A sticker in a window is asking for votes for Wilson Smith in an upcoming local election. His family is well-known in this small town – one of the few main roads here is even named after an ancestor. As I come into town, I see an Australian flag on the big welcome sign. A couple of people crossing the red dirt road look to be wearing Akubra hats. They may even have blonde hair underneath them.
It could almost be a typical outback Aussie town… at least, at first glance. But this is not quite Australia. The town may have been founded as “New Australia”, but the name is misleading. I’m actually standing in the middle of the South American country of Paraguay.
This weekend, as we focus on Australia Day, there’s a lot of talk about our country’s history. But the tale of how a tiny patch of Paraguay became a new Australian colony is one that is rarely discussed.
A few years ago, I was travelling through Paraguay when I first heard about New Australia, or Nueva Australia as it is called in Spanish. With no particular plans except to find interesting stories in this relatively unvisited part of South America, I decided I would learn more about it and try to visit for myself.
The story begins in 1893, when a group of Australians arrived in Paraguay with the aim of creating a new society, a utopian one free from the problems they saw back home. Disillusioned with life in Australia, which was suffering from a depression and a sheep-shearers’ strike at the time, they thought they could establish an egalitarian system.
The group was led by a man named William Lane, who believed this new society would “serve as an example to the workers of the world and be a disciplined army to lead the workers to socialism”. At the time, Paraguay was trying to rejuvenate its economy by offering immigrants free land, tax exemptions, and farming assistance. It made a deal with Lane’s organisation, The New Australia Co-operative Association, that he would receive about 230,000 hectares of land in exchange for bringing 1200 migrants to the country.
Nueva Australia started off well, with several prominent residents including writer Mary Gilmore (who is on the Australian $10 note). But by 1902, less than 10 years after the community’s founding, things had soured.
It seems some of the socialist ideas of founders like William Lane weren’t compatible with the lifestyles of Australians. He required abstinence from alcohol, no sexual liaisons with the locals in order to preserve the “colour-line”, and marriage for life.
The socialist experiment fell apart. Other foreigners – particularly from England – arrived and brought a more capitalist approach to the young community. Most of the original residents moved elsewhere, and eventually the town was renamed Nueva Londres, or New London.
As I arrive in the town, I see the welcome sign, which says in Spanish: “Welcome to the city of New London, founded October 11, 1893”. There are images of the flags of Australia, the UK, and Paraguay, and there’s a coat of arms with simplistic drawings of farming activities.
Most of the roads aren’t paved (then again, very few are in Paraguay outside of the main cities). A cow walks across one of them towards a large block of land with a small house in the middle of it. The plots here are large, and the homes relatively basic, mostly made of brick or timber.
I wander around town, not quite sure what I’m looking for, and starting to question why I’ve come. Perhaps I was expecting (hoping) to see more Australiana here. But there’s very little.
I stop to speak to a group of local men who are sitting on plastic chairs in the shade under some trees. They are all drinking mate, the caffeinated drink popular in South America made from the dried leaves of the yerba mate tree. Perhaps the spelling of the name is going to be the closest I come to an Australian connection (even though it’s pronounced mah-tay).
The men speak very little English but we chat for a bit, me using almost every word of my bad Spanish. They’re interested to hear that I’m from Australia, but there’s no great excitement that this could be a visit from a long-lost relative. They tell me that only a handful of residents here now would claim to be descendants of the founders, and even they don’t know much about the country.
The town is less than a kilometre wide in any direction, so it doesn’t take long for me to walk through it. I chat with a few more locals, all of whom seem to be drinking mate, none of whom know much about Australia. I decide it’s time to leave, unsure of what I have actually achieved with my visit.
Has my New Australia experiment ended in failure, just like the one in 1893? Well, that’s one way to look at it. Or perhaps they both succeeded. Perhaps, in both cases, it helped us to realise that there is no “New” Australia – just the one we’ve got, with all the things we love and all the things we don’t.
Mary Gilmore, the writer who joined the colony in Paraguay, returned to Australia in 1902 and influenced public debate here for decades with her poetry and prose. More than a century later, her great great nephew, Scott Morrison, became prime minister.
That’s the thing about travel. You think you’re learning about the world, but you learn just as much about home.