LANE, WILLIAM (1861–1917)
The ideological founder of the 1890s Australian socialist experiment in Paraguay, William Lane was a newspaperman most of his life. He was born in England and moved to Canada at the age of 16. He began as a ‘printer’s devil’, and by 20 was a reporter on a Detroit newspaper, married to a fellow staff member, Anne Macquire.
The eight years Lane spent in North America—1877 to 1885—were crucial formative ones, in which he found his journalism vocation. He witnessed the suppression of a wave of general strikes and the growth of hundreds of communal ventures, so shaping his thinking as a socialist and a communitarian.
When the Lane family sailed for Australia in 1885, he nurtured a vision of a cooperative society. In Brisbane, he helped to found, and wrote for, the Boomerang (1887–92). Lane’s racist editorials warned that Australia’s glorious future could be blighted by descending Asian hordes.
In 1890, he convinced the Australian Labour Federation to finance the Queensland Worker, aimed at trade unionists. It was a platform to reach his ideal recruits: the bushmen of the frontier. Union subscriptions soon delivered a readership of 20,000. Unionists’ wives read the pioneering ‘women’s column’, written by Lane under the pseudonym ‘Lucinda Sharpe’, although Anne contributed.
Lane’s editorials were at their most fiery during the Queensland Shearers’ Strike of 1891. He visited the men in the strikers’ camps and wrote that if the ballot was refused them, ‘then we shall have full justification for any action we may adopt, even if that action is revolution’. He commissioned a poem from Henry Lawson, who warned: ‘They needn’t say the fault was ours/ If blood should stain the wattle’.
The main shearers’ camp at Barcaldine became the focus for the struggle, and southern newspapers sent ‘war correspondents’. When the strike ultimately failed in May, with 14 strike leaders put on trial, Lane wrote in the Worker ‘how useless it is to ever think of working together, capitalist and labourer, for the settlement of our social troubles’.
Early in 1892, he left the Worker to become a full-time organiser for the colony of ‘mates’ he envisioned in South America, and set up a recruiting journal, New Australia (1892–94). On 16 July 1893, Lane and 199 intending communards sailed for Paraguay.
However, disputes soon erupted over alcohol and inter-racial fraternising. After the first colony broke up in early 1894, Lane led 63 faithful followers to an even more remote location they called Colonia Cosme, and established another recruiting journal, the Cosme Monthly (1894–1904).
On 2 August 1899, a bitter and disillusioned William Lane left Paraguay with his wife and children. He moved to Auckland and became a journalist on the conservative New Zealand Herald. He was appointed editor and in his editorials fostered racial hatred and the British imperialist cause. Lane died on 26 August 1917.
REF: A. Whitehead, Paradise Mislaid (1997).