Failed 'Utopias' Throughout History
An illustrated account of both evil and righteous attempts to create a "perfect" society. They were all fantastically unsuccessful.
The United States might be a very different place today if Thomas Morton, rather than the Puritans of Plymouth, had had his way. A cider-swilling good-time guy from Devon in the west of England, Morton threw the finest parties the 17th century had ever seen at Mount Wollaston on Massachusetts Bay.
The partying had a higher, utopian purpose, though. Dreaming of a liberated land, Morton, a poet and lawyer, styled himself the “host” of Merrymount and his fellow colonists “consociates”—free men who were allowed (up to a point) to integrate with the local Algonquin.
Morton erected a pagan maypole at Merrymount, arousing the fury of the Puritans, who arrested him and his fellow revelers, all of whom were too hammered to resist. After being sent back to England and put on trial, he was eventually cleared of all charges. Once he returned to America, his persecution, however, continued: More charges were brought against him, and his house and the houses of his supporters were burned down. America continued in the Puritan way, the egalitarian dream of Merrymount cast aside, the “merriment after the old English custom” (Morton’s words) feared as the devil’s indulgence.
Founded by 1,200 Scots on the Gulf of Darien in 1698, Caledonia was a shot at the big time that ended up bankrupting Scotland and costing her independence. Over two centuries before the Panama Canal was constructed, the financial guru William Paterson, the brains behind the colony, realized that establishing an overland route between the Atlantic and Pacific across the Isthmus of Panama would make whoever controlled it very rich.
Stricken by famine and about to go broke, the Scottish people latched onto the dream of becoming a major trading nation through a colony in Equatorial America. The public funded the venture—some giving away their entire life’s savings—but the adventurers who set sail from the docks of Leith were ravaged by tropical diseases before the Spanish burned their colony to the ground.
Feeling threatened, the English had prohibited their colonies from trading with Caledonia, thereby assisting in its downfall. The few survivors returned in disgrace, and England swooped in, bringing Scotland into the union with an offer of compensation for the vast numbers of Scots who’d lost their livelihoods supporting the dream of a Scottish America.
On Christmas Day, 1858, Mary Ann Girling, a married mother of two from Suffolk in the east of England, claimed she was visited by Jesus Christ, who appeared before her in her bedroom in Ipswich. In 1864, she said she received her second vision. Life for the farmer’s daughter had been relatively unremarkable up till that point, but from then on she would claim to be a prophet and soon after founded a sect called the Children of God, which landed her on the front pages of local newspapers along with accusations of dabbling in witchcraft.
Girling believed it was her mission to lead the Children of God to the Promised Land, which turned out to be the New Forest, in southern England. She turned up there, in the tiny village of Hordle, with more than a hundred dancing, shaking religious fanatics. Evicted from its utopia again and again, the sect dwindled over time and finally broke up in 1886, when Girling died of cancer.
Before Adolf Hitler, there was the schoolteacher Bernhard Förster. An anti-Semite inspired by the supremacist notion of the German Volk, which prized racial purity, he and his wife, Elisabeth, set off from the Fatherland to establish an Aryan paradise in the jungles of Paraguay. The local animals, insects, and microbes obviously hadn’t been listening to their Wagner, because they showed no respect for the racial superiority of the Germans, who they set about with glee.
Förster poisoned himself in a hotel in 1889, and in 1893, Elisabeth returned home to Germany to look after her brother, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nueva Germania became part of Paraguay, and it was rumored that the Auschwitz physician Josef Mengele passed through it while on the run following the end of World War II.
In a century defined by Europe’s ceaseless thirst for gold and slaves, psychopathic Cossack adventurer Nikolai Ashinov was both an exception and the rule.
Fueled in part by hazy notions of a kinship between the Russian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches and the desire to actualize the mythological kingdom of Prester John (a Christian paradise that did not exist, though throughout the Middle Ages it was looked for—a classic bit of fake news, basically), Ashinov founded the Russian colony of New Moscow on the Red Sea coast of Africa, in what is today Djibouti.
The whole enterprise lasted a few weeks. Ashinov, a binge drinker and rapist, refused to submit to the French, whose gunboats shelled New Moscow to the ground. Washing his hands of the whole affair, Russia’s tsar at the time, Alexander III, called it a “sad and stupid comedy.”
In the 1890s, Australia was beset by drought and depression. Sheep shearers were striking for better conditions and being brutally punished as a result. The socialist William Lane dreamed of better things and took off for Paraguay with 220 fellow Australians, where he founded New Australia on socialist principles.
Having lost 90 percent of its male population in wars with Brazil and Uruguay, the Paraguayan government was keen to help the Aussies out. The single Australian men were even keener, fraternizing with the local ladies, something Lane, who seemed to want to keep New Australia Australian (i.e. white European), was not keen on.
In a huff, he left New Australia, founded another settlement nearby (Cosme), and, after that didn’t work out, took off for New Zealand, where he resumed his career as a journalist and embraced pro-imperial conservatism. New Australia and Cosme were dissolved into Paraguay, bequeathing the world an intriguing new group of people, the Australian Paraguayans.
Finland has a long history of utopian thinking, sparked by some 18th-century brothers who founded a mystic-separatist sect and took it on a Northern European tour for 11 years. Since then, Finns have roamed the world, from Sierra Leone to Brazil, in search of a more idyllic life.
Sointula (“Place of Harmony”), on Malcolm Island off Canada’s west coast, was one such place. Founded in 1901 by Matti Kurikka, a restless soul who had already failed to get a similar venture going in Queensland, Australia, Sointula was hobbled by the fact that none of its Finnish inhabitants were particularly good at fishing or being lumberjacks, which, in a place dominated by sea and forest, wasn’t that helpful.
Kurikka also had some pretty radical ideas about sex and raising children. He believed the father of a child should be a man who had not lived with the mother and that people who lived with each other shouldn’t have sex. Despite this, it was a devastating fire that ended the early settlement.
In September 1919, the Italian poet and World War I fighter pilot Gabriele D’Annunzio, with a collection of mutinous soldiers at his back, stormed the city of Fiume on the Adriatic Coast. The place had, since the war’s end, been contested territory.
Nobody stopped the poet-warrior, and for the next 15 months, he served as the city’s charismatic dictator, delivering mystical speeches from his balcony every day before returning to a large, ever-changing group of lovers. A man who had his sons call him “Maestro” rather than “Papa,” D’Annunzio, who had a penchant for cocaine and lobsters, claimed to have had many thousands of lovers. He and his followers dressed in black uniforms decorated with skull and crossbones. A group claiming to represent the women of Fiume gave him a “holy” dagger, one biographer wrote, “so you may carve the word ‘victory’ in the living flesh of our enemies.”
Long before they rose to any kind of prominence, Hitler and Mussolini were both disciples of the poet. But the practice of government was not for D’Annunzio, and chancers, thieves, and libertines overran Fiume before the government in Rome restored order and ended the proto-Fascist, Bacchanalian dream.
Henry Ford didn’t just want to destroy public transport and cover the planet with his automobiles: He wanted to mold hearts and minds, and to have his own endless supply of sweet, sweet rubber. And so Fordlandia, a midwestern factory town in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, was founded.
Rainforest was cleared, hundreds of miles of road was built, and Ford—who never visited the place—did his best to socially engineer the environment from afar, imposing diet regulations on his Brazilian workers, telling them not to drink, and even pushing them into taking up traditional European dances like polkas and the waltz.
All of this led to riots, knife fights, and rebellion, with Ford compounding things by trying to apply large-scale industrial practices to the complex ecosystem of the rainforest. None of the latex from the Fordlandia trees was ever used in a Ford car, and the experiment ended in failure.
The first place to ever be called a “hippie commune,” Drop City, in the rural south of Colorado, was made up of dome-like structures inspired by the design principles of Buckminster Fuller. These structures were made of everything from car roofs to the caps of Sprite bottles.
Founded on a seven-acre plot of land by filmmakers and art students, the community aimed at egalitarianism and was seen as being an active rejection of life under American capitalism and the deeply unpopular war in Vietnam.
It was a profound dream, but once the word about Drop City got out, trouble came in: There was a murder, biker gangs arrived, and a cattle rancher later bought the utopia. The last of the domes was taken down in the late 1990s.