A letter to Arthur Thesleff: Colonia Finlandesa’s founder
May I call you by your first name?
Even if we never met, because I wasn’t born when you lived in 1871-1920, I feel I somehow know you.
You left a lot of clues about who you were: There’s the study on the Kaale Roma (Finnish Gypsies) and the travels you made to distant lands like Tibet, Madagascar, the Sahara and Argentina.
It was in northeast Argentina where you founded a hundred years ago a Finnish colony. Bad press at home and the setbacks the first group of Finns encountered there dashed your hopes of establishing a colony settled by hundreds of Finns.
There were a lot of challenges for the over 100 pioneers that settled Colonia Finlandesa. Some of these were with the authorities over partioning land, locusts, drought, forest fires and living in very primitive conditions.
Didn’t you abandon the colony in 1909?
Despite the initial setbacks, there were enough Finns at Colonia Finlandesa to attract new settlers. Some of these came from Brazil in the 1910s and from Kitee in the 1920s.
Even if the only thing Finnish that remains today at Colonia Finlandesa is its name in Spanish, it continues to capture our imagination and interest. Is it because some of us are still lured by what Colonia Finlandesa attempted to become: a place where its inhabitants could live contentedly in eternal summer landscapes?
I bumped into your name for the first time in Buenos Aries, when I started doing fieldwork as a young man on Colonia Finlandesa. When I visited the colony for the first time in November 1977, I never got the opportunity to witness the vibrant beauty of the virgin Atlantic Rainforest you saw at the turn of the last century.
Huge trees towering over 30 meters like the lapacho (Tabebuia impetiginosa) anchico colorado (Parapiptadenia rigida) and less ambitious ones like palms (Euterpe edulis) must have impressed you.
Misiones has the richest biodiversity in Argentina. Apart from some 2,000 plant species, and a rich quantity of reptiles and fishes, the rainforest you saw has been on the defensive for quite some time. According to some sources, deforestation in Misiones has destroyed the original forest by about 60%.
Each settler that settled Colonia Finlandesa was doomed to poverty. Since the land there is poor and rocky, settlers had to constantly clearcut and burn in order to grow new crops. Each time they felled trees they become poorer. It was like a noose that tightened slowly around their necks.
If you had the opportunity to peek 100 years in the future, you’d be disappointed by the abandonment and desolation your eyes would reveal.
Even so, it was during my last visit to the colony in 1998 when I realized what had lured you and so many others to this part of Argentina. The answer rested by a puddle of fresh rainwater on the path that took me deeper into the colony.
As I passed the puddle, hundreds of green-and-white colored butterflies flung and decorated the air like confetti. A few of them flew ahead of me like guides before turning back.
While the sheer beauty of the butterflies pitted against the green, lush, rolling late-afternoon landscapes are a feast to my eyes, I’m soon slapped back into reality by the chronic poverty that abounds in these parts.
In the interviews and fieldwork I did, there’s one scourge that emerges over and over again: alcohol.
Gunilla Lundgren gives a description of your home in Stockholm, according to Rolf Lageborg:
His home was a mixture of a museum and an antique shop. …There were also the skins and horns and teeth and claws of mysterious animals such as an unborn calf, and birds as small as butterflies and butterflies as big as birds, and all this mixed together with pictures of the Madonna, piles of manuscripts and relics from the pyramids. 1)
Ruined financially and into excessive drinking, those were the last landscapes that accompanied you when you took your life on a Friday, December 17, 1920.
Knowing your lack of fear of the unknown, did you face death as another great journey – or was it a place where your restless soul finally found peace?
1) The blond bandit Arthur Thesleff committed scholarship in early Finnish Romani Studies and today; Gunilla Lundgren.