Posts Tagged With: Australia Diaspora

Stories of a New Australia

Three months ago I set out to travel from Australia to Paraguay in the same way that Australia’s only diaspora did 120 years before me. I imagined that when I arrived to the place in Paraguay where they had all travelled to settle all those years ago, it would bring some closure to my journey. It has in fact created a new series of journeys that are now only beginning to widen and deepen: journeys of new friendships with the descendents of these amazing and peculiar people.

When I set out from Australia under sail, especially in my mind were William and Lillian Wood, the grandparents of my old friend Enrique (who I met by chance in Paraguay in 2002), who arrived from Australia to Cosme in May 1895. Indeed on the day I set sail (10th of October 2013) one of William and Lillian Wood’s granddaughters, Carmen Wood (who migrated to Australia around 30 years ago), was on the docks in Sydney Harbour to see me off. We shared some tereré by the tall ships I was about to set sail in and talked about what it must have been like all those years ago. As a parting gesture she had kindly brought me a packet of yerba mate for my journey. I was hoping to experience something of what her grandparents may have experienced when they left Australia to follow the socialist utopian dream to Paraguay.

Travelling by sea is a singular experience. Cut off from the life one had on land becomes a way of life in and of itself; one wants for little that was upon the land. I didn’t know what to expect to feel or be once I arrived to the continent I already know so well. And I imagine that like me they too would have had time on the high seas to think about what lay ahead. However, such is the life of a sailor that there is in fact little time to contemplate the world that awaits beyond the tumultuous blue horizon; sailing a ship and being present in the maritime moment is all consuming (see previous blog

To get here I have sailed almost 16,000 kilometres across the South Pacific, touched the Southern Ocean’s frigid depths, rounded the famed [and foggy] Cape Horn, explored the Falkland Islands / Las Malvinas and arrived into that grandest of river mouths, the River Plate. From there I have travelled more than 3,500 kilometres by land through Uruguay and Argentina to arrive at the original place where those Australian pioneers first settled from in 1893.

This Paraguayan school (25° 28′ 32.43″ South, 56° 32′ 49.57″ West), which is nearby to the original colony, is actually named after the District that got its name from the colony that became known as Nueva Australia (New Australia).

On Sunday 12th of January I’d spent the day with bright-eyed Rodrigo Wood and his energetic wife Carmen de Wood (not to be confused with Rodrigo’s cousin Carmen in Australia), the greatest and kindest of hosts, meeting their Wood relations in the old colony of Cosme. It was after the split up of the first colony, Nueva Australia, in 1894 that Cosme became the second Australian colony, when a group of believers continued the socialist principals following their failing leader William Lane to new lands they’d acquired to the south.

After following this little known chapter in Australia’s history for so long it was wonderful to finally see and smell the places that Australia’s only diaspora first called home.

On the way to Cosme Rodrigo was telling me stories.

“My father Norman was born here in Cosme”, recalled Rodrigo, “And when he returned from Europe after World War I [like his older brothers he’d wanted to enlist with Australian Army but there being no Australian Embassy in South America at the time he’d enlisted with the British Royal Army instead and had gone to England to serve] he had to strip naked and swim across this swollen river to get back to his parents’ home in Cosme. On emerging on the other side he was suddenly attacked by swarms of mosquitoes and had to run back into the water for protection!”

We crossed the new bridge over this river, the Pirapó, sitting deep within its shaded banks and across the flood plains to the low rise upon which was nestled the enduring community of Cosme, languid in its quiet Sunday afternoon of dust and heat. We ate typical Paraguayan lunch of patio-raised chicken casserole and fresh corn meal bake in the house of Rodrigo’s old cousin Patricio Wood (who spent 25 years in Australia but has returned to live here with his new young family). He greeted me with a nasal ‘Gday mate, come have some tucker with us’.

After a quick visit to the graves of Rodrigo’s grandparents we strolled past turkeys, chickens and pigs to enter the shaded yard of the big old stilted Queenslander-style house of Francisco Wood, who never left Cosme like some of his brothers did. We savoured a tereré (with ice cold water mixed in this case with lemon grass and cat’s claw) with fighting-fit cousin Frisky and his new young family (some of his now adult children from his first marriage had emigrated to Australia) under the shade of the big house which looked kind of in its place in this world, despite being thousands of miles from Queensland. It was built upon the ruins of the house that his grandfather Little Billy Wood had built in 1896 and in which his father Wallace and all his uncle and aunts, including his uncle Norman, were born. The fireplace of the original house endures in the cool underneath section of the new house. And upstairs Frisky’s 18-year-old daughter showed me the original tea chests that her great-grandparents used to emigrate from Australia to Paraguay; they were truly a family heirloom.

The Australian-Paraguayan history is alive and well. And the Australian connection is strongly felt by the many descendants in Paraguay.

“Lots of people come to see us, to make their films and to write their books”, claims an adamant Frisky.”It’s alright for them. But what about the case for some help from the Australian Government!?”

This sentiment is reinforced by Rodrigo, who is President of the Australia-Paraguay Chamber of Commerce in Asuncion*:

“Paraguay opened its doors when times were tough for those Australians, our grandparents. Now times are tough in Paraguay and our children would benefit from re-connecting with the land of their forebears. The case for a preferential scholarship – be it for cultural exchange or higher education – for descendants of Australia’s Paraguayan diaspora is a strong one. The historical cultural ties are enduring between the two countries and much is to be gained from strengthening them.”

I tend to agree with Rodrigo and Francisco. Enough has been written and filmed about them over the years from Gavin Souter’s seminal 1968 historical account (‘A Peculiar People’), the ABC documentary of 1974 and Network Ten’s documentary for the bicentenary in 1988, through to Anne Whitehead’s renewed account of the diaspora circa 1997 (‘Paradise Mislaid’) and to Ben Stubbs’ ‘Ticket to Paradise’; a more dismissive account of the descendants published in 2010.

Will the Australian Government listen to the diaspora’s calls?

If they do I predict that new stories of a new Australia and a new Paraguay will emerge to enrich our lives even further.


Colegio Nacional Nueva Australia

A modern Paraguayan school named after the District ‘Nueva Australia’, which got its name from the original ‘New Australia’ colony.


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And His Ghost May Be Heard

On a steaming Chaco night a few days ago (8th January 2014) in Concepción, Paraguay, I was joined in raucous overtures by a bunch of Paraguayan nationals singing Australia’s National Song, “Waltzing Maltilda”. A more emotional moment I’ve rarely had.

While I played the guitar, Jennifer Wood Davey, great-grand daughter of William and Lillian Wood (original members of Australia’s only diaspora circa 1894), brought a special handkerchief out to assist her in singing along with me. It was a delicate artisanal piece under framed glass with the lyrics of our rousing alternate National Anthem embroidered upon it.

“My abuelo taught us this song”, she beamed at me, referring to her grandfather Norman Wood who was born in Paraguay and who himself never visited the land of his parents. “It’s such a pleasure to hear it again!”

Like Jennifer, my hosts around the smoking coals of the juice-dripping ‘asado’ of lamb quarters and spare ribs, were all variously the great-grandchildren of William and Lillian Wood, who were, in 1894, amongst that group of intrepid Australians who left our golden shores 120 years ago to establish Australia’s only diaspora in Paraguay. It was truly a special moment to find such a connection in the most unlikely of places.

And I sung our song like never before.

Gracias a mi querido Paraguay! Y muchísimas gracias a los Wood de Paraguay también!

Waltzing Matilda with Jennifer Wood Davey

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Should I Stay or Should I [Fair] Go?

[Fremantle, 6th September 2013]

This short film was captured between Cape Town and Mauritius when the three Dutch Tall Ships (Oosterschelde, Bark Europa and Tecla) passed through on their circumnavigation of the planet. It’s in Dutch language but the imagery is wonderful.

I saw the same three tall ships come into the port of Fremantle last month. And now they’re approaching Melbourne.

I will now be lucky enough to sail with them on their Sydney to Buenos Aires voyage, partaking in the legendary rounding of Cape Horn through the Drake Passage. It’ll take nigh on three months.

It’s 120 years since Australia’s first and only diaspora (excluding perhaps ‘Kangaroo Court’ in London) left for a better world. In 1893 500-odd disgruntled shearers (post the great Australian shearers strike) left Sydney Harbour in a tall ship the ‘Royal Tar’ (constructed in the day at the mouth of the river at Nambucca Heads) bound for Paraguay. They set up a socialist utopian colony called ‘New Australia’. They were the ‘New Australia Movement’.

Depending on tomorrow’s Federal Election results I may be seeking similar refuge!

But I’ve booked my passage ahead of time. And I join the crew of the three-masted square-rigger ‘Bark Europa’ (photo attached) (and for some of the time on the good ship Tecla too).

I set sail from Sydney Harbour on the 10th October: One hundred and twenty years after the original New Australia members. And after passing through Auckland we’ll cross the South Pacific into the Southern Ocean and round Cape Horn to Las Malvinas (Falkland Islands). From there we’ll continue to Buenos Aires, arriving for New Years Eve hopefully. A voyage of near on 11,500 km.

I hope to be able to continue on to land-locked Paraguay to reunite with the descendants of the New Australia colonists of 1893.

In 2002 whilst on a sojourn in Paraguay I had a chance encounter with one of them: Enrique Wood. Never set foot in Australia but feels very much Australian. We’ve stayed friends ever since. His father Norman Wood was born in the New Australia colony in south-east Paraguay. Norman’s parents were on the original voyage from Sydney. William Wood, Enrique’s grandfather, was mentioned in a poem by Henry Lawson circa 1890s: “…and little Billy Wood passed the hat around…”.

William ‘Billy’ Wood was working as a labour organiser in Bourke, NSW in the early 1890s when he decided that the ‘Fair Go’ wasn’t being realised in the fledgling Australian dream. And so he sought with his wife to make a better fist of it elsewhere.

Let’s hope tomorrow’s Federal Election augers well for those who still dream of a Fair Go. For as little Billy Wood most probably dwelled upon, as he passed the hat around on that fateful day in Bourke, watched on by an ever wistful Henry Lawson, the prospect of contemplating whether one should stay or go often comes down to the inspiration gained from within and from those around us. And while it is always a vexing one, it often comes down to those leaders that bear the brightest vision of the commonwealth of Australian states.

With wind in our sails (still)…



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