The search for a new Australia

Nueva Australia was supposed to be a communist utopia in the middle of Paraguay. But the Australians who sailed there were defeated by their own disunity.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Nueva Australia Paraguay

It had taken me two days, countless bus trips (ok, about 3), a night in a strange unknown city, a bribe to a taxi driver, and many awkward conversations in bad Spanish – but I had finally made it to the tiny place in the middle of Paraguay that isn’t even on a map: ‘Nueva Australia’ or ‘New Australia’.

After the struggle to get here, I could start to understand the arduous journey a group of Australians took more than a century ago to start a new colony deep in the heart of South America.

It was to become the world’s first example of communism… but, as has been the case with many of those societies, it all came crashing down around them.

This is the story of New Australia.

Nueva Australia (New Australia) in Paraguay

Sitting in the shade of a tree, sipping the traditional Paraguayan herbal tea, a few of the residents tell me about the colony. I don’t need to understand every word to understand that things are fairly quiet around here these days.

The village of Nueva Australia is tiny – only a few blocks wide. Standing at any point of the dirt roads that make up the traffic system, you can see the edge of town and the vast green fields that stretch on from there.

There are about three stores on the main street – all of them selling the same basic necessities. Two policemen sit on one corner, chatting to each other with a carefreeness that is probably warranted in this quiet community.

Nueva Australia (New Australia) in Paraguay

And the thing you notice about it all is how similar it is to other small South American towns. There’s the ubiquitous Latino skin and hair, the trill of the Spanish language, and the faint aromas of the local food.

Where is the Australian influence? Where are the blue eyes, the blonde hair, the akubras, and the Aussie bastardisation of vowels?

Nueva Australia (New Australia) in Paraguay

Well, the local residents tell me that there aren’t really many descendants of the original Australians left anymore in Nueva Australia. Many of them still live in Paraguay, but they’ve moved to the big cities.

The promised utopia was enough of a dream to convince 500 people to leave their homes and travel to the other side of the world but it wasn’t enough to keep them there. What went wrong?

Nueva Australia (New Australia) in Paraguay

The Australian communists in Paraguay

It was 1893 when the first Australians arrived on a ship from Sydney. They had all become disillusioned with life back home, which was suffering from a depression and a sheep-shearers strike.

It was through an initiative of a man named William Lane that they had decided to establish an egalitarian society somewhere that would, in Lane’s words, “serve as an example to the workers of the world and be a disciplined army to lead the workers to socialism”.

Nueva Australia (New Australia) in Paraguay

At the same time Paraguay was trying to rejuvenate its economy by offering immigrants free land, tax exemptions and farming assistance.

They 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 1,200 migrants to Paraguay.

Nueva Australia (New Australia) in Paraguay

Nueva Australia started off well and within the first few years the new colony had several prominent residents, including poet Mary Gilmore (who is on the Australian 10 dollar note). But by 1902, less than ten years after its founding, things had soured.

It seems some of the socialist ideas of the founders (and in particular, 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 whole thing fell apart. Some of the original inhabitants who still believed in their ideals set up another even smaller community about 70 kilometres away. The rest moved back to Australia, to other countries overseas, or kept their pocket of land and started new lives in Paraguay.

The utopian dream had failed.

The world’s first practical experiment in communism had collapsed.

And what could have been a famous legacy and part of Australian history disappeared to the point where it’s not even on the map anymore.

Nueva Australia (New Australia) in Paraguay

The district that was Nueva Australia has since been renamed Nueva Londres, which is where I chat to the locals as I walk around town. There is still an Australian flag on the welcome sign, which is the best evidence of what once was.

Little things like the occasional Anglo face or name of Smith gives you a few clues of the region’s history. Other than that, it’s just like the rest of Paraguay here now.

Nueva Australia (New Australia) in Paraguay
Nueva Australia (New Australia) in Paraguay

Everyone is friendly when they discover I’m Australian, but there’s no great excitement about a visit from a long-lost relative.

One young guy refers to me, I think affectionately, as a “gringo”. He’s right, though. I’m as foreign here as anyone else from overseas.

There is no new Australia. Just the good old one.

28 thoughts on “The search for a new Australia”

    • Ah yes, I use the very fancy setting on my camera called ‘automatic’ 🙂 The only thing I understand about photography is that you need good light, so that helps bring out the colour in these shots!

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    • Hello, firts for all thaks you very much for visiting my country and getting to know more about my people and our paraguayan culture.
      I’m paraguayan and i am proud to be and also to be able to share a common history with the Australians.
      Very interensting istory and thaks you!!

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  1. What an amazing thing! (And forgive me if I find the idea of alcohol-free, abstinent Aussies hilarious. 😉 I never would have imagined such a thing existed. Thanks for broadening my horizons!

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    • I heard about it when I was doing some research before heading into Paraguay. But it’s not a story that’s really known in Australia. It’s a pity, too, because it’s a great yarn!

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  2. It’s appropriate time to make a few plans for the longer term and it is time to be happy. I have learn this post and if I may just I want to recommend you some attention-grabbing issues or advice. Maybe you can write subsequent articles regarding this article. I wish to learn more issues about it!

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  3. Hey, unfortunately I haven’t gotten myself into gear and learnt any other language other then my native tongue – English. Will I get by at all with a little Spanish book (it does write the word out phonetically) travelling on my own?

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    • I found that English was ok in the large cities in South America but there wasn’t much spoken in Paraguay. People are very kind, though, so they will go out of their way to help you, even if you can’t speak Spanish. Your book will be useful (and I often even acted out things). But you may not have a lot of opportunities for in-depth conversations.

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  4. Loved your story, I have been reading like crazy about the Smith line that went there. Ricardo Lille Smith is my 2nd cousin 2x removed he and his brother Henry Bowling Baxter Smith were some of those early Smiths in the area. Amazing though my Smith line came to Australia so I never knew of this line until today. Amazingly I wonder what took them there, just as the English Smith line can’t understand what brought my ancestor here in 1852.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Linda – it’s so great to hear from you. I love that there’s a personal family connection for you to this story. I bet you are uncovering all sorts of interesting history. But I know what you mean – understanding the motivation of ancestors is sometimes the hardest thing to know!

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    • Great post! It`s exactly as you described it. I`m a descendant of Ricardo Lille Smith and Juan Kennedy both part of the fews who stayed in Nueva Londres

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    • Hello, been there a few months ago .. there’s really not much of Aussies left there except for the flag.. .. there’s other towns where you still see germans (mennonites, amish) widely spread thou .. but anyhow, it’s a small land locked country which is very quiet and with amazing welcoming people.. thanks for visiting my home..

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  5. Interesting story.

    However, I fell the need to clarify: New Australia was never a “communist” utopia, as William Lane as an Utopian Socialist, not a marxist.

    Thus, It was a Socialist experiment.

    Cheers from Argentina

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  6. My great-grandmother was born in that second splinter colony. Her eldest sister probably the first one. And youngest sister in Chile. They all moved back to Australia after that, though. None of which is well known within the family.

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  7. Michael, I don’t think you got to Nueva Australia.
    Open Google Earth and turn on BORDERS AND LABELS.
    Enter NUEVA AUSTRALIA into SEARCH, and you will see the two towns come up.
    In 2006, I went to the Nueva Australia High School and raised a big Australian flag, higher than the Paraguayan flag.

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  8. Oh dear, you went all that way, and as Maxwell Smart would say, “Missed it by that much, Chief! “.
    Nueva Australia is indeed on the map, or Google Earth anyway. Just 7.4km due South of Nueva Londres. Unless of course GE is wrong – wouldn’t be the first time!

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  9. Dame Mary Gilmore (nee Cameron) from Goulburn NSW is supposed to have links with my family tree but so far, they seem tenuous. I enjoyed your article and photos as I’m giving a talk at our local library on “New Australia” in November so I hope you won’t mind if I give your site a favourable mention? Best wishes and thank you for recounting your adventure. I think I have DNA links in South America!!!!

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  10. damn this is so interesting, I was raised in Nueva Londres and I wish I knew more about the history behind the iMmigrants who came from Autralia and the UK.. First time I´ve heard about Mary Gilmore and it´s blowing my mind.. Thanks for sharing this article

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