The cairns celebrate ‘cultural imperialism’

Geoff Ellis, Harmers Haven


“THEY have a title to her citizenship which makes an impertinence of the thought of restricting their ambitions.” – Letter to the editor of The Argus, 1927.

In the mid-1920s the self-appointed Victorian Historical Memorials Committee decided to glorify Angus McMillan and Paul de Strzelecki with a chain of historical cairns across Gippsland.

According to historian Tom Griffiths, “The cairns were intended to define a local geography bound to the colonial era”.

The committee believed that the landscape lacked markers of the past.

They wanted to direct historical thought toward events they believed had shaped modern Australia (Griffiths: Hunters and Collectors).

The Melbourne-based committee directed the design and placement of the cairns and then asked local groups for financial and organisational support.

Enthusiasm for the cairns was not universal.

Initially residents of Sale were indifferent.

The Maffra Shire council supported the committee, though the people of Maffra preferred to spend the money on public seating.

In some places patriotic locals took over the design process.

The Mirboo North effort sprouted electric globes.

The Corinella cairn, dedicated to Strzelecki, was amended to recognise a First Nations man, Tarra, who had saved Strzelecki and his men from starvation.

In April 1927, the committee and the Governor, Lord Somers, toured Gippsland to unveil the cairns.

This provided a platform for Somers to lecture on imperial loyalty.

Having only arrived in Victoria a year earlier to accept the appointment as Governor, he called on Victorians to acknowledge a debt to explorers who had “won” the country.

Committee member Barrett and Governor Somers argued that McMillan was not an Australian bushman but a Scot, and therefore the link between modern Australia and Britain.

The Union Jack flew proudly over the monuments when they were unveiled, in further inference that we were a colonial possession of His Majesty, King George.

The message these cairns send is a celebration of cultural imperialism 1927, not exploration.