On this day: Batman treaty annulled

By Julian Jantos 7 November 2013
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Creating 177 years of controversy, Batman’s treaty to buy Melbourne’s land from Aboriginal people was repealed.

IN 2012, MOST MELBOURNIANS would be confused if you offered them a handful of tomahawks, a few handkerchiefs, some blankets and some scissors for their land. One hundred and seventy-seven years ago in the rough-shod days of early Australian settlement, however, they represented a princely sum. And that is exactly what settler John Batman used for currency to acquire the 250,000ha on which Melbourne and Geelong sit. 

Upon his arrival in Port Phillip, grazier and businessman John Batman met the chiefs of the Dutigall people on behalf of his settler committee, the Port Phillip Association. Believing it to be the ideal place for a new settlement, Batman negotiated the purchase of the land with eight indigenous chiefs, in exchange for 20 blankets, 30 tomahawks, 100 knives, 30 mirrors, 200 handkerchiefs, 100 pounds of flour and six shirts.

Crown repeals Batman’s treaty and claim to Melbourne

The most important outcome of this event was that Batman became the first and possibly the only early Anglo-Australian to formally recognise the indigenous Aboriginal population as property owners.

He then submitted the agreement to the state through Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur. In June 1835 he received a long-winded response which, in essence, denied his ownership of the land because he had negotiated with an indigenous tribe.

On 26 August the Governor of New South Wales, Richard Bourke, annulled the agreement and issued a proclamation that all private property agreements with the native population would be “void as against the rights of the Crown,” as negotiating for land with indigenous Australians could only legally be recognised if it was the Crown itself that purchased the property.

Modern day repercussions of the Batman treaty’s repeal

In many ways, neglecting to recognise the agreement and indigenous land ownership set a precedent that is only being patched-up now. The treaty’s abandonment “did have a cascading effect for the law’s interface with indigenous people,” says Dr Thalia Anthony, senior law lecturer on Aboriginal and Indigenous issues at University of Technology Sydney. “It [reflected] the Anglo-Australian government’s prevailing interest in Crown title and its dismissal of competing claims.”

Another point of historical contention is whether Batman fabricated the agreement to acquire the land or whether the signing actually took place, which remains unclear. However, either scenario would have created the friction over native title that has reverberated throughout Melbourne’s history.

An extreme case was the ceremonious presentation of the treaty to the Victorian Government in 1969 by the Victorian Aboriginal Advancement League (VAAL), demanding rent going back to the signing. 

Batman was portrayed by many in the state as a heroic founding father of Victoria, but tales of his less admirable swindling and womanising habits have surfaced in recent years. In the end he died of syphilis in his Collins street home in 1839.