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.”