Australia to Paraguay
Race, class, and poetry in a South American colony
in Worlding the south

Hundreds of white supremacist working-class Australians settled in Paraguay at the end of the nineteenth century, establishing a community there called Colonia Cosme. In the poetry and song of their newspaper, the Cosme Monthly, these settler colonialists reflected on the racial and class dynamics of their community, imagining affinities between their community, the defeated American Confederacy, and the White Australia policy that would accompany Australian Federation at the turn of the century. Blackface minstrelsy in particular played an important role in the colony’s cultural life, helping to establish a retrograde sense of belonging in a place largely inhospitable to their efforts. This essay considers how the Australians in Paraguay used genre and medium to fix racist identifications at the heart of their colonial culture.

In 1893, Queenslander William Lane embarked with 234 white Australian immigrants for Paraguay, where they were to establish a utopian socialist community. Hundreds more Australians would follow, drawn to what was promised as a worker’s paradise in South America. According to the New Australia, a newspaper published in New South Wales prior to the emigrants’ departure, in Paraguay ‘the means of working, including land and capital, should belong to the workers, who, by co-operative working, could then produce to supply all their wants, and need not produce for the profit of anybody else’.1 Lane was a notorious racist, and his motivation for the Paraguayan colony was in part a response to the influx of Asian immigrants to Australia in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Our interest in Colonia Cosme, the town eventually established and maintained in the Paraguayan jungle, centres around its newspaper, the Cosme Monthly, and its accounting of minstrel performances there. We read Cosme’s poetry and song, and its engagement with the form of minstrelsy, as part of a larger effort by Lane and his fellow émigrés to situate the colony in relation to Australia, the United States, and Great Britain, specifically in racialised terms. Our chapter begins with an overview of Australia’s late-century labour crisis, which precipitated Lane’s migration scheme. We turn then to the Cosme Monthly and its complex negotiations of race and class via poetry and song.

Australian labour and the vision of Paraguay

William Lane was an English-born immigrant to Australia, arriving in Brisbane in 1885. Among the few possessions he brought with him to the southern hemisphere were copies of Marx’s Capital (1867) and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776).2 Two years later he founded the Boomerang, a newspaper that advocated for the Workers’ Party and expressed deeply racist arguments against Asian immigrants who were at that time settling in Queensland as agricultural labourers.3 According to the Brisbane Courier, 30,000 Chinese had emigrated to Queensland in the decade leading up to 1887, inspiring a manifesto by the Australian Anti-Chinese League that called for severe restrictions on Asian immigration.4 This was the context for Lane’s 1888 ‘Asian invasion’ novel, White or Yellow: The Coming Race War of 1908 AD, serialised in the Boomerang. By the early 1890s Lane had determined that Australia would never be the utopian white socialist colony he wanted it to be.

This conclusion reflected both racial animus and class unease. Australia in the closing decades of the nineteenth century was in a state of economic crisis, resulting in what Thomas Keneally has labelled ‘a savage class battle’.5 Labour historian Humphrey McQueen writes that ‘[e]conomic fears and pure racism were’, throughout this period, ‘inextricable, with each feeding the flames of the other’s fire’.6 Most significant for Lane was the Australian Maritime Strike that erupted in 1890 from a local disagreement between dock workers and management, eventually turning into an international labour strike. According to Bruce Scates, the strike ‘was phenomenally large by nineteenth century standards; 50,000 Australian workers were involved and perhaps as many as 10,000 New Zealanders’, and though generally known as a maritime strike, it quickly ‘spread to include shearers, miners, labourers, counters, storemen and railwaymen’.7 In the pages of the Worker, a Brisbane newspaper Lane founded in 1890 with the subtitle ‘Journal of the Associated Workers of Queensland’, Lane attempted to articulate the demands of a labour movement that he envisioned as both international (or, at least, Anglophone) and particularly Australian.8 ‘[U]nionism must be made so broad’, he argued in November 1890, ‘that everybody can stand under it and none need be against it’.9 In trying to resist the natural capitalist tendency towards lower wages and higher productivity, Lane identified capitalists and non-white immigrants to Australia as equal obstacles. As in the American West, where ‘public anxieties over major shifts in the American industrial landscape and class relations became displaced onto the racialised figure of the male Chinese labor migrant’, as Edlie Wong has shown, so too Chinese workers in Australia were targeted with especial vehemence.10 According to McQueen: ‘Once the Chinese [in Australia] were perceived as an economic threat the belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority quickly turned Chinese customs into conclusive proof of [Asian] infamy.’11

As the strike built momentum in the summer of 1890, the secretary of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union asked his members to co-operate with the striking wharf labourers so as to ‘draw such a cordon of unionism around the Australian continent as will effectually prevent a bale of wool leaving unless shorn by union shearers’.12 No single union could withstand the power and the pressure of the capitalists, but perhaps together they could. The language of solidarity and mutual aid did not extend across racial lines, however. Lane’s editorials in the Worker advocated the exclusion of Chinese workers from membership of the unions. Other progressive policies in the Worker were similarly intertwined with Sinophobic resentment. A letter in June 1890 proposes opening a co-operative clothing store to save workers money, and then adds ‘this system would go a long way to banish Chinese out of the colony’.13 Presumably, these proposed co-ops would sell only to white members, compelling Chinese workers to pay higher prices elsewhere.

An editorial in the very first issue of the Worker is aghast at the Chinese-friendly policies of labour unions in New South Wales, warning against letting unions ‘touch the leprous agony’: ‘No Chinese need apply where the [Queensland Shearer’s Union] is about, and the southerners ought to make the same regulation.’14 In the next issue, representatives of the New South Wales labour unions dispute this fact and, by June, the newspaper’s ‘Editorial Mill’ wants to settle ‘the unfortunate misunderstanding that existed previously’ when the Worker alleged that the Shearers’ Union had Chinese members.15 While Lane continued to attack Chinese workers, all non-white workers qualified as a threat. ‘It is very evident,’ he laments in a July 1890 editorial, ‘that there is a determination on the part of a section of the employing class to keep kanakas, Javanese, coolies, Chinese or some other sort of cheap and nasty labour in the country by hook or crook.’16 Later in the same issue, he threatens lynch-like violence: ‘If the Charters Towers cooks’ union doesn’t let the Chinamen understand that from the kitchen he must go, its members will cut off his pigtail and hang themselves with it in carrier-like rotation, heaviest first.’17

Brisbane’s position in northern Australia might help explain why the white Queensland unions were so vehement in their Sinophobia. More than Sydney or Melbourne, nineteenth-century Brisbane embodied Homi Bhabha’s sense of Australia as a place where ‘the nations of Europe and Asia meet’.18 Between 1863 and 1904, according to Penelope Edmonds and Amanda Nettelbeck, 62,000 Pacific Islanders were imported to work ‘in Queensland sugarcane plantations, the pastoral sector and colonial households’.19 Queensland enacted the first limit on Chinese immigration in 1877, decades before the official ‘White Australia’ policy that would restrict Australian immigration through most of the twentieth century. Phil Griffiths notes that ‘politicians in Queensland railed against a “Chinese invasion”, fearing that their control over the minimally colonised north and over the process of colonisation was threatened’.20

Indigenous Australians were not as much of a concern for the Worker, but the editors nonetheless positioned them as impediments to land ownership. An editorial in the inaugural issue demands that the Australian government follow the example of some South American countries in settling areas of Indigenous land, asking: ‘Are we going to let Spanish-Americans do more to keep back Indians than Anglo-Australians do to keep back poverty?’21 The Worker thus positions poverty and Indigenous land claims as intertwined. Only by forcibly dispossessing Indigenous peoples, the editors argue, can poor Anglo-Australian workers find suitable work. These issues only intensified in urgency as the strikes crumbled in late 1890; by early 1891, dock workers and shearers returned to work without employers meeting their demands. Attempting to turn a regional labour dispute into an international strike had been a huge risk for Australian workers and, as Scates describes, they lost nearly everything that Australian workers had gained through previous actions: ‘The Maritime Strike reversed a generation’s achievements: unions collapsed, federations failed, strikes fell prey to the “terror” of victimization.’22 Lane saw in this not just the failure of the Australian labour movement but ‘the elimination from the political parties of the enthusiasm of courage and sacrifice’.23

These economic and political frustrations form the context in which Lane committed to establishing a socialist, whites-only colony in the Paraguayan jungle, a moment in Australian colonial history in which working-class whites felt increasingly estranged from the southern continent’s future. Among other things, Lane was drawn to Paraguay’s isolation from neighbouring countries, and the local government’s promise that immigrants there would be left to their own devices. South America in the nineteenth century had earned a reputation as a space of greater freedom. As Jessie Reeder notes, ‘Latin America powerfully, principally, and uniquely entered the British imagination as a symbol of freedom, a standard-bearer of anti-colonial liberation.’ Insofar as Lane saw himself and his fellow émigrés as economic and cultural refugees (rather than part of a broader colonial apparatus), he would have been drawn to ‘the perception that Latin America had deservedly won its liberty from European imperialism’.24 According to Theodore Child, author of The South American Republics (1891), Paraguay specifically ‘offer[ed] the two economical conditions essential to the success of useful European immigration, namely, facility of cultivation and salubrity of climate’.25 Moreover, the Paraguayan government encouraged immigration from abroad following the disastrous War of the Triple Alliance (1864–70), which had left Paraguay as ‘a land stripped of crops and cattle’ with a decimated population numbering under 250,000.26 According to Natalicio González, who was born near Cosme and briefly served as Paraguayan president (1948–49), the postwar government readily sold off land to foreign investors: ‘The peasantry was dispossessed of the lands of its ancestors; state lands became the property of bankers from London; foreign companies took control of the press and the natural wealth of the nation.’27

The history of Lane’s 1893 journey to Paraguay and the establishment of his first settlement there, Nueva Australia, has been well documented in Gavin Souter’s A Peculiar People (1968) and Anne Whitehead’s Paradise Mislaid: In Search of the Australian Tribe of Paraguay (1998).28 That colony fractured in less than a year, with sixty-four of Lane’s hardliners – those who insisted on teetotalism and strict adherence to the ‘colour line’ – breaking off in May 1894 to form a new community, Colonia Cosme, forty-six miles to the south.29 By the Cosme Monthly’s earliest tally, among these first Cosmans were thirty-nine men (of whom thirty-two were single), nine women, and twelve children.30 Only two of the nine women were single, a disparity that at first proved socially awkward. Single women had both the right to vote and the freedom to remain unmarried, even as the Monthly praised ‘the ancient and wholesome customs of our people … that for ages have gathered together under one roof-tree, husband, wife and children in one family’.31

The Cosme Monthly began publication some six months after the colonists’ fractious departure from Nueva Australia, in November 1894. At a time when colonists were one bad harvest away from starvation, $100,000 in debt, and living in grass huts (a perceived inconvenience that immigrants from Europe as well as Australia would continue to find unpalatable), William’s brother John Lane began to publish the Cosme Monthly by hand (Figure 6.1).

In a neat script on vertically ruled paper, he sketched out three maps that accompany the paper’s first article, a detailed description about ‘Getting to Cosme’. This was a process that involved not just an eighteen-mile overland trek, but numerous administrative obstacles most likely compounded by the language barrier between the Spanish-speaking government of Paraguay and Lane’s desired population of ‘English-speaking Whites’.32 If Cosme’s first printed issue is optimistic in imagining that anyone would bother to ‘get’ to Cosme at this early moment, it is only because pessimism was one of the many luxuries the colony could not afford; as the Cosme Monthly betrays throughout its run, recruiting new members was seen as vital to the success of the colony.

The Monthly, eventually distributed to North America, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, seems to have been regarded as key to the colony’s growth. Its audience was decidedly not Cosmans – they had their own paper, the Cosme Evening Notes, which was distributed by voice at the nightly social gathering (Figure 6.2). The Monthly’s contents were at times overtly propagandistic, leading the New Zealand Oamaru Mail (est. 1876), for example, to share in 1897 that the Paraguayan colony had ‘settled the food question by growing all they need for their own consumption’.33

This impulse to broadcast success was tempered by the colonists’ conviction that their lifestyle was not for everyone. New colonists were of little value to Cosme if they abandoned Paraguay upon finding the conditions unacceptable. While manifesto and persuasion abound, the bulk of the Cosme Monthly is devoted to a fairly pragmatic ongoing account of life in the colony. The same principal sections appear for much of the paper: ‘Weather’, ‘Health’, ‘Food’, ‘Crops’, ‘Stock’, ‘Work Done’, ‘Arrivals’, ‘School’, ‘Social Life’. These sections function just as much to tamp down the expectations of newcomers as to inform loved ones or interested parties oversees about ongoing life in the colony. Of course, other factors than an aversion to a meatless diet or inadequate housing might disqualify would-be colonists, a fact of which Lane was keenly aware. The following becomes the closing refrain of the paper for much of its life: ‘To save needless enquiries everybody should understand that: COSME is (1) a common-hold not a commonwealth; (2) For English-speaking Whites – who accept – (3) The Life-Marriage. (4) The Colour-Line. (5) and Teetotalism among their principles, and who realise in their hearts that (6) COMMUNISM IS RIGHT.’34

Beginning with the January 1897 issue, the Cosme Monthly also included poetry in its pages, much of which was reprinted from the Cosme Evening Notes. In what follows, we examine how the poetic genres of the newspaper reflect the colony’s mingling of political aspiration and racial animus. Lane’s distorted vision of racial and political isolation manifested in regular minstrel performances, even as that isolation was in no way real: the newspaper inadvertently shows the degree to which Cosme depended on its Guaraní neighbours for its continued survival. Our method takes a cue from Simon Gikandi, who finds in Slavery and the Culture of Taste (2011) that ‘the construction of the ideals of modern civilization demanded the repression of what it … had unconsciously assimilated’. Gikandi argues that in eighteenth-century Europe, enslavement needed to be ‘quarantined’ from the emerging ‘culture of modernity’, even as that culture depended on enslavement for its economic well-being.35 Inspired by Gikandi, we examine what gets left out of the narratives Cosme writes for itself, and how poetry and minstrel performance in effect quarantined Cosme’s culture from the Indigenous Guaraní on whose knowledge and support it depended. We see through Cosme’s minstrel performances the continuation in Paraguay of the racism and xenophobia on which Lane founded his original contributions to the Australian labour movement. The firm lines minstrelsy helped draw around race and class enabled Cosme to define itself distinctly in relation to those not permitted within the community.

Cosme poetry

‘The Free-Built Homes of Cosme’, published in the August 1897 Cosme Monthly (reprinted from the Cosme Evening Notes), offers a clear example of how poetry, and specifically poetic rewriting, contributed to political ideology in the Paraguayan colony:

The free-built homes of Cosme,–

With their bare mud-plastered walls,

And hard mud floors all carpetless

Where damp the footstep falls,–

Are dearer far to hearts that beat

In brotherly accord,

Than the richest palace ever built

For millionaire or lord.36 (lines 1–8)

Readers of the Cosme Monthly would likely have known the original poem to which this makes reference: Felicia Hemans’ 1827 ‘The Homes of England’, the final stanza of which addresses

The free, fair Homes of England!

Long, long in hut and hall,

May hearts of native proof be rear’d

To guard each hallowed wall!

And green forever be the groves,

And bright the flowery sod,

Where first the child’s glad spirit loves

Its country and its God.37 (lines 33–40)

Each stanza of Hemans’ poem opens by addressing a different kind of home: ‘The stately homes’, ‘merry homes’, and ‘cottage homes’. Each of the Cosme stanzas begins instead with the same line: ‘The free-built homes of Cosme’. The distinction is crucial, marking a significant political difference between the two poems. Tricia Lootens has pointed out that Hemans links the English dwellings of her poem ‘within a harmonious national hierarchy’ in a way that stands out in retrospect as deeply politically suspect. Lootens rightly calls the poem a ‘sentimental, reactionary pastoral fantasy at its crudest’, insofar as it suggests that those in extreme poverty live as happily as aristocrats in stately manor homes.38

Across the nineteenth century, rewritings of this specific poem proliferated in British colonial spaces, a phenomenon traced in Imagined Homelands: British Poetry in the Colonies (2017). For example, an 1845 Chartist revision published in Adelaide, South Australia, laments ‘The happy homes of England, alas! where have they gone?’ In Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1868, the ‘pleasant homes of England’ are a nostalgic memory willingly left behind to make room for possibilities enabled by the Canadian colony, including upward mobility and westward expansion.39 The Australian and Canadian revisions are politically motivated, highlighting differences between Britain and its colonies, specifically with respect to class. Something more radical still is at work in the Cosme poem. ‘The free-built homes of Cosme’ point to the egalitarianism at the heart of Cosme’s communist ideal. The Cosme Monthly articulates these political views explicitly in an essay published in the same issue as the poem: ‘Human society, by its very nature, is strong or weak as the ties which bind it are strong or weak. The competition in modern society, makes it a house divided against itself, which cannot stand.’40 Cosme represents itself as a classless society. The gesture to Hemans highlights not just the politics of the colony, but how those politics were understood to distinguish it from both Hemans’ ‘sentimental, reactionary pastoral fantasy’ and the politics of other Anglo colonial spaces, Australia in particular, which had so disappointed Lane and his compatriots.

‘The Free-Built Homes of Cosme’ also echoes Banjo Paterson’s well-known 1889 ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, originally published in Sydney’s Bulletin (est. 1880), in its critique of what the Cosme poet calls ‘the cramped and stifling cities / Where the sound of strife ne’er cease’. Paterson’s poem longs for life outside the newly industrial city:

I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy

Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,

And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city

Through the open window floating, spreads its foulness over all.41 (lines 17–20)

Cosme residents, like the idealised Clancy of Paterson’s poem, live instead beneath ‘open skies, / Where man with man can live, and feel / The Good within him rise’. In echoing one of the key poems of Australian nationalism, the Cosme poet frames the Paraguayan colony as exactly the kind of free, pastoral space many urban Australians romanticised. The dual negotiation of Hemans (among the foremost female poets of the nineteenth century) and Paterson (celebrant of Australian masculinity) also points to the colony’s gender politics, which residents likely considered modestly progressive. Not only were single women allowed to vote, widows were apportioned the same share in the Colony as married women.42 That said, women ‘resign[ed] on marriage’ their voting rights, and Lane’s priorities unquestionably privileged communism over women’s rights: economic concerns consistently took precedence over matters of gender.43

A less enthusiastic framing of Cosme emerges in a rewriting of a Henry Lawson poem originally published in the Cosme Evening Notes, the ‘Dying Cosman’. The poem implicitly connects the Paraguayan colony to the Australian nationalist movement. Lawson, whose nationalist poetry was published in Sydney’s Bulletin, had worked for the Boomerang with Lane in the early 1890s, and he was at the wharf in Sydney to watch Lane’s ship, The Royal Tar, set out for Paraguay in 1893.44 The Cosme poem, published in 1898, reflects unease at the state of Lane’s settlement:

My pals they are good chaps and hearty,

True and staunch to the very last gasp:

They have stuck to their leader and party,

’Tis a pleasure their hard hands to clasp.

But there’s one fearful thing though that frights me,

Now they’re har up and cannot get meat,

’Tis the dread when I’m dead, if they sights me,

That my corpse they will cut up and eat.

Roll me up in my shirt and my blanket

And bury me far down below,

Where no cannibals ere shall molest me,

In a place where my mates never go.45 (lines 1–12)

The original poem is quite different. Like many of Lawson’s publications, ‘The Dying Stockman’ celebrates the rough and tumble life of Australia’s working men, seen as constitutive of the emerging Australian nation:

A strapping young stockman lay dying,

His saddle supporting his head;

His two mates around him were crying,

As he rose on his pillow and said:

‘Wrap me up with my stockwhip and blanket,

And bury me deep down below,

Where the dingoes and crows can’t molest me,

In the shade where the coolibahs grow’.46 (lines 1–8)

Lawson here helps concretise the idea of Australian ‘mateship’: white male homosocial bonding most powerful among working-class labourers and agriculturalists. With obvious humour, the Cosme poet transforms Lawson’s stockman into a settler anxious his peers will eat him after his death. The colony liked to highlight its connections to Australian working-class culture: ‘Cosme men,’ the October 1896 issue informs its readers, ‘are as rough in their ways and speech as most Australian bushmen are.’47 Similarly, the Cosme colony was meant to celebrate community in ways akin to Lawson’s poem. The parody hints that perhaps the trust did not go so deep. Cannibalism itself may be read as a gross enlargement or parody of the communist ideal, a recognition that the circumstances of the colony were not self-sustaining, and a fear of having to offer a final sacrifice to the community in death.

The long and mistaken history of associating Indigenous peoples with cannibalism additionally suggests an anxiety about the communist project fixing the settlers in a state similar to that of the Guaraní. Cosme at the time was eating an almost entirely vegetarian diet, and the colonists’ material conditions must have looked similar to or worse even than their Indigenous neighbours. That the Cosmans were living in grass huts looms large in the paper’s early pages. The tongue-in-cheek humour of ‘The Dying Cosman’ thus suggests a more serious set of underlying concerns: that the Cosme venture was regressive rather than utopian; that the experiences of the colony gave the lie to the supposed strengths of the ‘industrious’ Anglo-Saxon; and that it might have been better had Lane’s compatriots remained in Australia to fight for better lives there. Our point is both political and generic. ‘The Free-Build Homes of Cosme’ and ‘The Dying Cosman’ begin to suggest how Cosmans used poetry and poetic rewriting to contemplate their precarious state. Minstrelsy, to which we now turn, ratchets up even further the Cosme Monthly’s political and cultural stakes.

Minstrelsy in the colony

‘America,’ according to Adam Lifshey, ‘was forged by an ongoing production of absence: the lives that disappeared, the societies and ecologies that vanished, the dynamics of disembodiment that were constituent of the Conquest in all its variegated forms.’48 In the case of Cosme, what Lifshey calls the ‘production of absence’ took rhetorical shape as tenacious disregard: few references to Paraguay’s Indigenous Guaraní appear in the Cosme Monthly even as the Australian settlers were living among and trading with the local people, learning from them how to navigate a new climate and terrain, and using their traditional lands as sites for their ‘free-built homes’. The remaining pages of this chapter consider how Cosme minstrel performances take the place of explicit engagement with the Guaraní, situating the Cosmans in relation to other white-supremacist movements, in particular the defeated American Confederacy and the emerging policies of White Australia.

Just below the ‘Dying Cosman’ is another rewriting of a popular poem, but in a very different register. ‘I Wish I Was Back in Cosme’ turns to the United States, echoing the song considered to be the de facto anthem of the Confederacy, ‘I Wish I Was in Dixie’:

I wish I was back in Cosme ahuskin’ of the corn,

A chaffin’ an’ a laughin’ an’ awaitin’ for the horn:

For it’s huskin’ time in Cosme, but me, I’m sittin’ here

A wondrin’ how they’re getting’ on in Cosme now this year.49 (lines 1–4)

The poem is in keeping with a worldwide Anglo-American phenomenon that had especial strength in Australia, where minstrel shows were popular throughout the nineteenth century. American minstrel troupes toured Australia, and home-grown Australian minstrel companies such as the Australian Railroad Minstrels in turn toured the United States, supporting Richard Waterhouse’s claim that minstrelsy in the closing decades of the nineteenth century ‘became less of a specifically American phenomenon and more of an Anglo-American institution’.50 Cosme’s minstrelsy reflects this global circulation, and specifically its work in establishing what came to be perceived as working-class white culture.

Historians have addressed in some detail the nineteenth-century emergence of what David Roediger calls ‘an ersatz whiteness’ that developed in direct contrast to the stereotyped blackness of minstrelsy.51 Eric Lott finds that Black minstrelsy in the American context ‘made possible the formation of a self-consciously white working class’, specifically in the 1830s and 1840s: ‘It was through “blackness” that class was staged.’52 Minstrel performances found humour not only in racist caricature but in ‘mocking the arrogance, imitativeness, and dim-wittedness of the [white] upper classes in “permissible” ways, as in a kind of carnival’, as Sean Wilentz has shown.53 The mid-century blackface minstrel show was thus the domain of the white working classes, a space carved out through vicious humour directed at both people of colour and more privileged whites. A similar dynamic was at work in the context of Cosme. We suggest minstrelsy functioned in the Paraguayan colony in both racial and class registers, working to promote both Lane’s racism and Cosme’s communist ideals.

To situate on the same page references to both Henry Lawson’s ‘Sick Stockman’ and ‘I Wish I Was in Dixie’ in effect triangulates Cosme in relation to both the emerging White Australia movement and the Jim Crow policies developing in the American South. After its 1859 premiere in New York City, ‘Dixie’ was on the London stage by 1860, and it became one of the most popular shanties for British sailors.54 ‘Dixie’ emerged at a pivotal time in race relations and economic hardship that ultimately turned the United States towards war.55 The enslaved person portrayed in the text of ‘Dixie’ longs to return to his birthplace in the South because of the failure of his romance with the North:

I wish I was in de land ob’ cotton,

Old times dar are not forgotten;

Look away! Look away! Look away, Dixie Land!

In Dixie’s Land whar I was born in,

Early on one frosty mornin’,

Look away! Look away! Look away, Dixie Land!56 (lines 1–6)

Like many minstrel songs, ‘Dixie’ aims to assuage the guilt of Northern audiences with humour. Hans Nathan argues that ‘Dixie’ both ‘sharply focused the main cause of the political turmoil while affording relief in laughter from its tensions’.57 The historic appeal of the song is apparent in an 1861 New York Commercial Advertiser article:

‘Dixie’ has become an institution, an irrepressible institution in this section of the country … whenever ‘Dixie’ is produced, the pen drops from the fingers of the plodding clerk, spectacles from the nose and the paper from the hands of the merchant, the needle from the nimble digits of the maid or matron, and all hands go hobbling, hobbling in time with the magical music of ‘Dixie’.58

The systemic racism embodied in the ‘institution’ of ‘Dixie’ functions as a vehicle for affiliation among members of the working and lower-middle classes: the clerk, the merchant, the maid, and the matron. In this way, minstrelsy demonstrated what Lott calls a ‘mixed erotic economy of celebration and exploitation’ that ultimately unsettled boundaries both physical, through the medium of blackface, and cultural, through the appropriation of Black culture.59

In the context of Cosme, the ‘Dixie’ rewriting suggests nostalgia for the affiliations of the colony’s working community. The corn huskings referenced in the song were called ‘husking bees’, large social gatherings following a harvest during which all fit Cosmans would pause their normal work and husk as much grain as possible in a single day. The July 1897 Cosme Monthly, for example, recounts that ‘[o]n June 17th, a very merry cornhusking bee was held and about a ton and a half of corn was husked’.60 Though the rewriting of ‘Dixie’ has the surprising effect of putting Cosme workers in the labouring position of enslaved Americans, the poem makes political sense in its celebration of working-class community. Moreover, the evident industriousness of the husking Cosmans suggests pride in their labour. This realignment from the enslaved labour of ‘Dixie’ to the free labour of Cosme reflects what Lott calls ‘the complex racial negotiations that took place in the everyday lives of working people’ throughout the nineteenth century, negotiations that minstrel performances made explicit.61

At least two pieces labelled minstrel songs appear in the pages of the Cosme Monthly, in April and September 1899. Given the newspaper’s regular mention of minstrel performances, these are likely representative of many others. For example, in September 1896, the newspaper reports: ‘A minstrel performance on the Saturday night proved very successful. J. Dias interlocutor, W. Mabbot and W. Lawrence cornermen. A few songs, harmonised choruses, Cosme jokes. A farce came after, followed by usual Saturday “Interval” and dancing.’62 The minstrel song of the September 1899 issue appears directly after a prose description of the work of ‘hoeing and stumping’, the latter being a process of removing tree stumps to prepare for ploughing. Throughout the nineteenth century, Anglo colonists represented stumping as a key stage in domesticating new colonial space. In Catherine Parr Traill’s 1839 memoir, The Backwoods of Canada, for example, Traill’s husband tells her that their ‘Canadian farm will seem … a perfect paradise by the time it is under cultivation; and you will look upon it with the more pleasure and pride from the consciousness that it was once a forest wild’.63

In Cosme, hoeing and stumping land originally belonging to the Guaraní, the Australian settlers represent their labour through the frame of minstrelsy:

Hoeing weeds on Cosme land,

Chip, chip, chipping all the day.

Bending back and blist’ring hand,

Chip, chip, chipping all the day.

But hoes grow blunt and weeds grow strong,

And strokes grow short and hours grow long,

While distant seems the dinner gong,

Chip, chip, chipping all the day.64 (lines 1–8)

Like ‘Dixie’, this song works ambiguously. Both poems signal a fantasy of Cosme as a space where socialised labour allows all residents an equal share in work and resources, and where white colonialists have made a foreign space their own. Through recycling the tropes of minstrelsy, Cosme joins the American South as a region constructed by longing for what must have seemed at times an unattainable ideal: Lane’s fantasy of a self-sufficient and racially homogenous community.

Nostalgia and longing are key features of traditional minstrel songs. For example, in a 1910 anthology of minstrel songs, ‘The Old Home Ain’t What It Used to Be’ appears directly before a version of ‘Dixie’:

In the fields I’ve worked when I tho’t ’twas hard,

But night bro’t its pleasures and rest,

In the old house down by the riverside,

The place of all the world best;

Oh where are the children that once used to play

In the lane by the old cabin door?

They are scattered now, and o’er the world they roam,

The old man ne’er will see them more.65 (lines 13–20)

Similarly, from the same collection, ‘The Little Old Cabin in the Lane’ contemplates a property where ‘de fences are all going to decay… / An’ de creek is all dried up where we used to go to mill, / De time has turned its course an-odder way’.66 These minstrel songs, including ‘Hoeing and Stumping’, foreground both places of rest (the cabin, the dinner gong calling workers back from the fields) and places of work (the farm, the mill). Minstrel songs repeatedly emphasise the contrast between a nostalgic present and a convivial, familial past, all to romanticise enslavement for predominantly white audiences.

By using this same imagery and structure, ‘Hoeing and Stumping’ effectively puts Cosme workers in the labouring position of enslaved Black Americans in a way similar to the article on the cornhusking bee. However, the Cosme poem replaces overrun cabins and fallow plantations with active labour working against nature’s encroachment. ‘Hoeing and Stumping’ is still a song of longing but in a future-looking, proleptic form, anticipating the colony’s economic autonomy. The particular appeal of minstrelsy seems to develop from the desire for solidarity among the Cosmans. In Roediger’s assessment of American minstrelsy, ‘blackfaced whites derived their consciousness by measuring themselves against a group they defined as largely worthless and ineffectual’.67 For Cosme’s inhabitants, those other groups would have included the Asian immigrants to Australia against whom Lane had railed in the Boomerang and the Worker, Australia’s Indigenous populations, and Cosme’s neighbouring Guaraní, whom the Cosme Monthly framed in adversarial terms:

The Guarani clings stubbornly to the Guarani customs. This is irritating to the European, but who shall say that the Guarani is not right? Our exchange difficulties are among those which make settlement in Paraguay so exceptionally difficult to all Europeans, such difficulty naturally increasing the more outside exchange has to be relied upon. And European settlement cannot but be fatal to the Guarani, however profitable it may be to landowning and mercantile classes.68

The performance of minstrel songs in Paraguay thus allows the Australian emigrants to lay claim to working-class pride while simultaneously marking their sense of difference from their Indigenous neighbours. The success imagined in ‘Hoeing and Stumping’, the newspaper argues, will come at the direct expense of the Guaraní, for whom the Australian settlement will ultimately prove ‘fatal’. Ironically, the need to mark a sense of difference with the Guaraní proved fatal to Lane’s project itself. As in Nueva Australia before it, Lane was unable to prevent the Cosme colonists from crossing the colour line that he had made foundational to his communitarian project. On August 12, 1909, the remaining Cosme settlers divided what was left of the colony’s assets, bringing a formal death to a project whose founding members, William Lane first among them, had long since returned to Australia.69

The poetry and song of the Cosme Monthly offer significant insight into the politics of the struggling colony, a place generally not accounted for in discussions of ‘Greater Britain’ or the global Anglo world. As a colony of the southern hemisphere, Cosme’s backward glance would always be towards Australia, even as it worked thoroughly to distance itself from the southern continent by creating a new ‘south’ in Paraguay. Through its retrograde celebration of minstrelsy, Cosme also imagined itself in relation to the defeated Confederate states, yet another ‘south’ whose politics took disturbing new shape in South America. That actual Confederate loyalists had settled in Brazil following the Civil War – the ‘Confederados’, as they were called – could only have strengthened the perception in Cosme that Paraguay offered future possibilities to the white working classes that had become unavailable elsewhere in the English-speaking world.70 This regressive utopianism signals the colony’s divergence from more progressive nineteenth-century social movements. For example, whereas Engels and Marx want to abolish class-based hierarchies, Lane and his fellow émigrés aim to establish in Cosme a new, white plantocracy that is, as the Communist Manifesto scathingly writes of French ‘bourgeois socialism’, ‘both reactionary and Utopian’.71 Ultimately, Cosme’s political and cultural framework was governed by the colony’s racial and class grievances, its sense of having suffered ‘industrial slavery’ in Australia.72 Cosme’s attempted isolation, a ‘quarantine’ in Gikandi’s terms, offers an extreme example of how race and labour intertwined disturbingly across English-speaking spaces at the end of the nineteenth century.


1 ‘Lecture by the Chairman’, New Australia (17 December 1892), p. 3; New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association Papers, 1889–1927, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, MS A1563.
2 Lloyd Ross, William Lane and the Australian Labor Movement (1935; Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1980), p. 30.
3 The newspaper announced in May 1888 that it had sold 250,000 copies ‘[a]cross six months and twenty six issues’. Though unquestionably popular within the labour movement, David Crouch notes that ‘[t]he ultimate reach of the weekly newspaper is difficult to measure’. Colonial Psychosocial: Reading William Lane (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), p. 20.
4 ‘Anti-Chinese League Manifesto’, Brisbane Courier (15 November 1887), p. 7.
5 Thomas Keneally, Australians: Eureka to the Diggers (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011), p. 141.
6 Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia: An Argument Concerning the Social Origins of Australian Radicalism and Nationalism (1970; New York: Penguin, 1980), p. 46.
7 Bruce Scates, ‘Gender, Household and Community Politics: The 1890 Maritime Strike in Australia and New Zealand’, Labour History, 61 (1991), 70.
8 The first issue of the Worker (1 March 1890) announces itself as a monthly with a circulation of 14,000. One year later (7 March 1891), the newspaper is a fortnightly reaching 20,000. The Worker became a weekly as of 2 April 1892.
9 John Miller [William Lane], ‘The Editorial Mill’, Worker [Brisbane] (1 November 1890), p. 1.
10 Edlie Wong, Racial Reconstruction: Black Inclusion, Chinese Exclusion, and the Fictions of Citizenship (New York: New York University Press, 2015), p. 124.
11 McQueen, A New Britannia, p. 47.
12 Quoted in Arthur Duckworth, ‘The Australian Strike, 1890’, Economic Journal, 2:7 (1892), 432–3.
13 J. W., ‘Another Co-operative Proposal’, Worker (4 June 1890), p. 6.
14 [Untitled], Worker (1 March 1890), p. 4.
15 John Miller [William Lane], ‘The Editorial Mill’, Worker (4 June 1890), p. 2.
16 John Miller [William Lane], ‘The Editorial Mill’, Worker (1 July 1890), p. 3. ‘Kanakas’ referred to Polynesian or Melanesian workers, often at Queensland plantations, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
17 Willian Lane, ‘Central Queensland Labourers’, Worker (1 July 1890), p. 11.
18 Homi K. Bhabha, ‘Introduction’ to Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (London and New York: Routledge 1990), p. 6.
19 Penelope Edmonds and Amanda Nettelbeck, ‘Precarious Intimacies: Cross-Cultural Violence and Proximity in Settler Colonial Economies of the Pacific Rim’, in Penelope Edmonds and Amanda Nettelbeck (eds), Intimacies of Violence in the Settler Colony: Economies of Dispossession around the Pacific Rim (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p. 11.
20 Phil Griffiths, ‘“This is a British Colony”: The Ruling-Class Politics of the Seafarer’s Strike, 1878–79’, Labour History, 105 (2013), 132.
21 John Miller [William Lane], ‘The Editorial Mill’, Worker (1 March 1890), p. 1.
22 Scates, ‘Gender, Household and Community Politics’, 70.
23 Ross, William Lane and the Australian Labor Movement, p. 162. James Belich writes that ‘a new version [of working-class optimism] emerged’ in Australia after the 1890s economic crisis, ‘emphasiz[ing] quality over quantity, and the welfare state over natural abundance’. Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783–1939 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 363.
24 Jessie Reeder, The Forms of Informal Empire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), p. 9.
25 Theodore Child, The South American Republics (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1891), p. 368. According to Gavin Souter, Lane read the Paraguay chapter from Child’s book in essay form, published in the July 1891 Harper’s. Souter, A Peculiar People: The Australians in Paraguay (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1968), p. 34. The essay was reprinted across several issues of the New Australia in 1893.
26 Philip Raine, Paraguay (New Brunswick: Scarecrow Press, 1956), p. 195.
27 Natalicio González, ‘The Paraguayan People and Their Natural Tendencies’, in Peter Lambert and Andrew Nickson (eds), The Paraguay Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), p. 182.
28 According to the New Australia, the Sydney newspaper published to record Lane’s venture, the Royal Tar sailed for South America with heads of households and single women numbering as follows: from Queensland (forty-two), New South Wales (fifteen), South Australia (six), and New Zealand (one). ‘The wives and families of married members are to be taken as included in the above.’ ‘Pioneers’, New Australia (1 August 1893), p. 3.
29 Jan M. G. Kleinpenning, Rural Paraguay, 1870–1963: A Geography of Progress, Plunder and Poverty, 2 vols (Madrid: Iberoamericana Vervuert, 2009), 2:245.
30 ‘Six Monthes Progress of Cosme Colony’, Cosme Monthly (January 1895), p. 4. State Library of New South Wales, MS A1565. All citations from the Cosme Monthly are drawn from this archive.
31 ‘Women in Cosme’, Cosme Monthly (May 1897), p. 1. The article notes that being forced into marriage through ‘the fear of want, the lust for wealth, and the many other evils of civilization that drag marriage through the mire of the marketplace, have in Cosme no foothold, so that they whom God would join together need never keep asunder’.
32 Cosme Monthly (June 1895), p. 4.
33 ‘A Small Newspaper’, Oamaru Mail (27 November 1897), p. 1.
34 E.g. Cosme Monthly (June 1895), p. 4. It warrants noting that, though Cosme professes to ‘communism’ in principle, Marx and Engels critique the kind of utopian socialism that Lane advocated.
35 Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. xii.
36 ‘The Free-Built Homes of Cosme’, Cosme Monthly (September 1897), p. 4.
37 Felicia Hemans, ‘The Homes of England’, Blackwood’s Magazine, 21 (1827), 392.
38 Tricia Lootens, ‘Hemans and Home: Victorianism, Feminine “Internal Enemies”, and the Domestication of National Identity’, PMLA, 109:2 (1994), 248.
39 Jason Rudy, Imagined Homelands: British Poetry in the Colonies (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), pp. 59–62.
40 ‘Brotherhood and Civilisation’, Cosme Monthly (September 1897), p. 1. The reference to Abraham Lincoln’s 16 June 1858 ‘house divided’ speech warrants note.
41 Banjo Paterson, ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, Bulletin, 10 (1889), 17.
42 ‘Cosmeism’, Cosme Monthly (February 1900), pp. 1–2.
43 Cosme Monthly (February 1900), p. 2.
44 Dorothy Hewett, ‘The Journey of Henry Lawson’, Australian Left Review, 7 (1967), 34.
45 ‘The Dying Cosman’, Cosme Monthly (April 1898), p. 4.
46 Henry Lawson, ‘The Dying Stockman’, Queenslander (4 August 1894), p. 212.
47 ‘Impressions of Life in Cosme’, Cosme Monthly (October 1896), p. 4.
48 Adam Lifshey, Specters of Conquest: Indigenous Absence in Transatlantic Literatures (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), p. 1.
49 ‘I Wish I Was Back in Cosme’, Cosme Monthly (April 1898), p. 4.
50 Richard Waterhouse, ‘The Minstrel Show and Australian Culture’, Journal of Popular Culture, 24 (1990), 158.
51 David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, rev. edn (1991; London: Verso, 2007), p. 118.
52 Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 9, 67.
53 Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850, 20th anniversary edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 259.
54 W. B. Whall (ed.), Sea Songs and Shanties, 4th edn (Glasgow: James Brown, 1920), p. 120.
55 See James L. Huston, The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987); and Kenneth M. Stampp, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
56 Daniel Decateur Emmett, ‘I Wish I was in Dixie’s Land’ (New York: Firth, Pond & Co., 1860), n.p.
57 Hans Nathan, Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), p. 259.
58 Quoted in Nathan, Dan Emmett, p. 285.
59 Lott, Love and Theft, p. 6.
60 ‘Social Life’, Cosme Monthly (July 1897), p. 3.
61 Lott, Love and Theft, p. 108.
62 ‘Social Life’, Cosme Monthly (September 1896), p. 2.
63 Catherine Parr Traill, The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British North America (London: Charles Knight, 1836), p. 126. For more on British colonial land clearing, see Rudy, Imagined Homelands, pp. 119–24.
64 ‘Hoeing and Stumping’, Cosme Monthly (September 1899), p. 3.
65 C. A. White, ‘The Old Home Ain’t What It Used to Be’, in Minstrel Songs, Old and New: A Collection of World-Wide, Famous Minstrel and Plantation Songs (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1910), pp. 168–9.
66 Will S. Hays, ‘The Little Old Cabin in the Lane’, in Minstrel Songs, Old and New, pp. 6–7.
67 Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness, p. 118.
68 ‘A Paraguayan Market’, Cosme Monthly (November 1898), p. 3.
69 See Souter, A Peculiar People, Chapter 13: ‘A State of Drift’.
70 See Eugene C. Harter, The Lost Colony of the Confederacy (Oxford, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1985).
71 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in Terrell Carver and James Farr (eds), The Cambridge Companion to the Communist Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 248. Lane ended up as the pro-war editor of the conservative New Zealand Herald (est. 1863), his racism perhaps prefiguring his bourgeois conservatism.
72 ‘What Cosme Aims At’, Cosme Monthly (December 1894), p. 2.

Worlding the south

Nineteenth-century literary culture and the southern settler colonies


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