Paradise Lost - The Paraguay Experiment

Paraguay

A little known part of Australian history gave us an insight into the problems that can pervade a dream of the ideal society. Perhaps there are lessons from this social experiment to be learned, but maybe also and more importantly there are deep and disappointing insights into human fragilities, specifically the need for power and control.

The story is well told in the song “Boomerang In Paradise” by country music legend, Graeme Connors (currently playing).

They had names like Murray, Wood, Casey and Burke. Some have red hair and blue eyes, and a few know the national anthem, but they’re not Australian. They’re the descendants of disgruntled bushmen, shearers and unionists, who left the sunburnt country to create a socialist colony in South America in 1893. New Australia was supposed to be utopia — a place where no-one drank, no-one cheated, and all men were equal, a socialist icon — but it took less than two years to fall to pieces. “They’re not 100 per cent Paraguayan, and they're certainly not recognised by Australia any more,” Dr Ben Stubbs said at the time. “There’s an impression that they’re stuck.” Their leader was a charismatic Englishman with a drooping moustache called William Lane, who thought outside the box and liked to press buttons. He grew up with an alcoholic father, and even though he was a teetotaller, he once famously posed as a drunk to get thrown into a jail — writing a newspaper report that caused national controversy. Lane was infatuated with socialist ideals, and when he sailed to Australia in 1885, he became heavily involved in the formation of the Australian Labor Federation. According to biographer Gavin Souter, he came up with the radical idea for a socialist settlement during the Queensland shearers’ strike of 1891. The protests were swiftly crushed by government soldiers, and Lane decided there could be no real change without a complete restructure of society. His radical notion split the Labor Federation. The majority went on to form the modern Australian Labor Party, currently led by Bill Shorten. Lane and his followers set sail for Paraguay.

William Lane

William Lane became a radical socialist in his late teens.

THE SOCIALIST DREAM

Lane's concept of 'common-hold' was that each member of a society should be able to withdraw their proportion of the society's wealth if they chose to leave. It appealed to many idealistic Australians and Paraguay was chosen as the site of the settlement. Those who joined Lane were largely a group of Australian shearers fed up with the lack of job opportunities and security. In the early 1890s, Australia was in the grip of recession. As shearers scraped a living wandering the stations of Queensland and NSW, new, less-favourable working conditions were put to them. Their refusal to sign wealthy pastoralists' agreements that failed to comply with union-approved conditions heralded the Australian Labour Movement. As defence forces clashed with striking shearers across Queensland, firebrand journalist William Lane made his move. He dreamt of a utopian existence in cooperative socialism and saw the disaffected shearers as his perfect acolytes. He published erudite pieces enticing people to join him. At that time, there was no socialist state in the world where Lane could lead his followers, but it was vital to him that they leave Australia and all its social issues behind.

Lane recruited many, and the first ship left Sydney in July 1893 for Paraguay, where the government was keen to get white settlers and had offered the group 1874sq.kms of good land. The voyage of Royal Tar took 68 days, passing New Zealand and rounding treacherous Cape Horn before continuing on to Uruguay on the east coast of the continent. They switched to a smaller boat and made their way up into the heart of the continent along the great rivers of South America, as far as Asunción, where they arrived on 22 September 1893. They continued by train and bullock cart to the site of the colony, noting that the countryside looked like the Darling Downs in Queensland. But the utopians were "wet to the skin, hungry and tired" by the time they arrived at the site of New Australia, and the conditions in the jungle were more difficult than they could have imagined. Polvorinos - tiny ground-dwelling parasites - would dig into the soles of their feet and lay eggs. Jaguars stalked the camp, and it was nothing like the arable land and river frontage they'd been promised. Despite these difficulties, the colony took shape. They cleared the surrounding jungle and constructed thatched cottages, with a butcher, a smithy and a school, all separated by rows of pretty orange trees. They maintained ideals of no personal property and everyone working for the benefit of the community, sharing all that was gained in the hope of setting an example to new arrivals. Several thousand cattle were purchased and from the outside all seemed well. The local children were schooled by recent Australian arrival Mary Gilmore, who graces our $10 note. She stayed for five years as a teacher. But inside the settlement, things were deteriorating; many didn't like Lane's strict rules, seeking out the odd draught of rum and the company of 'non-white' locals.

While it is generally agreed that there were some able settlers, there seems to be some disagreement about the character of the New Australia settlers as a whole. Thus was born what was alled New Australia, a utopian socialist settlement founded by the Australian New Australian Movement. The colony was officially founded on 28 September 1893 as Colonia Nueva Australia and comprised 238 adults and children. The Promised Land was 187,000 hectares in the jungle, and the first contingent arrived on a tall ship called Royal Tar in 1893. At the time, Paraguay was trying to rebuild itself after the Triple Alliance War — which saw nearly all its men wiped out by the armies of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay — and the government offered the Australians a parcel of free land in a desperate bid to repopulate. The colonists quickly set about clearing jungle, buying cattle, and establishing a township, but it didn’t take long for them to tire of Lane’s strict rules. “He ordered his men to have nothing to do with native women and forbade them drowning their sorrows in alcohol,” journalist Eric Campbell said. According to Gavin Souter, Lane showed absolutely no compromise. “He was autocratic, and under pressure his simplistic communism and mateship developed a non-denominational but distinctly religious tinge.” Within months, there was trouble in paradise. There was conflict amongst the settlers from the beginning over prohibition of alcohol, relations with the locals and Lane's leadership, "I can't help feeling that the movement cannot result in success if that incompetent man Lane continues to mismanage so utterly as he has done up to the present," wrote colonist Tom Westwood.

Much to Lane’s horror, the men were also extremely interested in the local women, and by the time the second contingent arrived in 1894, the colony was breaking apart. They were barely self-sufficient. A number of settlers left to seek a better standard of living; others were expelled for breaches of conduct. Problems intensified after a second group of colonists arrived in 1894. Dissension caused a rift in the colony and in May 1894, Lane and 58 others left New Australia to found Cosme, a new colony 72 kilometres farther south. Eventually New Australia was dissolved as a cooperative by the government of Paraguay, and each settler was given their own piece of land. Cosme proved to be considerably more successful as a settlement. However, by 1899, Lane had had enough. He sailed to New Zealand, found a job at a newspaper, and denounced socialism. “The radical of the 1890s had become a conservative Imperialist,” wrote Gavin Souter. “He denounced industrial lawlessness, advocated the introduction of universal military training, and when war came showed himself a master of patriotic rhetoric.”

Some colonists founded communes elsewhere in Paraguay, others went home to Australia or on to England; some 2000 descendants of the New Australia colonists still live in Paraguay. From time to time Australian tourists visit Nueva Australia and make contact with locals, or visit the local school. The town had about 300 residents in 2007, and is only a few hours' bus ride from the famous Iguazu Falls (below).

Igauga Falls

Geoff Mooney