Back from Utopia: Six years of New Australia [18 July 1902]

[Editor: An interview with William Gilmore (husband of Mary Gilmore), following his arrival back in Australia (via England) after leaving South America. The Gilmores had been involved with William Lane’s settlement of Australian socialists in Paraguay. Henry Lawson is mentioned in the article, as he returned to Australia on the same ship as the Gilmore family, following his two-year stay in England. Published in The Argus, 18 July 1902.]

Back from Utopia.

Six years of New Australia.

Two bushmen possessed of rare and strange experiences landed from the G.M.S. Karlsruhe on Tuesday. The first was Henry Lawson, the Australian poet and story-writer, whose tale is already partially told to the world. His mate was William Gilmore, Casterton native, Queensland bushman, and ex-communist. Seven years ago Mr. Gilmore threw £60 into the general fund of the band of idealists who founded a communistic settlement in the centre of South America. Eighteen months ago he bade good-bye to the New Australia colony, and returned to individualism penniless to save the lives of his wife and child. Since then he has been working on the barren sheep stations of Patagonia to scrape together sufficient money to pay his passage back to the Australia so many of his countrymen do not appreciate.

“He’s had six years of the brotherhood of man,” explained Mr. Lawson, “and he’s full up.”

Mr. Gilmore smiled with the pathetic smile of the man who has nothing to smile about. New Australia is too close a memory to be a joke to him. Still, he feels a warm affection towards the rest of that devoted little band, who suffered and laboured with him for the sake of a principle.

“I wouldn’t have left then,” he said, “if it hadn’t been for my wife and the youngster. The climate isn’t fit for white people to live in — the humid heat is slow death to women and children. I could have stood it, but I saw they would fall before it, so I left. I told my mates I was sorry, but I wasn’t communist enough to sacrifice my family for my principles.”

Did you leave without a penny?

“Just as we stood. I was entitled to take something out, but I wouldn’t do it. I arranged to work our passages down the River Plate, and at Buenos Ayres I managed to get a job on a station at Patagonia, belonging to an Englishman. It was a dreary, barren place — cold and desolate, not far from Cape Horn. It carried only a very few sheep — Lincolns mostly — and their wool was worse than that of most South American sheep. I worked there for 18 months, putting by a little every week, until I was able to get enough to pay our passages to Liverpool and back to Australia.”

Were you one of the New Australian pioneers?

“No; I was in the second lot. The original New Australians left Queensland. I was in Adelaide at that time, and went over with the crowd that sailed from Port Adelaide. We had a vessel of our own, The Royal Tar, and at Buenos Ayres we travelled up the river to Paraguay by a local boat.”

And you found?

“A wilderness. Splendid soil, capable of growing anything, but timbered as heavily as South Gippsland. The clearing was terrible, heartbreaking work. To look out over the bush and see what had to be done before any return could be claimed from the land was almost enough to kill the hope in a man’s heart. The hardships we had to suffer were appalling at times, and I felt especially sorry for the women and children. We rigged up huts of a kind to protect us from the wind and rain, and lived in them till we got the land clear for cultivation. Gradually, but awfully slowly, it seemed, we got the timber off, and the houses began to go up. At the time I left our buildings were about the same as those of an Australian selector.”

And were your lives the same?

“Pretty well. I can’t say we were better off or worse off, but we were more independent, and that’s something. Everything we grew was put into a common fund, and everything we required was drawn from it.”

Did you find everybody doing a fair day’s work?

“Yes. We had no need to grumble at loafers. We were always warned that men would try to escape their share of the work or trouble, but those who stayed in the settlement stuck to it and its principles.”

But did many leave?

“Well, they were always dropping out from time to time, and the new members that arrived didn’t make up the vacancies. I suppose there were over a hundred left there when I came away.”

What did you do with offenders against order? Even communists are not angels.

“If a man stole, or did anything dishonourable, we just passed him out of the settlement.”

Didn’t the Paraguayan authorities deal with the matter?

“No, they never interfered with us. The settlement was managed by a chairman and a committee. The chairman was elected every three years, and the committee annually.”

And the Paraguayans in the district, were they friendly?

“Perfectly. They are simple, peaceable people, when they’re fairly treated. The local market provides an outlet for the produce of the settlement. We have not yet got to the stage of manufactures, and, to purchase tools and materials and other articles, we dispose of our surplus produce to the surrounding Paraguayans. They are not over fond of work themselves, and are only too glad to find somebody who will grow things for them to eat.”

But their internal dissensions?

“They didn’t affect us at all. We kept clear of local politics, and whenever there was any trouble we never heard of it till it was all over. A revolution doesn’t amount to much in South America. Very often a few revolver shots are enough to overturn a Government. Anyhow, New Australia went along all the same, whatever party was on top.”

What are your principal products?

“At the time I left, the place was being given over almost wholly to sugar-cane. They had a mill erected, and all the cutting and trashing was done by the members of the settlement. It is reckoned that this will prove more profitable than any other form of agriculture.”

Are your people intermarrying with the Paraguayans at all?

“No, there was not an instance up to the time I left. Many of the members have their wives and daughters with them, and I am one of those who was married while in the settlement. The New Australians have very little to do with the Paraguayans at all, except in the way of business.”

How is it that you didn’t stay in Buenos Ayres?

“There’s nothing for a working man to do there — an Australian working man. The city’s a big one — 600,000 people — and there’s a big English-speaking population. But all the manual labour is in the hands of the Italians. They are willing to work for a wage that wouldn’t keep an Australian, let alone one with a family. Then, it’s not pleasant to live under South American law, unless you’re a man with a bit of influence. The whole place is run by a clique — it’s the same in all the republics there — and if you’re an outsider, you haven’t a chance.”

And Patagonia?

“Patagonia,” echoed Mr. Gilmore. “I took on Patagonia to get away from it, and now that I’ve succeeded I’ll take good care I don’t see it again. Paraguay, Buenos Ayres, Patagonia, England — I’ve been through all of them, and now I’m back in Australia, and I know when I’m well off.”

But thousands of Australians are leaving for South Africa every month?

“Are they?” remarked Mr. Gilmore, sarcastically. “I’m satisfied.”

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 18 July 1902, p. 6

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