Sunday Mail - - WORLD -

LIFE at Cosme in the early days brought its own chal­lenges. Money was tight, and the food sup­ply pre­car­i­ous un­til con­di­tions fi­nally be­gan to im­prove in 1895 with suc­cesses in farm­ing and fish­ing. Colony rules also were more re­laxed than at New Aus­tralia – there were no racial re­stric­tions but it was still rigid on the ques­tion of al­co­hol.

But ac­cord­ing to Mary Gil­more, the writer and jour­nal­ist whose face would be im­mor­talised on Aus­tralia’s $10 note and who spent seven years at Cosme, the colony took “a fa­tal step” with the ar­rival of new mem­bers.

“The new peo­ple did a great deal of com­plain­ing, which, see­ing that they had good clothes and de­cent house plen­ish­ing, an­noyed the old hands who had nei­ther, and whose suf­fer­ings and sac­ri­fice had built a place in the wilder­ness where the new could come and take up a home,” Gavin Souter re­ports her say­ing.

By Jan­uary 1898, and when Lane re­turned from a re­cruit­ment drive in Eng­land a few weeks later, Cosme had be­gun fall­ing apart.

In two months the colony had lost 38 peo­ple and Lane, the fa­ther of the whole mis­sion, joined the ex­o­dus in 1899, tak­ing his wife and chil­dren to New Zealand af­ter his son was hit in the chest by a cricket ball and died.

Lane found work on the New Zealand Her­ald news­pa­per and all but aban­doned his so­cial­ist ideals. He died in 1917, at the age of 56.

Back in South Amer­ica, his brother John was do­ing ev­ery­thing he could to keep Cosme alive but by 1908 just nine men, five women and 21 chil­dren were left and Cosme was for­mally wound up in 1909, 16 years af­ter The Royal Tar first set sail from Syd­ney.

Those who chose to stay mar­ried lo­cal women and bore gen­er­a­tions of chil­dren who spoke Guarani and knew noth­ing of that coun­try on the other side of the world called Aus­tralia.

FOLKS like Roddie Wood may be a rare ex­cep­tion. A de­scen­dant of Wil­liam and Lil­lian Wood, who set­tled in Cosme in the 1890s, Roddie Buenos Aires PARAGUAY Mon­te­v­ideo still proudly waves the flag for his Aus­tralian her­itage – as Ade­laide jour­nal­ist and UniSA aca­demic Dr Ben Stubbs dis­cov­ered when he went look­ing for New Aus­tralia in 2010 and met the larger-than-life Wood in Asun­cion.

He re­called their strange in­tro­duc­tion in the lat­est episode of The Ad­ver­tiser’s lo­cal his­tory pod­cast Heaps Good His­tory. “I was stay­ing in this ho­tel, kind of wide-eyed, didn’t know what I was do­ing. So I gave him a call and he said ‘don’t worry, in the morn­ing, I’ll come and I’ll find you and we’ll sort you out’ and so this man showed up, dou­ble-parked his Mercedes, he was wear­ing an Akubra, he had a big open shirt show­ing his chest hair and what­not and he clasped my hand in a big hand­shake and said ‘G’day mate, how you go­ing?’”

“What was in­ter­est­ing with Roddie Wood was that he kind of re­flected the Aus­tralia of his fa­ther, the Aus­tralia of the peo­ple who in­flu­enced him. He lis­tened to Slim Dusty, he had Henry Law­son on his book­shelf – so it’s an Aus­tralia which was kind of more vis­i­ble a while ago.”

Stubbs found few char­ac­ters as colour­ful as Roddie when he fi­nally got to New Aus­tralia, which by now had been split into two main set­tle­ments, Nueva Aus­tralia and Nueva Lon­dres, and which was an­nounced only by a sign: “Bien Vien­dios Nueva Aus­tralia”. Wel­come, to New Aus­tralia. Stubbs says most of the res­i­dents are Aus­tralian in name only.

“You look at the names in South Amer­ica and they’re very dis­tinctly Latin Amer­i­can. When you get to New Aus­tralia, New Lon­don, Cosme, they’re the Mur­rays, the Caseys, the McCreens, the Woods, which are very dif­fer­ent. You start to see these smat­ter­ings as well of blonde kids with freck­les, blue eyes and lighter skin.”

The in­hab­i­tants were the prod­ucts of mixed mar­riages “in ev­ery sin­gle case”, says Stubbs, and they spoke a mix of Span­ish and Guarani – not English, as they did a cen­tury ear­lier. And for most, the ex­ploits of Lane and his fol­low­ers over a cen­tury be­fore were as dis­tant from their daily lives as Aus­tralia it­self.

“Some of the more sober­ing en­coun­ters that I had were of the sub­sis­tence farm­ers who had descen­dants who had come from Aus­tralia and had re­ally not landed on their feet,” Stubbs says. “They had a tiny plot of land and they weren’t aware of a lot of their his­tory be­cause, you know when you’re wor­ried about sur­viv­ing day to day, week to week, you’re not con­cerned about what your rel­a­tive did 117 years ago.”

About 130km away, in Asun­cion, travel agent Ronald Birks has a much firmer han­dle on the fam­ily story.

Birks is the great-grand­son of Al­fred Birks, a den­tist who went to New Aus­tralia with his par­ents, Ade­laide chemist Ge­orge Napier Birks and his wife He­len Thomas, in 1894. Birks Chemists still op­er­ate in Ade­laide and de­scribe their found­ing fam­ily’s ex­ploits in Paraguay on their web­site.

Ronald Birks says he has been piec­ing the fam­ily his­tory to­gether through sto­ries from his fa­ther, who was in­ter­viewed for two books on the sub­ject and through his own re­search.

His grand­fa­ther, he says, “didn’t want to talk much” about his lin­eage be­cause for many years his fa­ther, Al­fred, kept a sor­did se­cret. He had two fam­i­lies – one in Paraguay and one in the US, where he later re­lo­cated to work as a den­tist. “That was the big se­cret,” Ronald says via Skype from his home in Asun­cion.

“He didn’t want to talk about that be­cause it was em­bar­rass­ing to have, at that time, two fam­i­lies – one in Paraguay and the other in the States. But we knew. We knew that we were descen­dants of the Aus­tralians who came to Paraguay.” And, of course there is the name. “Ah yes, yes, ev­ery time I in­tro­duce my­self, they ask, ‘where is that last name from?’ And so I take ad­van­tage of that to tell about my back­ground and they are very in­ter­ested to know the whole story but yes, it’s not a com­mon last name here in Paraguay.”

Ronald has vis­ited New Aus­tralia on sev­eral oc­ca­sions as part of his re­search but, like Stubbs, says lo­cal knowl­edge of the set­tle­ment’s his­tory has de­cayed with the colony it­self.

“There isn’t much” he says. “Re­ally, the descen­dants of the Aus­tralians in Asun­cion know more about the story than the peo­ple over there.

“I went there, I in­ter­viewed a few fam­i­lies too and they were very hos­pitable and they opened their houses and in­vited us to have some­thing to drink and so on but no, they weren’t much into the whole story.”

Ronald met descen­dants of the Aus­tralians at a gath­er­ing for the cen­te­nary of the first voy­age to Paraguay. And in 2005, he spent a month trav­el­ling through New Zealand and Aus­tralia, where he met other mem­bers of the Birks clan and vis­ited the grave of Ge­orge Vause Birks (fa­ther of Ge­orge Napier Birks) in Ade­laide.

“It was very, very in­ter­est­ing, he says. “I loved what I saw in Aus­tralia and of course it was beau­ti­ful to get in touch with my cousins.”

He con­tin­ues to cor­re­spond with his Aus­tralian rel­a­tives and oc­ca­sion­ally mixes so­cially with other descen­dants but stops short of say­ing he iden­ti­fies as “Aus­tralian” in any way. “It’s a nice story and I’m very happy it’s very well doc­u­mented ... but my fam­ily and my­self, our roots and our cul­ture is 100 per cent Paraguayan.”

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