Caley's Repulse: Explorations in Desire

Article excerpt

The case of Caley's Repulse, a small cairn of loose stones near Linden on the main ridge of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, is an instructive example of how history is `made', how anticipated discovery may influence encountered reality and interpreted `truth', and how beliefs about the past become embedded in popular conceptions of local identity.

Today, the one-metre-high cairn lies almost unnoticed in an unremarkable setting of native scrub, enclosed by a galvanised pipe-rail fence and increasingly surrounded by surburbia (See Figure 1). Yet in the opening decades of the twentieth century, this unimposing relic was the object of ardent searching and subject of vigorous newspaper debates as a series of expeditions tried to locate the `true site' of an item which had frequently been mentioned in earlier historical records.

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In June 1913, Frank Walker, Australian Historical Society president, wrote to his colleague Joseph Maiden, Sydney Botanic Gardens director, that `I am practically convinced that we have run the real thing to its "lair'"(1). The language of pursuit is significant. Walker, Maiden, and others had been hunting for this historic relic for almost a decade.(2)

This article begins with an historical overview of Caley's Repulse, contextualising the site within European exploration of the Blue Mountains, outlining its attributions since `discovery' in 1813, and describing efforts made to re-locate the cairn in the early twentieth century. It then considers the motivation behind the historical society's intensive search, and examines whose desires were met by claiming ownership of Caley's Repulse and interpreting it within the earlier `first crossing' narrative of European exploration. The validity of this older narrative is also considered.

The case of Caley's Repulse is an instructive example of how history is `made', how an anticipated discovery may influence the reality that is encountered and the consequent `truth' that is interpreted, and how beliefs about the past become embedded in popular conceptions and part of local identity.

The 1813 `First Crossing', Exploration of the Mountains and George Caley

Caley's Repulse is one of several historic sites and monuments in the Blue Mountains region which are linked to older historic narratives about European exploration, discovery, possession of the country, national progress and expansion, with explorers as central heroes -- the agents of empire and transformation. The Blue Mountains were the setting for a dominant narrative of early Australian exploration, the `First Crossing of the Mountains' made by three explorers, Gregory Blaxland, Lieutenant William Lawson, and William Charles Wentworth in 1813.

The triumphal narrative of the first crossing developed in the nineteenth century, based partly upon the writings of the three explorers themselves after the 1813 expedition, and reinforced by other products such as poetry, prose and artistic representations. Ernest Favenc, who chronicled the achievements of Australian explorers in works published in 1888 and 1908,(3) refers to the mountains as `impenetrable' prior to 1813, and notes that the Blaxland-led expedition was the first to open up a route to the interior of the continent. `No longer would the mountainous barrier stand defiantly in their western path.... the way to the unknown west was now open, and rejoicingly the settlers prepared to follow on the explorer's trail'.(4)

Before the 1813 expedition, about twenty other expeditions had ventured into the Blue Mountains including Governor Phillip and Lieutenant William Dawes in the 1780s. Watkin Tench and Dawes, Captain William Patterson, John Wilson, Henry Hacking, Matthew Everingham and George Bass all made journeys into the Mountains in the 1790s. In the early 1800s expeditions were undertaken by Ensign Francis Barallier and George Caley. …