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Failed dreams of building 'New Australia' utopia in Paraguay jungle in 19th century

Would you give it all up for a new life in a tropical utopia?

That's what more than 500 Australians did in the 1890s, led by a radical socialist, but the venture didn't quite go to plan. 

It turns out that combining Australian shearers with the South American jungle, jaguars, parasitic insects and strict rules about booze and sex was not the secret to a utopian new life.

The little-known misadventure of founding a New Australia commune still fascinates historians such as Argentinian-born researcher Arthur Edwards.

"It would have been absolute hell," Mr Edwards said.

"It was bound to fail. You can't convert a group of hard-working, rowdy shearers into Christian teetotallers, it's just against the Aussie spirit." 

Promise of a better life

Life in Australia was tough in the late 1800s with massive shearer strikes, colonial government crackdowns, devastating drought and depression looming.

Conditions were perfect for the ambitious South American plans of controversial journalist and radical socialist William Lane.  

His promise of a New Australia commune, one that offered a fair deal for all, was enticing for a group of mostly unionists, disgruntled shearers and socialist Christians who sold everything to fund the arduous adventure.

Paul Taylor's grandfather Harry Taylor was one of Mr Lane's most avid followers.

"He was one of quite a number of people in Australia at the time who were disenchanted with life … the haves and have-nots," Mr Taylor said.

"They wanted to live under a fairer socialist or a communist ideal, where everything was shared, and everybody worked for the common good."

Setting sail

Mr Lane took advantage of an offer by the Paraguay government to gift 75,000 hectares of free land to migrants in an attempt to repopulate the country after up to 90 per cent of the nation's male population was killed in the war against Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.

The first group of Australians set off in search of a better life in 1893 on the Royal Tar, a tall ship built with the collective funds of Mr Lane's devotees.

After months at sea, they arrived, via Argentina, in Paraguay's wet and wild jungle that couldn't be further from the utopia they were promised.

The group, who'd given up all their worldly goods to start on an even footing, set to work clearing the jungle by hand, under the constant threat of stalking jaguars, disease and skin-burrowing parasitic insects.

"It was really hard work clearing the jungle and planting enough crops to feed them all, and soon the cracks began to show," Mr Taylor said.   

"The idea was they would work on principles of mateship and equality, but human nature being what it is, the whole thing started to fall apart quite quickly."

Commune abandoned

The environment may have caused cracks, but Mr Lane's rules and regime potentially did more damage to the fledgling community's long-term hopes.

He immediately set very strict rules banning alcohol or any fraternisation with the local women, which proved particularly difficult for many of the young single shearers.

"Paraguay had lost a lot of its male population due to war, there were 150,000 single women there after the war, and only 14,000 men," Mr Taylor said. 

"So, to not be able to fraternise with the local women was a pretty tough call for the shearers."

Mr Edwards said it was hard to imagine how challenging the journey would have been 130 years ago.

"The shearers had lost all faith in Australia after fighting for their rights to fair pay," he said.

"They had to start from scratch … carving a town and farms out of thick jungle with barely enough food to survive.

"It would have been hard enough without William Lane's strict rules." 

After almost three years, New Australia comprised a few small villages and farms but many settlers had left to seek a better life in larger cities.

In response to falling numbers and failing finances, and appalled by the behaviour of the young shearers, Mr Lane abandoned the community.

He then led another attempt with an even more devoted group of 60 Christian socialists, who built a new community named Cosme.

That too failed.

Five years after leaving Australia, Mr Lane ditched his socialist utopian dream and moved to New Zealand. In a twist, he returned to journalism, this time for a right-wing newspaper.

Many of the other Australians returned home and settled in Mildura, Victoria, and the South Australian Riverland.

In his later years, Harry Taylor purchased the Murray Pioneer newspaper, which is still run by the Taylor family, now in its fourth generation.

To this day, there are descendants of the original New Australians in Paraguay, with names like Woods or Burke. Gone are the Aussie accents, but some traits of red hair and fair skin remain.

Among those who returned to Australia was poet Mary Gilmore, who believed in socialist ideals throughout her life and wrote about her time in South America.

"Mary Gilmore says it wasn't a success, but she'd never call it a failure, it was just an experience," Mr Edwards said.

"Under a dictatorship by William Lane it was never going to work … really he got the wrong group of people to do it, especially shearers who wouldn't put up with it."

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