Disintegrating Socialist Utopia

A FEATURE by Frances Devlin-Glass


Site of original settlement

Two years ago just before Easter, I was preparing a paper on Joseph Furphy’s articles for the Bulletin for a very special mobile conference to ‘God’s Own Riverina’ (Furphy’s euphoric name for the area between the Murray and the Lachlan Rivers where he was running bullock teams to remote stations, just at the point that the railway reached Deniliquin, reported in the final print version of Tinteánwhich is now available online). An extended controversy in the Bulletin about the William Lane expedition to found a Socialist Utopia in Paraguay caught my eye. It was a high-octane debate between the fledgling writer (Joe, at 48, was only beginning his stellar writing career), and one of its thundering leader-writers, ‘Titus Salt’ (pseudonym of James Edmond). Edmond was Glasgow-born, spent time in New Zealand, before migrating to Australia where he had been at the helm of Rockhampton Morning Bulletin before joining probably the most influential weekly in the nation, the Sydney Bulletin.

The controversy focused on the moral legitimacy of William Lane’s Socialist Utopians’ giving up on Australian democracy in the wash-up of the Shearers’ strike (1891).  Both Lane and the strike itself have been immortalised in one of the greatest union ballads of all time; The Ballad of 1891. Lane, like Joe who also had an Irish forebear, had been a charismatic leader, and according to the socialist press of the day, a highly consultative man who slowly gathered hundreds of followers prepared to invest a cool £60 (the price of a house mortgage) in a migration scheme to take up land in Paraguay. The country had been depopulated by the War of the Triple Alliance. The figures are uncertain but possibly up to 80% of the males of the country had died fighting Chile, Argentina and Brazil. The government was keen to get cashed-up settlers who would marry its lonely women and repopulate.

Lane’s plan in 1892-3 was to own land communally. He was, like many in his generation, including Furphy, influenced by Henry George’s and Edward Bellamy’s land tax and communal living ideas respectively. The only problem was that land-ownership titles could not, in law, be held collectively in Australia. Lane, for some reason, thought it would be different in Paraguay. It was one of the many factors in the failure of the expedition as dissidents in his party got suspicious when Lane was forced to negotiate with the government to hold land in his own name. But that difficulty was not even a major reason for the failure of the settlement.

To return to the controversy that piqued my interest. Joe was, perhaps secretly, a card-holding unionist, and held unorthodox views for a Shepparton Furphy. He was a proud Christian Socialist and was not backward in working such ideas into his celebrated novels, which he was concurrently writing. Furphy’s family had migrated from Tandragee (Ulster) to Australia in 1863, and by the 1890s were staunch leaders of their local Protestant community and respectable owners of a foundry that still operates proudly under the family name (challenge: look out for Furphy tree-guards in Collins Street in Melbourne; more famously they made water carts that went to Gallipoli and are prize possessions in many backyards and farms; today the foundry makes elegant bus shelters and very schmick tanks for transport vehicles). Joe, who in the early 1890s was struggling after a long day’s work at the foundry, to write his masterpiece, Such is Life (probably the greatest 19th century Australian novel though it was published in 1903), and to think of himself as a writer, came out strongly against the leading newspapermen of his day.

The Bulletin, a working man’s paper which Joe read assiduously and for which he often wrote, was adamantly hostile to Lane’s scheme. An editor (probably ‘Titus Salt’) in a leader entitled, ‘The “New Australia” Madness’, published just days before the first group sailed on the Royal Tar (6 June 1893, p.6), was derisory, suggesting that this intentional community were out of their minds: in prose that is grandiloquent (where are such editors today?), the leader writer refers to it as

One of the most feather-headed expeditions ever conceived since PONCE DE LEON started out to find the Fountain of Eternal Youth, or SIR GALAHAD pursued the Holy Grail ….It is even worse than either of these escapades; for DE LEON could look forward to a good deal of incidental looting and pillaging, while GALAHAD was compelled to keep up appearances somehow.

Why was the politically radical Bulletin so hostile?

There are many reasons offered:

  • That better agricultural country and opportunities existed in Australia (but not for communal ownership);
  • That the conditions in Paraguay were infertile ‘waste lands and thorny places’, conducive to death;
  • That the living on the yerba mate scrub would be meagre and require hard work for many years;
  • That the community’s reasoning faculties were dimmed by emotion;
  • The Bulletin queried the utopian idealism of working on the basis of ‘perfect equality’;
  • The leader-writer implied that the community had been badly manipulated by Lane (whom it doesn’t name) rather than exercised communal judgment in democratic ways;
  • That they had been deceived by Lane about their destination (originally Rio Negro), and were embarking blissfully unaware of the conditions under which they were to be settled;
  • That the Government of Paraguay was acting ‘affably’ ‘eager to get them at any price, and ready to promise anything’;
  • That a similar project in Buenos Aires had failed mainly because the government of Argentina had reneged on agreements about payment, provisions, infrastructure, leaving colonists starving;
  • That Paraguayans would prove ‘ idle and nerveless’, and unwilling to work;
  • That the socialistic ideal of the production of a loaf of bread being equal to a painting would fall apart if people were lazy and not rewarded differentially according to the work done;
  • That it was predictable that the colony would fall apart over trivial issues like who does the washing up and the distasteful jobs;
  • That because the enterprise was not founded on religious principles of reward in the Afterlife, that the incentives to work unselfishly and sincerely and unambitiously in a secular commune did not exist;


  • the Bulletin leader writer questioned Idealism as a motive for communalism:in a world where Cain and Abel strive to survive, the Bulletin‘s editor predicted that Cain would get the ascendancy.

The article was very much out of step with the mainstream press (the Sydney Morning Herald, the Barrier Miner, the Worker and many others around the nation were highly supportive), and in retrospect seems quite prescient and remarkably well-informed, and one wonders how the judgements, especially on the subject of Lane’s autocracy and the overblown promises of the Paraguayan dictator, were arrived at. Edmond’s Rockhampton connection would seem to be important, as many of the settlers came from that state and had seen the Shearers’ strike at close quarters and had a strong personal commitment to Lane. There was, presumably, a dissident among them.

Writing jocoseriously in the persona of ‘an offensively virtuous man’, Furphy more than once charged into the national conversation, arguing that the ‘moral tone’ of the Laneites would prove invincible. He drew his historical examples from many sources, calling on his Protestant values: he cites the Huguenots, Cromwell, Sparta, the Vaudois, the Pilgrim Fathers. When ‘Titus Salt’ countered with weighty re-readings of his idealistic ones, Furphy weighed in again, having the last word, but history did not vindicate his position.

The Bulletin followed their first salvo with even more details about why the Utopian community foundered so badly. Fact was on their side, as subsequent works by Gavin Souter and others proved. The second major article, published almost a year later in the Bulletin (2 June 1894, p.6), was more temperate and measured, but still cogently critical. It was at pains to appear to be even-handed and to have sought the Lane perspective from his wife who had returned to Australia. Her testimony was deemed to corroborate and confirm that of the other side, and to reveal the situation as worse than imagined:

Benign pastureland in the area settled by the New Australians of Paraguay.

Benign pastureland in the area settled by the New Australians of Paraguay.

New Australia is now plainly a commonplace, squalid, ignominious disaster. It has not succumbed to outside circumstances. So far as can be ascertained, the emigrants found a reasonably good climate, a splendid soil, well-disposed and hospitable neighbours, and a Government which was prepared to assist them to the utmost of its ability. The great scheme went to pieces chiefly upon the dismally vulgar question – who was to wash up?

Compared with the reports in the Worker and the Barrier Miner, hagiographical accounts of Lane, which depicted him as a genial, charismatic bohemian of mild disposition, the Bulletin paints the expedition members as fractious and quarrelsome even before sailing from Sydney, and Lane as an autocrat who was deposed and refused to accept it, and as issuing UKASES (Soviet style orders with the force of law that are arbitrary and peremptory). The editor was critical of the ‘vast masses of futile rules and regulations’ and of a community that was too much governed.

The Bulletin had learnt of a series of criminal and morally dubious acts which they labeled anarchic: expeditioners who stole the baggage of those who’d gone on ahead and exchanged it for drink (which was forbidden by Lane); of groups who displaced others’ tents, and re-erected them in a swamp; of mothers withdrawing their children from school for trivial reasons (dissatisfaction with the jam and pickles given to the children). The list of such activities is not very long, but it quickly degenerates into folly. The case against the expedition rests on fairly trivial grounds, other than the leadership and constitutional issues.

The Bulletin was exercised by the fact that although Lane himself, a year after embarking, was disillusioned and ‘realised that the painted glories of his ideal community were not going to be realised’, and although he’d issued instruction to those still proselytising for settlers not to idealise the settlement, that they had not followed the spirit of the injunctions. They had not ‘[got] down to hard, dismal reality’….’they kept on booming the exploded bubble all they knew…. keeping up the old poetic story about the orange-groves, and the guitars, and the moonshine upon the river, and all the rest of the alleged gorgeousness….’ The Bulletin labeled it ‘a cruel hoax’.

The editor reported that one third of the expedition had been evicted and were wandering about penniless in a strange and hungry land; that another third had started afresh elsewhere (at Cosme), and another third remained on the original site without guidance, a high ideal or any true spirit of mateship. It is keenly cognisant that Lane’s drinking and consorting laws were other factors in the failure of the settlement and concluded thus:

 Man will drink, and gamble, and prowl round to the back-doors of the dusky daughters of the land till the end of time, and every scheme that fails to take these facts into consideration is certain to come to grief. The constitution of New Australia was based on the assumption that it is possible to create a community where every person is sober, moral, religious, and full of a holy yearning for self-sacrifice, and the collapse came about because there is no such community outside heaven, and never will be. If LANE was aware of this at the beginning, he perpetrated on his followers about the meanest “have” of the century; if he was not aware of it his ignorance of human nature was so vast as to be past reasoning about.

The organisers of the original Furphy conference, the veterans’ group of ASAL (Association for the Study of Australian Literature), decided they should make a pilgrimage to Nueva Australia, outside Asuncion in Paraguay in October of 2014. They were intrigued that Lane’s venture has entered the public imagination as an unqualified Socialist Utopian one, when the history of the venture suggests it was something very different. The four major histories of the venture (Gavin Souter’s A Peculiar People: the Australians in Paraguay, 1968, Michael Wilding’s fictional account, The Paraguayan Experiment, a Documentary Novel, 1984, Anne Whitehead’s Paradise Mislaid, In Search of the Australian Tribe of Paraguay, 1997, and Ben Stubbs’ Ticket to Paradise, 2012) make it clear that the major failures were human ones: the affable Lane had turned into an increasingly conservative autocrat. He disallowed booze and sex (his constituency were shearers and workers), and most worryingly, liaisons and marriages with Paraguayan women. He became secretive about his dealings with the Paraguayan government, mainly in the face of the rebel faction in his group, which he eventually summarily ejected.

Australian Paraguayan businessman, Roddy Wood, and wife Carmen in conversation with the leader of the New Australian ASAL conference, Susan Lever.

Australian Paraguayan businessman, Roddy Wood, and wife Carmen in conversation with the leader of the New Australian ASAL conference, Susan Lever.

Arriving in Asuncion, the ASAL party met Rodrigo (Roddie) Wood, descendant of the original settlers, and his wife Carmen, and were shown around the town and Nueva Australia by Juan Stanley, whose forebear (we think) took over from Lane when he left the colony. They have kept up their Australian identity, and to the consternation of other diners at the posh hotel where we went for dinner, were keen to burst into a few bars of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. Most importantly, we went to the valley east of Asuncion where they took up land as Nueva Australia. Renamed Nueva Londres, it proved to be a glorious piece of land: green, well-watered, undulating, clearly productive.

One legacy which impressed us, of which Lane would not have approved, is a school and institute named in honour of Leon Cadogan. He is descended from Rose Cadogan (née Stone), a working class poet, a secularist who ran a secularist Sunday school, a socialist, a suffragist who had been well-known in Australia for her advocacy of progressive causes. Leon devoted his life to advocacy for the indigenous Paraguayans and became one of the country’s first anthropologists – all in an effort to atone for his forebears’ racism. Another famous New Australian was Mary Gilmore who went as a teacher and wrote some poems about her experience. It may well be that Rose and Mary, as Susan Lever argued, had more scope for their feminism and commitment to indigenous peoples in Australia. Some remained but most returned to Australia, more than chastened by the experience. Lane migrated to New Zealand where as a newspaper man he embraced more and more conservative causes. It was a sad decline from his original radicalism.

A school memorialising the work of Leon Cadogan, anthropologist and indigenous advocate.

A school memorialising the work of Leon Cadogan, anthropologist and indigenous advocate.


Watch this space for more on Utopian communities in South America.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is part of the editorial collective of Tinteán and has a longstanding academic interest in Furphy and Australian Literature, especially if it has Irish connections.