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
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 (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
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
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
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".
Douta Galla Treaty is one of the prime possessions of the La
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
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
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!
Copyright © 1995 - 2007 White Hat.
||His monument at the Old Melbourne Cemetery reads as follows
BORN AT PARRAMATTA
DIED AT MELBOURNE 6TH
HE ENTERED PORT PHILLIP HEADS
AS LEADER OF AN EXHIBITION WHICH
ORGANIZED IN LAUNCESTON V.D.L.
TO FORM A SETTLEMENT
AND FOUNDED ONE
ON THE SITE OF MELBOURNE THEN
At this point, a brass plaque has been added, which
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,
LAND WAS INHABITED AND USED BY THE ABORIGINAL PEOPLE
MELBOURNE CITY COUNCIL,
(note this plaque disappeared
some time in early 2010 - presumably stolen)
The original monument then continues:
THIS MONUMENT WAS
PUBLIC SUBSCRIPTION IN
- VICTORIA -
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
CAPT. GEO. PLUMMER. LAUNCHED IN
1834, AND SOLD TO JOHN BATMAN WHO
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.
LAUNCESTON MARINE BOARD & VICTOR PLUMMER
TASMANIA'S SESQUICENTENNIAL YEAR
Some forthcoming events related to John Batman: