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John Batman - statue
Statue of John Batman

John Batman
Pioneer
21 January 1801 6 May 1839

John Batman had the potential to become one of the more revered names in Australian history. He is the only native-born Australian to found a state capital city. He spoke Aboriginal languages and was one of the few people of his time to attempt to compensate Aborigines for the use of their land. In fact, had things turned out differently, Melbourne might now be known by one the names proposed early in its settlement - Batmania!

You can find numbers of two dimensional descriptions of him - some depicting him as a hero, others as a villain. However, he was a complex man in complex times. For those interested in gaining a deeper knowledge of the man White Hat would recommend reading one of his more recent biographies.

Batman's father was transported to Australia as a receiver of stolen goods, and John Batman was born in Sydney. It was there that he gained some skills as a bushman and a certain rapport with local Aborigines.

He sailed for Tasmania (Van Diemen's Land) in 1821. There he received a grant of land, which, through additional purchases he progressively expanded. During this time he had 'married' a convict name Elizabeth Callaghan. Whether they were ever 'officially' married, and whether Elizabeth was ever 'officially' released from her convict status are matters of conjecture.

With the 'Aboriginal Wars' of Tasmania, Batman became involved in the 'final solution' of forming a line across the island to drive certain of the the Aboriginals into a 'manageable' area. Although some of Batman's motivations may have been humane, the results were far from humane, and Batman's involvement with this dark episode in Australian history must influence our attitude towards him today. However, rather than than taking a simplistic approach to a complex situation, it is worth learning more about the issues involved from a book such as Batman and the Aborigines.

Batman had applied for land in the Westernport area of what is now called Victoria, .but no land was granted. With a small group of entrepreneurs he formed the Port Philip Association. In 1835 he sailed to the mainland and explored an extensive area around Port Phillip Bay and the Yarra River. (Part of the area had already been explored by Charles Grimes' party in 1803.) Twice he made a 'treaty' with the local Aborigines to lease land in return for a quantity of tomahawks, blankets, knives flour etc as annual rental. This crude quasi-legal document was soon overturned by the colonial authorities

Batman's Treaty

Batman's treaty (there were actually two separate treaties, but both were similar in nature) with the local Aborigines is a remarkable event in Australian history. Batman is practically the only white man in the 19th century to acknowledge that Aborigines owned land. Furthermore, he undertook not to buy it from them but to pay an annual rental of what was then not an inconsiderable amount of food and goods. Whether this was done in the proper way and for a fair amount is highly questionable, but it contrasts strongly with virtually all other acts of Australian settlement in the 19th century which involved no acknowledgement of ownership, no rental and a straightforward taking of the land.
However, this attempt to 'do the right thing' was to haunt him both before and after his death right down to the present day.
Some of the repercussions include:
The colonial authorities in New South Wales soon overthrew the agreement because Batman could not lease land from the Aborigines, it belonged to "The Crown".
Even after his death, his monument (see below) was to mock his idea that Aborigines had rights to the land by declaring that at the time of his arrival, Melbourne was "then unoccupied".
It is still common to find publications that use a subtractive myth to pass Batman and his treaty off as purely villainous.
Batman's Treaty has become a particularly fashionable subject for a certain type of 'conceptual artist' with a limited but passionate view of history ln order to express their view about what they've been told about Australian history. A major example can be found at Melbourne Museum.
It has become common in recent times for people who value political correctness above historical correctness to state or write (or even teach) things such as "Batman bought land from the Aborigines for a handful of trinkets".
Batman's Douta Galla Treaty is one of the prime possessions of the La Trobe Library 

Batman left a small party behind while he sailed back to Launceston in the Rebecca to make arrangements for stocking the settlement. At this point, his life looked rosy. He was, to his estimation, one of the richest landowners in the world. He felt he had rights to some of the best and richest grazing land that was to be had in Australia, and he was set to succeed where numbers of government attempts at settlements had failed. He had even noted "a place for a village".

But then it all started to unravel as he lost his health, his land, his wife, his only son and his own life.

By the time that Batman returned, a rival party was set up on the other bank of the Yarra and an uneasy standoff had developed. This party had been organised by little Johnny Fawkner, a Launceston publican. Fawkner was to remain Batman's nemesis and in the end Fawkner had much more influence on the development of Melbourne than did Batman.

The authorities declared that Batman's treaties were invalid, and that Batman was not legally renting the land. He and other members of the Port Phillip Association were given some monetary compensation for their expenses, to be credited against purchases of land from the 'the true owner' - not the local Aborigines but the "Crown".

His wife, who had borne him seven daughters and one son, left him to live with one of his leading hands. She ended up being murdered in Geelong under unusual circumstances - but that is another story.

His son drowned in the Yarra whilst fishing on the falls, so there was no male heir to carry on the Batman name

Batman had been diagnosed with syphilis in 1833 (was it contracted from his wife or elsewhere?) which progressively disfigured his face and left him unable to walk. It was indeed a sorry sight to see the man who laid claim to the foundation of the European settlement of Melbourne being wheeled around in a bath chair, his nose partly eaten away by disease. As a child he had played with Aboriginal friends near Sydney. He was now tended by Aboriginal companions in his dying months, He died in 1839.

There are a number of reminders of John Batman around present day Melbourne. There is a statue in the forecourt on the old Western Market site (but, please ignore the 'official' version of his background provided there by the Melbourne City Council). A delightfully whimsical statue of Three Businessmen who brought their lunch (Batman, Swanston & Hoddle), can be found in the centre of the city. There is also a monument near his original burial site at the Old Melbourne Cemetery (see below). All around Melbourne, various public places are named after him - Batman Avenue, Batman Park, etc.. However, Batman Hill (the site of his first Melbourne home) no longer exists - it has long since been levelled. There is a plaque on a prominent Melbourne building informing the public that John Batman had originally purchased this site for 100 pounds. If you are interested in these sites and monuments, ask a White Hat Accredited guide to point them out to you.

John Batman's final indignity occurred when he was exhumed from his grave in the Old Melbourne Cemetery and re-buried in the cemetery named after his arch rival - Fawkner Cemetery. He would have hated that!

 

BL

Copyright 1995 - 2007 White Hat.

John Batman monumentHis monument at the Old Melbourne Cemetery reads as follows

JOHN BATMAN
BORN AT PARRAMATTA N.S.W. 1800
DIED AT MELBOURNE 6TH MAY 1839
HE ENTERED PORT PHILLIP HEADS
29TH MAY 1835
AS LEADER OF AN EXHIBITION WHICH
HE HAD ORGANIZED IN LAUNCESTON V.D.L.
TO FORM A SETTLEMENT AND FOUNDED ONE
ON THE SITE OF MELBOURNE THEN UNOCCUPIED

At this point, a brass plaque has been added, which reads:

WHEN THE MONUMENT WAS ERECTED IN 1881 THE COLONY
CONSIDERED THAT THE ABORIGINAL PEOPLE DID NOT OCCUPY LAND.
IT IS NOW CLEAR THAT PRIOR TO THE COLONISATION OF VICTORIA,
THE LAND WAS INHABITED AND USED BY THE ABORIGINAL PEOPLE

MELBOURNE CITY COUNCIL, 1992

(note this plaque disappeared some time in early 2010 - presumably stolen)

The original monument then continues:

THIS MONUMENT WAS
ERECTED
BY PUBLIC SUBSCRIPTION IN
- VICTORIA -
1881.
CIRCUMSPICE

 

Launch site of the Rebecca
The site on the Tamar River
near Launceston where the
Rebecca was built and launched

The nearby monument reads:

ON THIS SITE THE SCHOONER REBECCA WAS
BUILT BY CAPT. GEO. PLUMMER. LAUNCHED IN
1834, AND SOLD TO JOHN BATMAN WHO SAIL-
ED IN HER TO VICTORIA AND FOUNDED
MELBOURNE IN MARCH 1835. ERECTED BY MEM-
BERS OF THE PLUMMER FAMILY IN CONJUNCTION
WITH THE NORTHERN ROYAL SOCIETY AND UN-
VEILED BY WM. HART ESQ. MASTER WARDEN
LAUNCESTON MARINE BOARD & VICTOR PLUMMER
ESQ. IN TASMANIA'S SESQUICENTENNIAL YEAR
-1954-

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