An Australian Newspaper in Paraguay 1894–1904

 by Victor Isaacs


Following the failures of the maritime dispute in 1890, the shearers’ dispute in 1891 and the great economic depression of the early 1890s, many in the Australian working class came to the conclusion that Australia would not become a workingman’s paradise. Some sought other solutions, such as starting anew elsewhere. In fact, even while the Shearers’ dispute was unresolved, there was talk of starting anew in Argentina.[1] Some were attracted to William Lane’s idea of a utopian settlement. Lane’s utopian venture in Paraguay was one of the strangest episodes in Australian history.

William Lane, under the pseudonym of John Miller, was the charismatic editor of the Brisbane Worker. In this role, he inspired a vast and highly devoted following in the Australian labour movement of the 1890s. He was also the author of The Workingman’s Paradise: An Australian Novel, a classic piece of radical Australian literature. Historian of the labour movement, Robin Gollan, wrote that Lane “occupied a position of leadership that has rarely been equaled in the history of Australian radicalism.”[2]

Lane was much influenced by contemporary theories of the virtues of establishing utopian settlements where mankind could start afresh to create an ideal society.[3]

Paraguay, after a long period of dictatorship, provoked a war which ran from 1865 to 1870 against its giant neighbours Brazil and Argentina as well as Uruguay. The inevitable result was devastation. Two-thirds of its population and 90% of its males were killed. The Paraguayan government was therefore very eager to encourage settlement. They readily granted Lane’s New Australia Co-operative a large block of land.[4]

The venture was the first significant emigration from Australia. It attracted derision from many. The Bulletin magazine, then at its height of nationalistic influence, for instance, constantly ridiculed the venture.[5] Many in the working class saw the project as a cop-out from fighting for better conditions in Australia. Even the Brisbane Worker, Lane’s former newspaper, opposed the project.

The Co-operative bought a ship, the Royal Tar, to transport what it was sure would be many shiploads of members to the new paradise. Eager members of the Co-operative gathered in Sydney from around Australia. The New South Welsh government used every minor aspect of the maritime regulations to delay the first voyage.[6] At last on 16 July 1893, the Royal Tar departed. In September the party arrived in the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion and continued by train to Villarrica, nearest station to New Australia – the block of land granted by the Paraguayan government.[7]

William Lane provided the inspiration for the settlers. William Lane was also an autocrat. Tensions engendered at least in part by his leadership style had already become apparent during the voyage of the Royal Tar.[8] In Paraguay the tensions became even greater. A visiting official from the British Embassy at this stage assessed Lane “ being remarkably deficient in the tact and human sympathy so necessary in a leader of men…”[9]

Within three months of arrival in Paraguay, a number of members were expelled from the co-operative for breaching rules, especially the teetotal requirement. Within six months William Lane decided that he could no longer work with those he deemed disloyal. In May 1894, therefore, Lane and 63 of his most loyal followers left New Australia.[10]

The Paraguayan government was still prepared to be generous. They granted the breakaway group a new block of land in southern Paraguay. The Lane group established a settlement called Cosme and started again the backbreaking tasks of clearing the bush, and establishing cultivation and homes.

The philosophy of the settlement combined an aim of an idealistic communistic society, ie everyone on the basis of equality, with rigid emphasis on the superiority of ‘English Speaking Whites’. In addition, the importance of ‘Life Marriage’ and teetotalism were emphasised.[11] Even if we attempt to view this through the prism of the 1890s, rather than our own age, we cannot help regarding it as a strange mixture of radicalism and conservatism. It was, however, in accord with the prevailing views of Australian working-class movements of the period. The problem with the emphasis on a communistic ideal was that it didn’t work in practice. The emphasis on a rigid colour line and marriage within it was also unattainable, as there were almost no single women in the group.

Disillusionment became increasingly the case at Cosme (and New Australia).[12] Many people returned to Australia.


While the group was still organising in Australia and seeking members, it published a journal entitled New Australia – Journal of New Australia. This commenced on 19 November 1892 and was published monthly apparently until July 1894. Issues 1 to 4 were published in Wagga Wagga, by the publisher of the Labour newspaper, the Hummer. From issue no. 5 it was published from Sydney.

Cosme Monthly was a small monthly news cum propaganda journal produced in Cosme, Paraguay. From its first issue in November 1894 until December 1896 it was handwritten and duplicated on a spirit duplicator. It looked crude. Gavin Souter states it was handwritten by William Lane. All these issues were four or six pages.

The next three issues, Jan, Feb and March 1897 were printed in Britain by Willets & Son, Trade Union Printers of East London.

Then from April 1897 it was hand printed in Cosme, Paraguay, using type imported from England.[13] There was an immediate deterioration in quality. However this gradually improved. From March 1901 each issue included a photograph (or occasionally a map or diagram) at the beginning. From July 1903 this became six photographs per issue. Indeed, it appears that a lot of effort was put into its appearance.

Cosme Monthly usually notified that subscriptions were accepted at Trades’ Halls or addresses of other radical organizations in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Kalgoorlie and an address in England.

The content of Cosme Monthly was a mixture of propaganda about the settlement, social chit-chat and reports on the progress of the settlement. All of these elements need to be qualified.

The propaganda displayed a fervent belief in the socialistic nature of the experiment. But it was strongly overlain with cautionary admonitions. Many paragraphs were devoted to arguing that unless a person was prepared to pitch in, to put up with primitive conditions and a lack of amenities, they should not even consider coming. From the June 1895 issue:

(1) A common-hold not a Commonwealth
(2) for English Speaking Whites who accept
(3) the Colour Line
(5) and Teetotalism
among their principles, and who realize in their hearts that

And from July 1903 still the same line of belief:

“COSME is a settlement of English speaking people living and working together in a practical form of fellowship.
Cosme is a co-operative having complete co-partnership of labour;
Communist sharing equally the results of co-operative work;
Democratic, having government based on majority vote of members;
Conservative, holding fast to the institutions of marriage and the family life;
Teetotal, abstaining from all intoxicants.”

The social chit-chat was of a similar nature to what might be expected in any local small-town Australian newspaper of the time. An example from February 1895 issue:

“A large class for dancing was for a long time the rage of J. Dias instructor. As a result every gathering now ends with a dance notwithstanding the scarcity of ladies and particularly of single ones. Saturday night the gala night and is in charge of the Literary and Social Union.”

Or from the October 1895: “Dancing very vigourous during early part of month. W. Lane’s illness depressed things social at the end….Dancing, Spanish and Singing classes still flourishing.”

July 1903:
“SOCIAL life continues brisk.
CRICKET matches and chess tournament ahead.”

The reports on the progress – or more accurately non-progress – of the settlement, sometimes contained surprises.

An example from June 1895:

Food: Entirely vegetable with the addition of a deer and a few monkeys, which latter meat some still refuse to eat because of the look of the animal, but which most consider very good under the circumstances.”

But usually these reports were quite mundane. For example from the same issue:

Stock: Herds in fairly good condition considering season and weather. No calving yet. No loss this month except one Paraguayan piglet.” and so on in excruciating detail.

Or from July 1903:

“SCHOOL – Open for three weeks and then closed for the winter vacation. Attendance averaged 78.9 per cent of an enrolment of 22 pupils.
POSTAL – Postage for month $52.82.
RECEIVED, 79 letters, 164 papers, 6 packets.
DESPATCHED 121 letters, 634 papers, 3 packets”

Well, I think that even the most fervent supporter of the scheme in 1903 might have found this level of detail rather more than he wanted to know.

Cosme Monthly delighted in lengthy descriptions of the settlement, sometimes occupying a number of pages. These were accompanied by photographs of the settlement.

Cosme Monthly also included, as did papers at home, contributed poetry. Or rather, as they were usually honest enough to put it in their headings “DOGGEREL”. Here is a poem from March 1898 entitled “Monkey Stew”:

“Those whose appetites capricious
Yearn for oysters shrimps and snails
But reject a dish delicious
‘Cause their fathers once had tails
Can keep right on a-sneering
While we keep scoffing to
We can beat ‘em pioneering
And not scoffing monkey stew

Those who pity our condition
As they skirmish for a boss
Who’ve about as much volition
As would serve a dying hoss
Who have got to crawl like a nigger
Just to sneak their carcass through
Can swallow shame like figgers
We’ll swallow monkey stew

Monk isn’t quite a food select
For which one’s bosom aches
But these hard times I don’t expect
To dine on jams and cakes
But there are whips of flunkeys
Who couldn’t better do
Then turn right back to monkeys
And favour monkey stew.”

From its inception in January 1895 until August 1903 Cosme Monthly was monthly. The next issue was just called Cosme and was dated November/December 1903/January 1904. Then there was an issue for June 1904. This was the last. The first item in this issue read:

In accordance with the Resolution passed at a General meeting of May 13th the Journal now ceases to be issued quarterly and will not again be printed until after the next Annual Meeting. The reasons which have determined this course may be stated as follows. – (1) The Journal has never paid its own expenses. Taking in the labour cost at a Paraguayan valuation it has meant to us since the beginning a loss of many thousands of dollars. How many thousands it is impossible to say for the time taken up in editing and printing has never been recorded. But at a low estimate it is not too much to say that had the money, time, thought and brains which have been expended on the paper during its ten years of life been put into the acquisition and care of a herd of cattle we should now be in a very much better material position than we occupy. …………….
(2) As a means of organising new members the paper has been largely a failure. It has won us some friends whose help and sympathy we value and should regret to lose ……………
(3) The cause of co-operation is year by year being furthered by an increasing number of newspapers mostly of greater literary ability and wider theocratic knowledge than we can find among our members and we begin to realize at last that as mere preachers of co-operation we are somewhat in a position of superfluity. Our business as we understand it is practical ……….”

Needless to say, despite the statement that there would be future annual issues, as far as I can ascertain, the journal never appeared again.

Indeed, the Cosme journal is very much a synonym for Cosme itself: Initial enthusiasm, followed by dogged determination to carry on, and finally admission of failure. Indeed, the dire situation of the settlement can be seen in the very next article in the final issue of the Journal headed “CONSIDER BEFORE COMING” It started:

“The intending migrant to Cosme should carefully consider the following points. Health: The work here is almost entirely manual. The climate trying for some months in summer and the food limited in variety. Consequently the weak in health or strength are much more likely to go than to stay.
Temperament: As in the settlement of all new lands, disappointments in the industries undertaken are common in Cosme. We are for example here for ten years and still in debt. A man easily depressed by such matters should carefully stay away from here.” And so on, in defeatist tone.

Another example from the final issue:

Our population has decreased since last May. Of the fifteen adult male full members on the colony last May, one has resigned, one was expelled and one is away on leave of absence.”

Cosme and New Australia gradually faded in importance, but some descendants still live in Paraguay, including at the two settlements.


Among those who left Cosme disillusioned with its failure was no less than its leader, William Lane. He resigned as Chairman in June 1899 and left for Auckland, New Zealand. He had obtained an appointment on the New Zealand Herald. Then, as now, NZ’s largest and most important daily newspaper. This newspaper espoused one of the most conservative editorial stances in NZ. After only a short time there, in early 1900 he was invited by the Australian Workers’ Union to become the first full-time editor of the Sydney Worker, So Lane was back with the Australian Labour movement. But not for long. He remained in this position for only three months. Officially he left because of ill-health. In reality, it is believed he left because his views were no longer compatible with those of the Labour movement. In particular, he had advocated a strong imperialistic line in support of the Boer War. He returned to the New Zealand Herald and was editorial writer there from May or June 1900. He ardently advocated a rabidly imperialistic tone. His biographer in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography assesses that “Much of his writing was apocalyptic in tone and revealed an obsession with racial purity, religion and war.” In 1906 Lane was among the founders of the National Defence League of New Zealand which advocated the introduction of compulsory military training. He used his writings to warn of such things as the imminent danger from Asia, to urge increased local defence spending, especially a NZ Navy. His writings also advocated eugenics and opposition of breeding by the “unfit”. He attacked the NZ Federation of Labour describing its members as “designing agitators, largely foreign and wholly incapable”. In 1913 Lane was appointed editor of the New Zealand Herald. His interest continued to be in editorial views rather than news management. He continued to write a column in the enlarged Saturday edition, under the name of Tohunga, which is Maori for expert or prophet. Following the outbreak of the Great War, this was a platform for rabid British patriotism and anti-German views. His articles were generally reprinted in the NZ Herald’s weekly publication, the Auckland Weekly News.

An example of his views at this time can be taken from the column he wrote immediately after the outbreak of the War:
“We are at war, we British…….It was the dread of Asiatic invasion that brought the Australians into line, that tamed the growing class-hatreds of the Commonwealth by the knowledge that the poorest and the richest in Australia had much to lose and much to defend. It is the Black Peril that holds in check the lingual and industrial problems of the South African Union……..The revival of national and racial feeling during the present generation is due to the increasing recognition that war is still a factor in human progress………War! There is no conception more inspiring, no condition nobler, no call that rings more grandly in the ears of those who are to possess the earth……..We shall teach them [every British boy and girl] to be in peace as in war: helpful brothers to one another, loyal and loving children of a world-wide Britain that can only live while for her they are glad to die.”
(New Zealand Herald, 8 August 1914).

Editorials provide examples of his current view of the labour movement. After the 1912 Waihi gold miners strike, one read, “The great Waihi mine was laid idle without any reasonable cause, in the course of the foolish and futile attempt by the leaders of the Federation of Labour to force the enginemen to remain in that pernicious organization and to sue the mine management as a tool for its unjustifiable tactics.” And during the 1913 NZ waterfront strike: “The Federation of Labour doubtless includes in its membership a great majority of worthy and industrious men, but as an organization it depends upon the presumption that a state of ‘class war’ constantly exists and that any and every action which can dislocate industry and keep the community in a condition of intolerable turmoil is not merely justifiable but highly commendable. The conception is utterly foreign to British peoples and is alien to the cool thought and considered judgment of British workers.”[14]

Lane was reluctant to talk about Paraguay. A colleague, Robert Hacket, did discuss the venture, but in a mood that Hacket described as “rather deep and sad”. When Lane’s 14 year old daughter, Phyllis, showed him a picture of the ship the Royal Tar, he snatched it away and said, “Never show me that again!”[15]

Lane died on 26 August 1917. In Ross’ Monthly of Protest, Personality and Progress, Robert Ross wrote, “’Billy’ Lane is dead – dear old Billy Lane. And he died in the camp of the enemy! There was the infinite tragedy of it. Nevertheless peace be to his ashes!”[16]. That summed up the views of the Australian labour movement.

[1] For example see Brisbane Courier 27 April 1891.
[2] Robin Gollan, Radical and Working Class Politics: A Study of Eastern Australia 1850-1910,Melbourne University Press, 1960, p. 105.
[3] For one of the best of many descriptions of the influence of William Lane see Gavin Souter, APeculiar People: William Lane’s Australian Utopians in Paraguay, University of Queensland Press, 1991, ISBN 0 7022 2382 4, Chapter 2.
[4] A good general description of the Paraguayan background is in Gavin Souter, A PeculiarPeople: William Lane’s Australian Utopians in Paraguay, University of Queensland Press, 1991 ISBN 0 7022 2382 4, chapter 3.
[5] For example Bulletin,Sydney, 10 June, 17 June, 27 July, and 5 August 1893.
[6] Gavin Souter, A Peculiar People: William Lane’s Australian Utopians in Paraguay,University of Queensland Press, 1991, ISBN 0 7022 2382 4, p.62-63.
[7] Souter, ibid, chapter 5.
[8] Souter, ibid, chapter 5.
[9] Quoted in Souter, op cit, p.94.
[10] Souter, ibid, chapters 6 and 7.
[11]Cosme Monthly, June 1895, Manuscripts Department, National Library of Australia; Rare Books Department, Fisher Library, University of Sydney, & Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.
[12] Gavin Souter, A Peculiar People: William Lane’s Australian Utopians in Paraguay,University of Queensland Press, 1991, ISBN 0 7022 2382 4, chapter 11.
[13] Souter, op cit, p. 183.
[14] Quoted in Souter, op cit, p. 220.
[15] Souter, op cit, p. 219.
[16] Quoted in Souter, op cit, p.p. 222-3.