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William Lane was an interesting man. Terribly racist and distrusting of the government, he created a place to rail against the establishment of the day.
For our second instalment in our series about weird and wonderful Australian history, I will have to take you to Paraguay… although it all started in Queensland, via Bristol, England. Confused? Let me explain.
In the early 1890s, a few nasty events were coming together. There was a massive drought throughout the country, followed by an economic depression. Half the banks collapsed, sending people broke, and unemployment left them hungry and without a roof over their heads. The great strikes at the wharves and in the shearing sheds had been lost, with dozens of union organisers sent to gaol, and police and soldiers pitted against the workers. In 1891, the idea of an Australian Labor Party was concocted, but it would be a while before it would have enough power to change anything for the Australian working poor. For the moment, class struggle seemed to reign, and everywhere people struggled to come up with alternatives to the status quo.
That same year, 72 striking shearers, all union members, set up the Alice River Co-operative Settlement in Barcaldine. They built a township with bark and slab huts, put down streets with names like Freedom Street and Union Street and started market gardens. Sort-of helped out by the Queensland government, who gazetted some land for them in 1892, they tried to become self-sufficient and run a new kind of community. The first crops perished in the drought and in the end the experiment failed. But that was only the start of the story.
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In 1885, a Bristol journalist called William Lane had migrated to Brisbane. Soon, he was writing for a number of Queensland newspapers, as well as getting more and more involved in the union movement. He started organising people to stand up to “the capitalists”, but was also slowly formulating an alternative to their miserable lives. To Lane, there were a few problems with Australia – or, to be frank, with most of the British Empire. The first was that a handful of people were in charge of the masses. That, he thought, could be fixed with a mixture of socialism and anarchism, finally culminating in a communist paradise. Another problem was with money and how it was distributed. For that, Lane advocated the idea of the Single Tax, a 17th century concept which said that economic value derived from land, including natural resources, should belong to the people and be paid to them equally. Lastly, and most importantly to William Lane, was the issue of colour.
In 1886, he described Brisbane’s Chinatown as a place where he “wanted to kick the lamp over and burn down this joint and all the other joints and with it every one of these yellow devils who, with mask-like faces and fawning guise and patient, plodding ways and superb organisation, have come here and rooted themselves here and brought with them all their virtues and all their vices, and who threaten us with this frightful habit which will wreck the manliness of our men and the womanliness of our women, and will bury our nationality in a deadly slough of sloth and deceit, and filth and immoralities, from which the vigorous white man now shrinks in horror.”
William Lane was not the only racist at the time. Most of Australia was, and especially the unions had a fear and hatred of everything that wasn’t white. What they called “coloured labour” didn’t mind working for less money than their members, they dreaded. And especially the Chinese were considered a moral threat to a Christian nation, as well as people, men, who were going to take “our women” and make mixed-race babies, who would be infected with horrible diseases that would wipe out the white population. In 1887, Lane published a book called White or Yellow – A Story of the Race War of A.D. 1908, that predicted a take-over of Australia by a conglomerate of Chinese and Australian mining millionaires. That, of course, had to be prevented at all cost. So in William Lane’s idea of an idealised society, non-white people had to be banned. This is how, in 1892, he came up with the New Australia Movement. Aim number one of the new organisation was the foundation of a new colony called New Australia, somewhere with “an Aryan climate… imbued with sound social ideas, including the ideas of simplicity and art.” It would be a place that “would set such an example… that world-wide revolution would speedily be brought about.” Rules of the new colony were: preservation of the colour-line, teetotalism, communism, life marriage and a society based on “the brotherhood of English-speaking whites.” It would be “genuinely democratic and co-operating”, with “all labour in common for the common good”, which would “render it impossible for one to tyrannise over another.” It was everybody’s “first duty to be the well-being of all” and help others find “comfort, happiness, intelligence and orderliness.”
Lane wanted his people to work hard and be virtuous, but after a few months without alcohol, the cracks started to show, and Lane even had fellow-travellers expelled by armed police.
Usually, of course, utopian ideas strand on the rocks of normal life and practical consequences. But William Lane was, his biographer once said, “a man of almost hypnotic charm among those with whom he felt himself to be in harmony”, and he was also a fantastic organiser. So by 1893, he had managed to convince the government of Paraguay to gift him and his posse a 463,000 acre block of land, 70 kilometres south of the capital. Earlier, the Queensland government had offered too, but Lane was convinced that it would be better to go “where we shall be able to form new habits, uninfluenced by old social surroundings.” Besides, the land in Paraguay was free and its government, that had lost 70% of the male population during the Triple Alliance War of 1864-1870, was grateful for all the migrants it could get. The Australian newspapers were less convinced the idea would work, with the equally racist Bulletin scathing about these “white upstanding Australians” mixing it up with the “dusky Dagoes.” But Lane was undeterred, and when the first ship left in July 1893, it had 238 adults and children on board, all eager to start a new life in South America.
When they arrived, they soon realised that they had landed in a wilderness, where only the Indigenous population, the Guarani, had been able to eke out a very meagre living. Lane considered the Guarani “racially taboo” and told his people that they were not allowed to have anything to do with them. Instead, he put them to work, cutting tent poles, establishing a cookhouse, erecting slab huts, a wattle and daub terrace of 24 rooms, while trying to stay away from jaguars and learning to cook and eat monkeys and armadillos. It was a bit of a change from what most pioneers had been used to in Australia, but thankfully there was always the anthem, called The Men of New Australia, that could be sung when the going got tough:
“Shoulder to shoulder, mates,
Hand clasped in hand, my mates,
Fair and foul weather,
Heart beating close, my mates,
Each man a brother,
Building a home, my mates,
All for each other.”
It was stirring stuff, but soon reality took over. Lane had wanted his people to work hard and be virtuous, but after a few months without alcohol or fun the first cracks started to show. Within a year, a rift had formed, and William Lane even had some of his fellow-travellers expelled by armed police.
In 1894, Lane and a band of brothers left New Australia and set up another collective a bit further south, called Cosme. There, against the backdrop of a number of government coups, Lane got more and more crazy. He became convinced he was on a mission from God and started to show dictator-esque tendencies. Nevertheless, he lasted until 1899, when he took a ship home. The collective itself lasted a little longer, but most people had left by the end of the 1910s. In the 1920s, the Paraguayan government disbanded the place, giving the stragglers each a piece of land. Some of their descendants still live there, doing some subsistence farming and drinking tea on their verandas. The experiment, as Lane’s biographer said, had been “a gorgeous but fragile butterfly which could not abide the noise and smoke of a six penny restaurant.”
Nevertheless, some of Australia’s most interesting people spent time at New Australia or Cosme. One of them was Rose Summerfield, a radical feminist and labour activist. She stayed in Paraguay until she died in 1922. What she left behind was a son, Leon Cadogan, who would become incredibly important to the country. A left-wing ethnologist, he was instrumental in giving the Guarani a political voice and a place in the law as humans, not animals. William Lane would have turned in his grave. He would also not have been happy with the way his schoolteacher, Mary Gilmore, would develop in later life. Gilmore returned from Cosme in 1902, after which she became a prolific writer and campaigner for Indigenous Australians. Gilmore also didn’t mind becoming part of the establishment, accepting an appointment as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and a state funeral. Lane himself died in Auckland in 1917, not a political firebrand anymore, but a patriotic proponent of WWI. Like a Dutch poet once said (roughly translated): “Between dreams and reality stand laws and practical objections. And a kind of melancholy, that nobody can explain.”