17 Group discussion in May 2011

Race politics and reading practices: two as pects of the New Australia experiment.

Wide eyed romantics and a heartbreak dream
Your motives aren’t what they seem
You’ve got your feet caked in Australian mud
And you can’t deny what’s in your blood
Under Paraguay skies and the nights so cold
You can forsake your country and lose your soul
— ‘Virgin Ground’ by Red Gum

The May meeting of the 17 Group will be on Wednesday the 4th of May at 7pm in unit 6 at 20 Drury St, West End. As you probably know, after the failure of the great strikes of the early 1890s the labour movement in Australia was in crisis. One response was the formation of the ALP. But another and apparently more radical one was the formation of the New Australia Movement, in which a despondent William Lane was to lead a group of disappointed radicals in setting up a utopian socialist community in Paraguay. Mark Cryle will be talking about several important aspects of this social experiment, survivors of which still exist in Paraguay to this day.

Here is Mark’s summary of the themes of his talk:

Race politics and reading practices: two aspects of the New Australia experiment.

In July 1893 a group of colonists, led by William Lane, sailed from Sydney to establish a socialist cooperative settlement in Paraguay. In arguably Australia’s best known diaspora, approximately 500 Australians ventured to two settlements, New Australia and Cosme over the next ten years. Some stayed only a few days. The descendants of others still live there. Mark will give an account of that venture focussing on two particular aspects — the colonists’ racial attitudes and their library collection.

The constitution of Lane’s New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association articulated that membership was denied to ‘any person of colour, including any married to persons of colour’. Lane’s colonists pledged to observe this ‘colour line’. It is one expression of an international assertion of white pre-eminence and a preoccupation with white racial exclusivity evident from the mid 1880s. It is ironic that this particular crest in what has been labelled a ‘tidal wave of whiteness’, (Lake & Reynolds, Drawing the global colour line, 2008, p.2) should have swelled in Paraguay, a country whose own demographic reflected a markedly-contrasting tradition of racial hybridity.

Some years after its establishment, the Cosme settlement reported the presence of a library on their commune, ‘in a very creditable condition, being well stocked, used and looked after’. What were its origins? Which texts occupied its shelves and what role did it play in the lives of these ‘incorrigible determined readers’ (Scates, A New Australia, 1997, p.45) whose venture was, to a significant degree, the culmination of the nineteenth century radical dream? In tracing its history we gain insights into radical reading practices of the age. Their library was an institution of which the colonists were justly proud and on which they report in some detail. Its growth and demise reflect the fortunes of the colony itself.

Short biography of Mark:

Until very recently Mark Cryle was the Manager of the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland. Fryer is UQ’s special collection of Australiana and rare books. Mark has just enrolled in a PhD examining the way that Anzac Day has been interpreted in prose, poetry and drama. Mark has published research on Queensland’s Indigenous past and other aspects of Queensland’s history. He is a member of the Queensland Working Party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. He is also a musician and songwriter.

Trotsky, on a faulty line, (no joke intended), is reported to have heard “in Paraguay” instead of “about Paraguay” when his accredited Brisbane representative tried by phone to get him to come over for our discussion, and he immediately headed south from Mexico City “to be at the meeting early”, so, if doubtful points arise, we can try to get him on the very spot on his mobile. But don’t rely on your mobile. Be there!

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