In 1855 a diverse group of European intellectuals attempted to establish a new society near present-day Dallas. La Réunion was “the last major attempt by adepts of French philosopher Charles Fourier to reconstruct the whole of society as a utopia,” advises author James Pratt in “Sabotaged: Dreams of Utopia in Texas” (Bison Books), published posthumously last month.
“After more than twenty years of talk about [establishing] a reorganized society in France, Belgium [or] Switzerland, after three failed attempts at phalanxes in France … and over thirty American trials,” co-founders Victor Considerant and Dr. Auguste Savardan were determined to combine talent, resources and labor to create a utopia in the wilderness of Texas,” adds Pratt (1927-2018), whose research and writing on La Réunion spanned 35 years.
Considerant is at the center of the story—a charismatic, self-appointed disciple of Fourier who led the effort to establish the colony, but ultimately went out of his way to sabotage it.
As for Fourier (1772-1837), if you’re not familiar with his philosophy you should know that he detested industrial society and believed that all work was arduous and irksome. He hoped to overcome the dehumanization of work by creating a non-repressive society—a self-contained community featuring a community of producers where members would continually shift roles, thereby avoiding monotonous routines. This helps explain why the aforementioned Savardan hoped to attract people with diverse skill sets, not just frustrated individuals who wanted a fresh start on another continent.
Never mind that the track record of utopian communities was abysmal; in fact, some of the people who came to La Réunion came from other failed experiments, including Brook Farm, a Transcendental utopian community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. And La Réunion wasn’t even the first attempt at utopian living in North Texas. Seven years earlier, a community of French immigrants attempted to establish an Icarian colony north of Fort Worth, one organized around the beliefs of Étienne Cabet.
In fact, one of the founders of La Réunion, François Jean Cantagrel, who was charged with finding land for the Fourierists, consulted with members of the 1848 Cabet colony about their experience living on the American frontier. Cantagrel even visited the site of the Icarian commune, including the cemetery where they had buried upwards of 20 percent of their comrades, who died over a period of just three months.
Visits to other parts of Texas must have been disquieting as well. In Austin, for example, “[Cantagrel] noticed ‘a very remarkable number of drinking and gambling shops,’ and the absence of a bookstore,” writes Pratt. Cantagrel & Co. also discovered a pervasive spirit of anti-foreignism in Texas—an environment where immigrants were perceived to be a threat.
Notably, too, the European transplants were unaccustomed to hot weather and the local environment. As the author puts it, the colonists had to “guard themselves against innumerable insects and poisonous plants: gnats, chiggers, sand ticks, wood lice, bed bugs, mosquitoes, flies, poison ivy, smilax sticker vines, stinging nettle, tarantulas, scorpions, centipedes, mason wasps, snakes, wolves, coyotes, wild cats, skunks, and alligators [all] greeted the Europeans, who were accustomed to poppies in the fields of Europe—a nature tamed and benign under temperate skies.”
Yet against all odds, the colony exhibited early signs of success, and five months in more than a hundred colonists were settled on the land. Yet the scene wasn’t anything like what Considerant had envisioned. “His imagination had projected whitewashed building walls set amid gardens in rows around a quadrangle,” notes Pratt, not the rough, unfinished buildings he encountered when he arrived. As for his house, “he dreamed of a planned, rationally ordered, rectilinear home set in bucolic nature,” but when his cabin was finished he rejected it outright, and asked for a two-story home to be built at his own expense.
“[Considerant] had to go through with what he had started, but he seemed to regret everything that was happening,” explains Pratt. Worse, he blamed others for the community’s shortcomings, as he felt that others had blundered and created a mess of his vision.
It wasn’t long before a toxic mix of miserable weather, Texas politics and interpersonal conflict led to a split between the co-founders—and then a few splinter groups. Finally, Considerant abandoned the people who followed him to Texas and set his sights on starting a new utopia at Canyon de Uvalde, 300 miles away in San Antonio.
In the end, Considerant wasn’t the only one looking to cast blame. In his book “Un Naufrage au Texas” (A Shipwreck in Texas), Dr. Savardan said the colony had failed, in his view, not due to the colonists or any flaw in Fourier’s vision but because of the leadership failures of Victor Considerant.
As for Considerant, he and his wife Julie went on to farm land in Bexar County, “unable to raise funds to start a new utopia and unable to return home, since he was banned from France by Napoleon III,” explains Pratt. Finally, when Napoleon lost power in 1869 the couple returned to Paris. “They settled on the Left Bank, where Julie sold paintings of flowers and Victor, dressed in a serape, could be found pontificating and posturing as a socialist sage.”