One winter morning at the end of the 19th century, 220 Australian socialists sailed out of Sydney harbour on the Royal Tar, bound for the deep green heart of South America.
They were going to Paraguay, to start a ‘New Australia’. It was to be a utopia of equality, fairness for workers, and communal living – and from there, they would change the world. One of the most ambitious schemes in Australian history, it failed miserably; but descendents of those pioneers still live there, and preserve fragments of their Australian past. I went to Paraguay to find them.
Sunday siesta in Asunción. Heat and humidity smother the city as I wander down the silent, empty streets of the capital. Purple bougainvillaea flowers tumble over walls, and ripening mangoes drip from trees lining the foot path. I climb to the third floor of the Senate building and gaze out over a marshy slum to the Río Paraguay, trying to imagine what those Australian pilgrims thought as they steamed slowly up the river all those years ago.
Their story starts with a financial crash in Argentina (no, not that one, this one happened 111 years earlier) which triggered an economic depression in Australia. In February 1891, Queensland shearers, faced with pay cuts to their already meagre wages, walked off the job by the thousands.
The shearers, joined by other bush workers, resisted for months, living in huge camps scattered across the Queensland outback – but the standoff was broken when the government sent up redcoat troops and arrested the strike leaders.
Disillusioned and unemployed, many bush workers saw the strike’s failure as the end of their hopes for an egalitarian, workers’ Australia. When English journalist, the idealistic firebrand William Lane proposed starting anew in South America, over 2,000 prospective colonists signed up immediately.
The New Australia Association originally looked for land in Argentina, but the government was uncooperative. Paraguay, on the other hand, was eager to offer the Australian colonists 185,000 acres of fertile land. Having lost 90% of its male population only 20 years before in the devastating War of the Triple Alliance (when it held out against the combined forces of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay for five years) the country was desperate for manpower to work the land and re-populate the diminished nation.
By 1893, the scheme was in motion. The first colonists sailed across the Pacific, round Cape Horn, and up the Argentine coast to Montevideo. From there, they took a steamer up the Río Paraná, and into the Río Paraguay, arriving in Asunción on 22nd September 1893. After travelling by train to Villarica, it was bullocks and wagons, river crossings and mosquitoes until, after total journey of six weeks, they finally arrived at the Promised Land.
The first group, almost entirely men, was meant to set everything up for the thousands who would follow, and create the world’s first great communist city. But it only took two months for the first cracks to appear.
William Lane’s autocratic leadership soon led to dissent. The pledges to teetotalism and the ‘colour line’ he had required of the new settlers had seemed logical back in Australia – but here, surrounded by the temptations of beautiful Guaraní women (in a country where roughly 80% of the population were female) and caña, the local sugar-cane rum, they proved highly contentious.
As one of the colony’s descendents, famous comic-book writer Robin Wood, put it to me: “Lane had two rules: 1) No booze. A group of Irish, Scots and Australians? Come on! And 2) No hanky-panky with the natives. For a socialist, he was very racist, and very stupid.”
Riven with tension and disagreement, the colony soon split into two. The original New Australia abandoned communal ownership, dividing up into private family plots, while Lane established a new colony, Cosme. Even more isolated than Nueva Australia, Cosme struggled on until 1909 – but Lane himself left in 1899 after it became obvious his grand plan was doomed to failure.
For a few years, new colonists continued to trickle in to both communities from Australia and the UK, but the majority of settlers left, heading back to Australia or to farm work on Patagonian estancias.
But around eight families did remain – and to this day 2,000 descendents of those adventurous dreamers still call Paraguay home.
If the colonists left Australia to avoid tyranny and inequality, it’s somewhat ironic that they ended up in Paraguay. Until 1989, the country suffered an unbroken series of dictators since its independence from Spain in 1811, culminating in the brutal reign of Alfredo Stroessner. Now, Paraguay has been democratic for nearly two decades, but it is still plagued by corruption and poverty. The drug trade thrives, and every Asunción street corner sports a Kalashnikov-toting policeman.
There is no sign of any of that, however, when I meet Roger Cadogan under the avocado trees at his small farm on the outskirts of Asunción. Chooks and guinea fowl mutter to themselves as we lunch on locro and sweet papaya, and Roger tells me about the grandparents he never met. Rose Summerfield and Jack Cadogan arrived at New Australia in 1899, with their newborn son León. Rose had been well-known in the socialist and women’s suffrage movements in Sydney.
“I know that my grandmother Rose was a personality. She was a feminist in another time, when you women didn’t have any rights at all,” he tells me. “And my grandfather – well, he was an adventurer.” Did Roger inherit any of that? He winks. “Definitely.”
Roger’s father León went on to become a renowned ethnologist. Highly regarded for his publications on the culture and language of the Mbya-Guaraní tribe, he fought for indigenous rights right up until his death.
Despite his Australian appearance, Roger prefers to speak in Guaraní. His Spanish is slow and deliberate, and he only remembers a few phrases of the English his father spoke. “He always used to say: ‘Every dark cloud…has… a silver lining.’”
Florence Wood-White has no problems with English – but she sounds American, not Australian. Her father Bill Wood, however, who left Australia when he was just a few months old, spoke with the slang and accent of 19th century Australia. Red-haired Florence, who lived at Colonia Cosme until she was seven, grew up eating Aussie ‘tucker’ (food) such as damper and porridge, and remembers her grandmother Lillian taking a daily ‘smoko’.
We sit in Florence’s Asunción parlour, melting in the 38 degree heat. After a week drinking only the ubiquitous Paraguayan speciality tereré (tasty ice-cold mate – which no Paraguayan will leave home without), it’s a pleasant surprise when Florence serves me tea – a real, English-slash-Australian cuppa!
But in spite of these traces of the land of her ancestors, Florence is Paraguayan. Her father Bill fought for Australia and the British Empire at Gallipoli, but he rejected offers of repatriation there after the war, and chose to return to South America.
“His roots were Paraguayan,” says Florence. “And mine too – I think Australia is lovely, but Paraguay is my home.”
Distrito Nueva Londres
I take the bus from Asunción to the site of New Australia, the district now inexplicably renamed Nueva Londres (New London.) The red dirt roads and livestock-dotted paddocks seem more reminiscent of rural Australia than the British capital, but the palm-dotted landscape glows a fresh, fertile green – a far cry from our wide brown land.
Submerged fence-posts peek out of flooded fields – thanks to torrential downpours the night before – as I whizz along the road to Nueva Londres on the back of a moto-taxi. As we near the village, I look around for signs of the Australians who arrived there, exhausted but hopeful, 115 years before.
There aren’t many. The school at a village down the road, which has somehow retained the name ‘Nueva Australia’. A hall named after Ricardo Smith, son of an English immigrant to the colony. His son, ancient now, bright blue eyes peering out of his wrinkled face, still lives there – but he doesn’t really know anything about his ancestors, he says.
And just as we leave, a tiny blonde girl tumbles out of a doorway. With fair hair and blue eyes she reminds me of myself as a child – but the woman who emerges to cuddle her has the dark colouring of most Paraguayans. A throwback to a distant Australian past? Maybe. But we don’t stop to ask.
The Fading Past
Rodrigo Wood invites me to lunch with his family, and sings me ‘Auld Lang Syne’. His father Norman was the last of the older generation who were born at Colonia Cosme, and since he died at the age of 92 in 1993, the Australian past is dissolving into half-remembered, second-hand tales.
Yet oddly, as the vestiges of Australian-ness wane, and the descendents of the Woods and Smiths and Cadogans become increasingly Paraguayan, Australian interest in the story has grown. Five Aussie writers have visited Florence in the past year alone, and Rodrigo’s children watch a growing pile of ABC documentaries like they were home videos.
What do we find so fascinating about this tale? Was it so strange a thing to do? Paraguay is littered with bizarre colonies – German Mennonites, North American Moonies – yet for an Australian, this distant tribe of compatriots in Paraguay is unique.
Nowhere else has Australian-ness been exported en masse (discounting, perhaps, Shepherd’s Bush in London.) ‘New Australia’, however brief and doomed, was the only colony we ever had.
We are used to thinking of ourselves as the colony, as the destination – and maybe it’s a touch of first-world self-satisfaction that makes us wonder at the idea that anyone would willingly leave a country apparently so full of promise for a revolution-ridden South American backwater like Paraguay.
But there’s something magical about this tiny country, apparently devoid of your standard tourist destinations. After just one week there, it had worked its inexplicable spell on me, and I didn’t want to leave.
And perhaps it’s telling that only a handful of the Paraguayan-born colony descendents have chosen to move to Australia. For the rest, Paraguay is where the heart is.