Utopia in Paraguay

Inflamed by the imprisonments after the 1891 shearers’ strike, William Lane imagined a future where white English-speaking men could live on the land with their wives and children in equality, sobriety and social harmony. The land, however, was not to be in Queensland, or even Australia. It was to be a ‘New Australia’ in Paraguay.

John Lane, Jenny Lane and children, Cosme, 1904 courtesy of the University of Sydney

Lane had been a prominent unionist and journalist in Brisbane, writing under numerous pseudonyms such as John Miller, The Sketcher, Bystander, Lucinda Sharpe and later, in New Zealand, Tohunga. His rallying cry for a new utopian communist state attracted a wave of interest from around Australia. He established the ‘New Australia Co-operative Colonisation Society’ and each prospective male was expected to pay a minimum of £60 (equivalent to over $8,500 today) into a general fund. Soon enough, his supporters had raised £30,000 (over $4 million) for the new colony.

Hugh Blackwell was one of the strike leaders arrested during the 1891 shearers strike looking for a fresh start. He went with Lane to Paraguay to help start the new colony; ITM341532

On 1 July 1893, 238 passengers – including many Queensland bushmen and shearers – boarded the ship Royal Tar in Mort Bay in Sydney to embark for a new life in the jungles of South America. Many more followed, including poet Dame Mary Gilmore, who now graces the Australian $10 note.

Once in Paraguay however, paradise felt like a long way from home. John Alfred Rogers wrote: ‘there are several people here barefooted and without a shirt … to their back and very often an empty belly’. Trying to establish a colony in a country where only Guaraní and Spanish were spoken was proving difficult.

A group of people, including Mary Gilmore, at the New Australia Colony, Cosme, Paraguay, 1890s courtesy of State Library of Queensland

Relations with Paraguayans were forbidden by the puritanical Lane, as was alcohol. Colonists chafed against his autocratic leadership and soon started to desert the settlement.

In 1894, Lane and several other followers left New Australia to set up another Paraguayan colony: Cosme. Regardless of the new name and place, the old problems followed. It was reported that at least 80 per cent of the colonists at New Australia or Cosme would ‘gladly leave if they got the chance’. What had started as a vision of paradise ended up as a hell of hungry men, desperate wives and half-clothed children.

In November 1895, colonist Alfred Armstrong wrote:

… we bitterly regret ever having left our comfortable home … to come to this country where we cannot make a living such as is understood by a living in Australia. We are fast sinking into a wretched and hopeless condition … [and] are completely stranded here.

Some of the settlers, now disillusioned and destitute, asked for help to return home, with Queensland government funding their passage home. However, some settlers remained behind and up to 2,000 Australian Paraguayans – descendants from New Australia and Cosme – continue to live in Paraguay today.

Cheque written by Queensland Government
A cancelled cheque written by Queensland Government to assist colonists returning home; ITM862139

Cover image: Unidentified woman with two children courtesy of University of Sydney Cosme Colony collection, 1893-1968. Lane family photograph album, page 7

About Queensland State Archives

For more information about Queensland State Archives visit www.archives.qld.gov.au.

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