The Story of Tolstoy Farm[1]

Kirti Menon

Satyagraha gained momentum as Gandhi led the struggle against the recruitment of indentured labour for Natal, the poll-tax and the judgment of the Cape Supreme Court in 1913 declaring all marriages- other than those according to Christian rites and registered with the Registrar of Marriages - as illegal. This provoked strikes and marches and a sophisticated use of satyagraha as more Indians willingly courtedarrest against the inequities and injustices of the times. News of Gandhi and Satyagraha spread across the continents and it was clearly the beginnings of a philosophy which would see Britain relinquish power in India and concede defeat a few decades later. The influence of the philosophy on other political movements would continue to inspire the struggle for democracy in South Africa, the civil rights movement in America and in many individuals. Gandhi returned to India in 1914 as a Mahatma after 21 years.

No story of Tolstoy Farm can begin without detailing Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's arrival in South Africa as a young lawyer. His engagement in South Africa commenced in 1893 with a legal case representing Dada Abdulla & Company in Natal and he remained actively engaged.  His rise as a social and political activist had roots in the context of Africa as he gradually became conscious of the social injustices of the times.

 Gandhi attributed his spiritual awareness and growth to the seminal work of Ruskin's Unto The Last, which, he unequivocally stated as a book which "marked the turning point in my life" as well as Leo Tolstoy's (1828-1910) The Kingdom of God is Within You in 1894. Gandhi wrote to Tolstoy and described himself as "a humble follower of yours." Gandhi was inspired and moved by Tolstoy's writings and during 1910 an exchange of letters between the two reveals the depth of the influence. Tolstoy advocated non-resistance as an appropriate response to aggression and foregrounded the need for equitable treatment of the poor and working class and called for the need to look into oneself and to God for answers on morality. Tolstoy wrote to
Gandhi “Your activity is the most important essential work, the most important of all the work being done in the world.” [2]

Henry D. Thoreau's (1817-1862) writings on civil disobedience shaped his thinking as well. During Gandhi's period in Johannesburg he met with the Theosophists and began reading the Bhagavad Gita and the writings of Vivekananda.  His reading at the time helped him refine and define Satyagraha – evolving, sharpening and honing his philosophy of non-violence, passive resistance 'satyagraha'.

In his role as activist,he gradually became integrally involved in the struggle for social justice, first in Natal and then in the Transvaal. This activism found expression in forms of protest action: courting imprisonment, negotiations
with the government of the time and mobilization of the community. This period saw the establishment of Phoenix Settlement (1906) and the publication of the Indian Opinion (1903), both providing Gandhi with a vital and vibrant medium for communicating with the community on matters that would impact on the rights of the people.

The Transvaal Government's "Black Act" 2 (Asiatic Registration Act) of 1906 which made it compulsory for all Indians to be registered and finger-printed, propelled Gandhi into defiance of the law and the evolution of a philosophy of protest and resistance which he called 'Satyagraha'. This led to mass imprisonments and soon General Smuts retreated and released prisoners
and indicated that the Act would be repealed in exchange for voluntary
registration by the Indians. In1908, the struggle intensified as the Government of the day reneged on its promise and what ensued was the bonfire of certificates. Gandhi went to Britain in 1909 to convince the British government that self-government for South Africa was not a viable option. He was unsuccessful as on 31 May 1910, the British government transferred power to the white minority in South Africa. Ironically this transpired a day after purchase of Tolstoy Farm. On 31 May 1910, the Union of South Africa came into being with General Jan Smuts as the Minister for Interior, Mines and Defence.

Hermann Kallenbach was born in East Prussia (1871 – 1945) and studied architecture in South Stuttgart and Munich. In 1896 he went to South Africa, where he practiced as an architect. He met Mohandas Gandhi in 1903 and became a friend, confidante and follower. Along with H.S.L. Polak, Kallenbach was integrally involved with Satyagraha and Gandhi's Phoenix and newspaper, Indian Opinion.

In 1910 Kallenbach and Gandhi conceived of the idea of Tolstoy Farm. The farm Roodepoort No. 49, 1100 acres of land, was purchased by Kallenbach from Johannesburg Town Councillor L. V. Partridge for £2,000 on 30 May 1910. One third, £666.13.4, was to be paid in advance for the transfer deeds. The balance was to be paid in monthly installments of £15 per month and with an interest of 6% per annum. For the security of the payments, a bond was signed by Kallenbach with the farm itself serving as the collateral. They called it Tolstoy Farm in recognition of their deep admiration for Count Leo Tolstoy.

Gandhi described the farm: "It is nearly 1,100 acres in extent or 508 morgen,
being nearly two miles long and three quarter broad. It slopes down a hill from South to North and is, therefore, well protected from the South-East winds. There are nearly 1,000 fruit-bearing trees and with peaches, apricots, figs, almonds, walnuts, etc., and a small plantation of wattle [acacia] and eucalyptus trees. The ground is fertile. Water is supplied from two wells as also a spring. Beyond a shed and a dilapidated house containing four rooms and a kitchen, it contains no structure worth naming. By rail, it generally takes about one and a half hours to reach it from here. A cyclist has to cover a distance of about 18 miles [to the city] and he can cycle the distance in less than two hours. The boundary of the Farm is reached in about seven minutes from Lawley Station and the dwelling place in about thirteen more minutes." Indian Opinion, June 18, 1910, p.201.

History narrates the progress of Gandhi's Tolstoy Farm experiments. The idea was to have a communal farm to serve several purposes:
· Training for new passive resisters
· Experiment in communal living
· Haven for families of prisoners
· Multi-denomination prayers and multilingual

Gandhi was convinced that the success of the final phase of the satyagraha campaign in South Africa between 1908 and 1914 owed much to the "spiritual purification and penance" afforded by the Tolstoy Farm. He wrote: "I have serious doubts as to whether the struggle could have been prosecuted for eight years, whether we could have secured larger funds, and whether the thousands of men who participated in the last phase of the struggle would have borne their share of it, if there had been no Tolstoy Farm." 3]

"The Farm that Mr. Kallenbach has given for the use of the families of passive resisters he has named Tolstoy Farm. He has chosen an ambitious title and it is his intention, so far as possible, to live up to the ideals that Tolstoy has set forth. The greatest thing, however, that Mr. Kallenbach has done is to live with the passive resisters their life, to share their sorrows, and joys when there are any, and to comfort and protect the wives and families of the imprisoned passive resisters. Mr. Kallenbach considers that all this is part of his own training and that it gives him an insight into human nature which nothing else could have given", (Indian Opinion, 18 June 1910) .

Kallenbach and his partner, Alexander Kennedy, worked on the plans and supervised the building work at Tolstoy Farm. Inhabitants slept in tents while the first building was constructed, a shed. Mistri Narayandas Damania volunteered his services with no charge and brought with him several other carpenters. A house, a school and a workshop for carpentry and shoe-making were constructed. Early accounts indicate that there was a library at the farm. The primary objective of the Farm was to provide a safe haven for families whose breadwinners were in prison.

Apart from, Gandhi's wife Kasturba and his sons, there were also women like Veeramal Naidoo, the wife of resister Thambi Naidoo and their children, A Mrs John, who had a little baby, a Mrs Lazarus, and Rambhaben Sodha the wife of resister Ratanshi Sodha. The farm catered for a fluid population of approximately 70 people at any given time. The communal family[4]
 included Gujaratis, Tamils, Hindi-speakers, Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Parsis. There were also some African families on the farm one of the men being known only as John. Many visitors went to thefarm and were involved in providing classes or working at carpentry.

"Tolstoy Farm was a family in which I occupied the place of the father," wrote Gandhi, “and that I should so far as possible shoulder the responsibility for the training of the young". Gandhi personally taught the young children Tamil grammar and Urdu and supervised a curriculum that challenged conventional colonial education. Many biographers have described the focus of Gandhi on education and manual labour. There was a strong emphasis on
vocational training for both genders and a serious ‘experiment’ in communal
living with tasks on the farm shared by all. The lifestyle was meant to prepare one for prison – food was served in bowls like those in prison. Paramount in the busy schedule of cooking, sandal making and carpentry was the nurturing of the ideals of social service and citizenship. These lessons that began at Phoenix Settlement in Natal in 1904 were refined when Gandhi returned to India and adopted the spinning wheel as an integral part of ashram life. The rural geographical context provided Gandhi with the opportunity to place an emphasis on simple living. There is evidence of discipline in the daily routine followed by the residents. Its purpose was to
prevent, no doubt, idle time-wasting, and make them feel that they were being constructively useful.

The bell rang at six in the morning, wrote a Rand Daily Mail (Johannesburg) reporter. After the toilets were completed and the beds made, the residents ate breakfast. Everybody was assigned a task for the morning. Work was stopped at 11 a.m. to go for a bath - the bath was postponed for this
hour so as to make good use of the warm sun rays. The midday meal was served.

At 1 p.m.  Several classes of school began lasting until 5 late in the afternoon.

At 5:30 The evening meal was taken .

There would be an hour of rest.

At 7 p.m. the residents would assemble before Gandhi who would review the day's events, point out difficulties if any, and suggest ways of preventing their recurrence. The meeting ended with readings  from books on religion and the singing of hymns .[5]

Gandhi left Tolstoy Farm in January 1913 and took some of the youngsters with him to Phoenix which thereafter became his main base. Tolstoy Farm residents nonetheless proved crucial in the satyagraha campaign that resumed in 1913. Kallenbach led a group of eleven women (most of whom had been former Tolstoy Farm residents) to Vereeniging in the Orange Free State to break the provincial restrictions on movement. These women had young children with them and they proceeded to the coal mines of Newcastle
where they played a role in getting the workers there to go on strike. It was this kind of courage that places like Tolstoy Farm and Phoenix Settlement fostered. The thousands of workers in northern Natal led by Gandhi then began a march to cross the Transvaal border with the intention of reaching Tolstoy Farm, though they were arrested before they could do this. Tolstoy
Farm had a short history of existence as a communal farm in comparison to Phoenix Settlement but despite the brevity of Gandhi's stay there the critical historical significance cannot be underestimated. It represented a bold experiment. The land was transferred to a WH Humpreys in 1915. In the 1950s,Anglovaal bought the land and then sold it to current owner Corobrik.

The story of Tolstoy Farm and Gandhi's early experiments with truth, non-violence and moral living has interwoven in it the generosity of his friend and colleague, Hermann Kallenbach and their inspiration, Tolstoy. This is a story that pays tribute to the men, women and children whose footprints have left an indelible mark on our history and who have inspired many of our leaders.
It is the story of all those who worked jointly on a communal project without thought for the self and who endured many hardships in the name of justice and who charted new ground in working towards a multi-racial, multi-faith,
multi-class and multilingual community all bound by a shared purpose: justice for all.


Adajania, Sorabji
Knudsen, Elizabeth
Kotwal, Purushottam K
Badri, Shipujan
Bawazir, Fatima
Medh, Surendrarai B
Bawazir, Imam
Molteno, Elizabeth
Bhagabhai, Bagho
Moodley, S.S.
Burjorsingh (1890)
Bush, Miss (Off. Clerk)
Mudaliar, Kuppuswami Moonlight
Cachalia, Ahmad Muhammad
Cachalia, Ismail
Call A.E.
Naidoo, Bala
Chettiar, V.A.
Naidoo, Barsodhi
Naidoo, C.K. Thambi
Naidoo, Kuppusamy
Naidoo, Mrs Thambi
Dahya, Tulis
Naidoo, Naransamy
Damania, Narandas
Naidoo, P.K.
Deasi, Pragji K.
Naidoo, Raju
Desai, Kisan
Naidoo, Gopal
Desai, Nagin
Naidoo, Pakiri
Desai, Purshottamdas
Narandas, Mistri
Doctor, Jeki
Naynah, Mrs Dhobie
Doctor, Manilal
Patel, Bhagabhai Manchhabhai
Domodar, Virji
Patel, Maganbhai
Ernest, Solomon
Patel, Raojibhai
Francis, Veera
Gandhi, Chhaganlal K
Pillay Kanapathe
Gandhi, Devdas
Pillay, Govindsamy
Gandhi, Gokuldas Parmananddas
Polak, Millie
Gandhi, Harilal
Polak, Waldo
Gandhi, Jamnadas
Polak, Henry
Gandhi, Karsandas
Polak, Maud
Gandhi, Kasturba
Rajabali Velshi Keshavjee
Gandhi, Keshavlal
Gandhi, Krishnadas
Gandhi, Lakshmidas
Ritch, Lewis W
Gandhi, Maganlal
Royeppen, Joseph
Gandhi, Manilal
Rustomji, Parsee
Gandhi, Mohandas
Rustomji, Sorabji
Gandhi, Narandas
Sam (Govindaswamy)
Gandhi, Prabhudas
Schlesin, Sonja
Gandhi, Radha
Gandhi, Raliatbehn (sis)
Shelat, Umiyashankar
Gandhi, Ramdas
Sodha, Chhotalal
Gandhi, Rukmini
Sodha, Ratansi
Sodha, Revashanker
Givindu, Raju (Sam)
Thayanayagie Pillay
Govindrajloo, V
Hansraj, Gokuldas Garach Vihari
Harry Lazarus, Mrs? Virsing
John, Mrs Aaron West, Ada "Devi"
Kallenbach, Herman West, Albert

The Barrister Count Leo Tolstoy

To Gandhi.

I HAVE just received your very interesting letter,
which gave me much pleasure. God help our dear brothers and co-workers in the Transvaal!
Among us, too, this fight between gentleness and brutality, between humility
and love and pride and violence, makes itself ever more strongly felt,
especially in a sharp collision between religious duty and the State laws,
expressed by refusals to perform military service. Such refusals occur
more and more often.

From Recollections & Essays by Leo Tolstoy.
Oxford University Press: London, New York, Toronto, 1937. (pp. 433-439)

10 January, 1908 Arrested for failing to register or to leave Transvaal and sentenced to two months simple imprisonment.
On 30th January, following a compromise, he was released.
07 October, 1908 While returning from Natal, as he was unable to show his registration,which he had burnt, his sentence was imprisonment with hard labour.
25 February, 1909 Arrested, sentenced for 3 months imprisonment at Transvaal for not producing registration certificate.
06 November, 1913 After the ‘great march’ he was arrested at Palm Ford, released on 7th on bail furnished by Kallenbach.
08 November, 1913 Again arrested and released on bail.
09 November, 1913 Arrested and sentenced to nine months imprisonment. At Volksrust sentenced for further three months.
But unexpectedly released on 18 December, 1913.


[1]Acknowledgement of input

to Gandhi, 7 September 1908

[3] The Tolstoy Farm: Gandhi's
Experiment in "Cooperative Commonwealth" By Surendra Bhana Published
in South African Historical Journal, No. 7, November 1975

[4] James
Hunt, Unpublished Manuscript on Tolstoy Farm by Professor Uma-Dhupelia Mesthrie

[5] The Tolstoy Farm: Gandhi's
Experiment in "Cooperative Commonwealth" By Surendra Bhana Published
in South African Historical Journal, No. 7, November 1975