Development of satyagraha at tolstoy farm

In 1910, Gandhi's close associate, Herman Kallenbach, bought property north of Johannesburg, which he donated to the satyagraha movement. Here, Gandhi and roughly 60 followers, drawn from across ethnic, racial and religious boundaries, settled and worked towards a self-sufficient satyagraha lifestyle.

Living the life of a satyaghari was never easy. Many were unable to find work due to their beliefs, and having a family to support, it became necessary to find some way of supporting those who had adopted the lifestyle fully.

The farm donated to the cause by Gandhi's friend, Herman Kallenbach, provided that way. Teaching adults and children, and dealing with the daily hardships of the lifestyle, helped Gandhi to refine his approaches to life, equipping him with the essential tools he was later to use in India.

The farm was named Tolstoy Farm after the famous Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy's writings on love and non-violence had made a deep impression on both Gandhi and Kallenbach. Both of them corresponded with an increasingly sickly Tolstoy, urging him to promote the South African Indian cause as much as possible. It was in one such letter that Gandhi informed him that the farm was to be named after Tolstoy, and the reasons why.


Life on the farm

IN his book, Satyagraha in South Africa, Gandhi outlines how he developed the concept of satyagraha in South Africa. Here he describes how Tolstoy Farm was created, and what life was like on the farm. It was on the farm that Gandhi learnt to make the sandals he was later to give to Jan Smuts.

"Even a Satyagrahi may be excused if he feels troubled at heart from want of his daily bread. There cannot be many in the world who would fight the good fight in spite of being compelled to condemn their nearest and dearest to the same starvation which they suffered in their own person.

"Till now the families of jail-going Satyagrahis were maintained by a system of monthly allowances in cash according to their need. It would not have done to grant an equal sum to all. A Satyagrahi who had a family of five persons dependent upon him could not be placed on a par with another who was a brahmachari without any family responsibilities.

"Nor was it possible to recruit only brahmacharis for our 'army.' The principle generally observed was, that each family was asked to name the minimum amount adequate to their needs and was paid accordingly on trust. There was considerable room here for fraud, of which some rogues might not fail to take advantage.

"Others who were honest but who were accustomed to live in a particular style naturally expected such help as would enable them to keep it up. I saw that at this rate the movement could not be conducted for any length of time. There was always the risk of injustice being done to the deserving, and undue advantage being taken by the unscrupulous.

"There was only one solution for this difficulty, namely, that all the families should be kept at one place and should become members of a sort of cooperative commonwealth. Thus there would be no scope for fraud, nor would there be injustice to any. Public funds would be largely saved and the families of Satyagrahis would be trained to live a new and simple life in harmony with one another. Indians belonging to various provinces and professing diverse faiths would have an opportunity of living together.

"But where was the place suitable for a settlement of this nature? To live in a city would have been like straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. The house rent alone would perhaps amount to the same sum as the food bill, and it would not be easy to live a simple life amidst the varied distractions of a city.

"Again in a city it would be impossible to find a place where many families could prosecute some useful industry in their own homes. It was therefore clear that the place selected should be neither too far from nor too near a city.

"There was of course Phoenix, where Indian Opinion was being printed and where there was also some cultivation being carried on. Phoenix was also convenient in many other ways, but it was three hundred miles away from Johannesburg and to be reached by a journey of thirty hours. It was therefore difficult and expensive to take the families such a distance and bring them back again. Besides, the families would not be ready to leave their homes for such a far off place, and even if they were ready it seemed impossible to send them as well as the Satyagrahi prisoners on their release.

"The place required then must be in the Transvaal and near Johannesburg. Mr Kallenbach, whose acquaintance the reader has already made, bought a farm of about 1 100 acres and gave the use of it to Satyagrahis free of any rent or charge (May 30, 1910).

"The settlers hailed from Gujarat, Tamilnad, Andhradesh and North India, and there were Hindus, Musulmans, Parsis and Christians among them. About forty of them were young men, two or three old men, five women and twenty to thirty children of whom four or five were girls. The Christian and other women were meat-eaters.

"Mr Kallenbach and I thought it desirable to exclude meat from the Farm. But how could we ask people, who had no scruples in the matter, who had been habituated to taking meat since childhood and who were coming over here in their days of adversity, to give up meat even temporarily? But if they were given meat, would not that swell our cost of living? Again should those who were accustomed to take beef be given that too? How many separate kitchens must be run in that case? What was my duty on this point?

"Having been instrumental in giving monetary help to these families, I had already given my support to meat-eating as well as beef-eating. If I made a rule that meat-eaters should not be helped, I would have to prosecute the Satyagraha struggle through vegetarians only, which was absurd as the movement had been organized on behalf of all classes of Indians.

"I did not take long clearly to visualize my duty in these circumstances. If the Christians and Musulmans asked even for beef, that too must be provided for them. To refuse them admission to the Farm was absolutely out of the question. But where love is, there God is also.

"The Musulman friends had already granted me permission to have a purely vegetarian kitchen. I had now to approach Christian sisters whose husbands or sons were in jail. I had often come in such intimate contact with the Christian friends who were now in jail and who had on similar occasions consented to having a vegetarian dietary.

"But this was the first time that I had to deal at close quarters with their families in their absence. I represented to the sisters the difficulty of housing accommodation as well as of finance and my own deep-rooted sentiment in the matter. At the same time I assured them that even beef would be provided for them if they wanted it. The sisters kindly consented not to have meat, and the cooking department was placed in their charge. I with or without another man was detailed to assist them. My presence acted as a check upon petty bickerings.

"The food was to be the simplest possible. The time as well as the number of meals was fixed. There was to be one single kitchen, and all were to dine in a single row. Every one was to see to the cleaning of his own dish and other things. The common pots were to be cleaned by different parties in turn.

"I must state that Satyagrahis lived on Tolstoy Farm for a long time, but neither the women nor the men ever asked for meat. Drink, smoking etc. were of course totally prohibited. As I have already stated, we wanted to be self-reliant as far as possible even in erecting buildings.

"Our architect was Mr Kallenbach of course, and he got hold of a European mason. A Gujarati carpenter, Narayandas Damania, volunteered his services free of charge and brought other carpenters to work at reduced rates. As regards unskilled labour, the settlers worked with their own hands. Some us who had supple limbs literally worked wonders. A fine Satyagrahi of the name of Vihari did half of the carpenter's work.

"The lion-like Thambi Naidoo was in charge of sanitation and marketing for which he had to go Johannesburg. One of the settlers was Pragji Khandubhai Desai who had never been accustomed to discomfort all his life, but who had here to put up with bitter cold, a hot sun and sharp rains. In the beginning we lived in tents for about two months while the buildings were under construction.

"The structures were all of corrugated iron and thereto did not take long to raise. The timber too could be had ready made in all sizes required. All we had to do was cut it to measure.

"There were not many doors or windows to be prepared. Hence it was that quite a number of buildings could be erected within such a short space of time. But all this labour was a heavy tax on Pragji's physical constitution.

"The work on the Farm was certainly harder than in jail. One day Pragji actually fainted thanks to fatigue and heat. But he was not the man to give in. He fully trained up his body here, and in the end he stood abreast as a good worker with the best of us.

"Then there was Joseph Royeppen, a barrister free from barrister's pride. He could not undertake very hard work. It was difficult for him to take down loads from the railway train and to haul them on the cart, but he did it as best he could.

The weak became strong on Tolstoy Farm

"The weak became strong on Tolstoy Farm and lab; proved to be a tonic for all...

"The use of shoes in a hot climate is harmful, as all the perspiration is absorbed by the feet which thus grow tender. No socks were needed in the Transvaal as in India, but we thought that the feet must be protected against thorns, stones and the like. We therefore determined to learn to make sandals. There is at Mariannhill near Pinetown a monastery of German Catholic monks called the Trappists, where industries of this nature are carried on.

"Mr Kallenbach went there and acquired the art of making sandals. After he returned, he taught it to me and I in my turn to other workers. Thus several young men learnt how to manufacture sandals, and we commenced selling them to friends. I need scarcely say that many of my pupils easily surpassed me in the art.

"Another handicraft introduced was that of carpentry. Having founded a sort of village we needed all manner of things large and small from benches to boxes, and we made them all ourselves. The selfless carpenters already referred to helped us for several months. Mr Kallenbach was the head of the carpentry department, and as such every moment gave us the evidence of his mastery and exactitude.

"As the reminiscences of Tolstoy Farm would be incomplete without an account of Gokhale's visit thereto, so would they be if I omitted to say something about the character and conduct of Mr Kallenbach. It was really a wonder how he lived on Tolstoy Farm among our people as if he were one of us.

"Gokhale was not the man to be attracted by ordinary things. But even he felt strongly drawn to the revolutionary change in Kallenbach's life. Kallenbach had been brought up in the lap of luxury and had never known what privation was. In fact, indulgence had been his religion. He had had his fill of all the pleasures of life, and he had never hesitated to secure for his comfort everything that money could buy. It was no commonplace for such a man to live, move and have his being on Tolstoy Farm, and to become one with the Indian settlers. This was an agreeable surprise for the Indians."

- Gandhi, M. Satyagraha in South Africa, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedebad. Translated from the original Gujarati by Valji Govindji Desai. pp144-157


Why Tolstoy?

In this extract from his autobiography, Gandhi explains why he decided to call the farm Tolstoy.

"Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You overwhelmed me. It left an abiding impression on me. Before the independent thinking, profound morality, and the truthfulness of this book, all the books given me by Mr Coates seemed to pale into insignificance."

- Gandhi, M. An Autobiography or My Experiments With the Truth, Gandhi Book Centre, Bombay. Translated from the Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, p72

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"Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now"
Mohandas Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi, 1908
Picture: © Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners will be asked to extract information from a document, photographs and an extract from Gandhi's speech at the burning of registration certificates in 1908. They will be able to explore the motives of the Transvaal government in issuing passes to male Indians over the age of eight, and the bitter feelings it stirred up among the Indian community. Learners will be introduced to Gandhi's political philosophy - satyagraha - which can be translated as "the force which is born of truth and love, or non-violence".

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