The Unfortunate Australian Utopia In Paraguay

By Tyler Parsons on Wednesday, April 9, 2014
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“All Utopias / are castles in the air or counsels of despair.” —Robert Bridges, The Testament of Beauty

In A Nutshell

In 1893, 220 Australians sailed out of Sydney to start a new life in Paraguay. Their settlement, named New Australia, was to be a “socialist utopia,” and went about as well as anything bearing that description, quickly abandoning its founding principles and even splitting in two. Today, a substantial number of Paraguayan Australians still exist and continue to maintain some of their heritage.

The Whole Bushel

The story of New Australia begins with a financial collapse in Argentina, which prompted economic depression in Australia. This saw Queensland shearers, facing cuts to already poor wages, decide to strike, and they were promptly joined by other bush workers. Despite holding out for several months, the protest was broken with the intervention of British troops and the arrest of union leaders.

Some of the workers (who gave up their hopes for an egalitarian, worker’s Australia on the back of their failure) were drawn to the ideas of William Lane, an English journalist. (Other workers coalesced into the Australian Labor Party, which, with the benefit of hindsight, was by far the better option.) Lane proposed seeking a new start in South America and was swamped with some 2,000 prospective colonists. Initially rebuffed by Argentina, the scheme was welcomed by Paraguay, which was still severely depopulated from the War of the Triple Alliance in 1864–70 (this saw the country fight the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, and lose up to 90 percent of its male population), and they were offered 185,000 acres of land.

The first group of settlers arrived in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion on September 22, 1893 and arrived at the site of their settlement after a grueling six-week trek. Here they were bedeviled by jaguars that stalked the camp and by parasites that burrowed into their shoes and laid eggs in the soles of their feet. After arrival of the first full complement of colonists, things began to fall apart, with Lane’s leadership increasingly unpopular. He tried to ban alcohol and inter-relations with natives, which soon saw dissent tear the settlement apart.

Despite these difficulties, they boasted a smithy, butcher, and school, with the latter having a 2,000-book library, theatre, music, and cricket (we Australians know what’s important). Unfortunately, a minor incident where a man was banished for the possession of rum-laced milk was all that was needed to instigate the split. Lane, with 63 people, moved 35 kilometers (22 mi) away and founded Cosme. The 217 left behind in New Australia abandoned the colony’s socialist principles and divided up the land.

Incredibly, Cosme lasted until 1909, but Lane had given up a decade earlier, going on to become editor of the New Zealand Herald. A trickle of immigrants came in over the following few years but most returned home. The “most,” however, is important—some eight families remained, and today their descendants number at around 2,000, with names like Wood, Smith, Jones, Murray, and Cadogan. They have mostly abandoned English, instead speaking Spanish or the local language Guarani, but there are some tangible links to the past.

The site of New Australia has somehow become known as New London, but a local village school retains the name “New Australia” and hoists an Australian flag. There is also the occasional set of blond or red hair and blue eyes; a Queenslander-style house; and memories of those who left to fight in World War I and II.

Today, however, memories are fading—Norman Wood, last of the first generation of Cosme-born Australians, died at the age of 92 in 1993, and its history is fading into secondhand, half-remembered tales.

Show Me The Proof

The Argentina Independent: New Australia: The Australian Colony in Paraguay
ABC: Historic ‘utopian’ Australian colony in modern Paraguay (video)
Sydney Morning Herald: Australian echoes in Paraguayan paradise
Objects Through Time: 1893—The New Australia Colony Collection