name for himself as a rubber and ivory merchant in Tanzania, where, at least by colonizers’ accounts, he was fair in his dealings with native peoples. Unfortunately, he attempted to expand into Belgian King Leopold’s tyrannical colony in the modern Democratic Republic of the Congo, what Leopold called the “Congo Free State,” where millions were subject to murder, torture, and mutilation. Despite having applied for and received a rubber export license from the Congo State, Rabinek was arrested and convicted on false charges of gun-running. In detention he wrote home: “Rumors have it that Europeans who have been taken [by Leopold’s private militia] are poisoned, so if I disappear without any further news you may guess what has happened to me.” The only recourse he was offered by the state was a brutal 2,000 mile journey to appeal his case elsewhere, and while on route, he took ill with no obvious cause and died. His body was left in an unmarked grave along the Congo River.

An accounting

Among the Freeland group, the journey to Africa would indirectly claim three more lives:

  1. Eugen Buschel arrived with a personal collection of sabers and daggers and sometimes awoke with night terrors arming himself against invisible foes. After Freeland he emigrated to a German settlement in Tanzania where he was killed by a falling coffee tree.

  2. Robert Hans Schmitt, a landscape painter and mountaineer of minor renown, became fed up with his living conditions and left Freeland House for his own lodgings. He would die soon after in Zanzibar of blackwater fever, a now-rare complication of malaria induced, ironically, by treatment with quinine. He was 29.

  3. William Slingsby Godfrey, a Socialist and member of the British Social Democratic Foundation, had once been arrested for organizing in favor of miners’ rights. Once in Africa he eagerly took up the cause of white supremacy and joined Dugmore’s raids in the interior. Godfrey eventually accepted an appointment from the British East India Protectorate and a transfer to South Africa, where he was was killed while defending a mission in 1897.

After the failure of the expedition, interest in the Freeland Associations waned. Theodor Hertzka continued to publish about economic issues and currency reform in Austria. None of his later writings espoused very radical ideas, and he did not return to the novel form. He died in Wiesbaden, Germany, a resort town, in 1924.

Scavenius continued to travel extensively but never returned to Africa. He would marry four times, the last when he was 80 years old. He died in Copenhagen in 1949.

Julius Wilhelm returned to Austria from Zanzibar in February 1895. I have been unable to ascertain what happened to him.

The British Chief of Customs in Kenya noted in his 1895 report that the previous year’s vast increase in liquor imports had been due to the Freelanders, “thirsty Europeans of all nations,” and that the 1895 decline should provoke no alarm.

List of personal effects of James Dunn, drowned in Lamu, Kenya on May 14th, 1894; British Foreign Office holdings.

References and further exploration

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Lamu in 2022, photo by Akiva Leffert
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Originally published June 30, 2022