When the Paraguayan Government agreed to let the New Australia Movement establish a socialist commune on its soil, the group thought it had found utopia.
Led by idealist William Lane, a band of excited settlers set sail for Paraguay on 16 July 1893, but it was not long before paradise lost its way.
“As most socialist utopian communes do, it began to fall apart very quickly,” says Dr Campbell.
“You are always going to have some dissenters, but it failed because of William Lane’s management style.
“Lane was an autocrat. He insisted on no fraternisation with the locals and absolutely no drinking.”
The definitive work on the settlers, according to Dr Campbell, is A Peculiar People by Gavin Souter. It describes Lane and his ideals as “belonging more to a time of great expectations and romantic endeavour than to the present (1890s) era of grim industrial and political struggle”. The Paraguayan Government was happy to accept such idealists and had already welcomed two groups from Germany by the time the New Australians arrived.
Souter describes the pioneers as a representative sample of society: “Good people and bad people, sensible and irrational, faithful and promiscuous, high-minded and criminal, heroic and ridiculous.”
Paradise began to unravel from the moment the colonists reached dry land (the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo) on 11 September 1893, with an alcohol-fuelled brawl on the first night undermining the group’s supposed commitment to temperance and mateship. Doubts were also surfacing about 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.
Arguments and violence continued and less than two months after reaching the Paraguayan site of their ‘New Australia’, the factionalised colony was on the verge of collapse. Letters from Lane and those loyal to him — dubbed Royalists — back to Walter Head in Australia talked of divisions and of transgressions of the rules of temperance and forbidding fraternisation with outsiders. Expulsions and departures followed. By the end of the year the colony had lost a third of its population.
New Australia split, with even Lane eventually turning his back on the site of his utopia to try again elsewhere. Some colonists founded communes elsewhere in Paraguay, others went home, others to England. Several of the new communes were as beset with division as the first had been, but descendants of the New Australia colonists still live in Paraguay today.