In the early 1890s, Australia was gripped by recession and the Australian Labour Movement was beginning.
Fed up with poor job opportunities and harsh employers, sheep shearers refused to sign wealthy pastoralist’s agreements that did not comply with union conditions.
When defence forces began to clash with striking workers, the stage was set for revolution.
William Lane was a prominent figure in the labour movement and founder of Australia’s first labour newspaper.
Lane had a dream – to build a cooperative socialist utopia far away from Australia. The project became known as The New Australia Cooperative Settlement Association, or The New Australia Movement for short.
Portrait of William Lane [Image: University of Sydney Library]
As an eloquent speaker and writer, Lane was able to convince many to join his new settlement.
On the proviso that 1,200 families would settle there, the government of Paraguay offered Lane almost 2,000 square kilometres of land.
With converts paying 50 pounds (around $5,000 Australian dollars today) each, Lane was able to purchase a boat.
Before they set sail, Lane drafted strict rules for his new colony.
"It is right living to share equally because selfishness is wrong: To teetotal because liquor drinking is wrong; to uphold life marriage and keep white because looseness of living is wrong,” he wrote.
New Australia Co-Operative Settlement Association Certificate of Membership [Image: University of Sydney Library]
The journey to tropical South America took 68 days and the settlers arrived “wet to the skin, tired and hungry.”
New Australia began to take shape. Jungle was cleared, buildings were constructed and cattle were purchased.
But all was not well. Settlers were unhappy with Lane’s rules which included no alcohol and no associating with “non-whites”.
Colonist Tom Westwood wrote at the time, “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.”
When the settlers arrived, Paraguay was in a state of turmoil following a three-way war with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.
The fields were infested with mosquitos, jaguars stalked the camp and the land was not what had been promised.
The arrival of a second batch of settlers made things even worse.
Dissent grew between the “rebels” and those loyal to Lane until Lane and 58 others left New Australia to form a different colony just 72 kilometres south called Cosme.
The quality of life settlers had been promised proved to be a lie. Conditions were no better than they had been back home in Australia.
In 1899, Lane gave up the socialist cause and relocated to New Zealand where he became editor of the New Zealand Herald.
The government of Paraguay eventually dissolved both cooperatives, giving each settler their own piece of land.
Some colonists returned to Australia, some moved to England or Argentina and others remained in Paraguay, where their descendants still live today.
Around 2,000 current Paraguayans can trace their ancestry to the unionists who once made up New Australia.