On this day: John Batman’s birthday

By Anne Johnston 20 January 2016
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John Batman is famous for offering to pay rent to traditional owners and naming the Melbourne-area Batmania for 81 days.

TODAY, JOHN BATMAN is one of the most controversial figures in Melbourne’s history. In 1835 he signed a treaty with the indigenous people of Port Phillip, and in that way acknowledged their ownership of that land. However his treaty also ushered in an era of further European settlement under the terra nullius doctrine. 

Batman was born on 21 January 1801 in Parramatta, New South Wales.

His father, William Batman, was a cutter and grinder of knives before becoming a convict for receiving stolen minerals. His mother quickly paid her way to Australia, following William to NSW where their children would be born.

Batman became a farmer, before moving to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) with his brother to raise sheep and cattle. Once there, he accumulated wealth and land.

However, his gaze turned across the water to the gentler landscape around today’s Port Phillip Bay in Victoria, around which the 4 million-strong city of Melbourne has grown.

Batman’s controversial treaty

In January 1827, John Batman wrote to the NSW Governor, Sir Ralph Darling, asking for land in Port Phillip. At the time, Darling was attempting to limit population in Victoria because of an uncontrollable influx of squatters, and he rejected Batman’s application.

Undeterred, in 1835 Batman sailed with a small group to Victoria. While exploring there he came across a group of Aboriginal people, most likely thought to be the ancestors of Woi wurrung people of the Kulin nation.

Batman claims to have met with six Aboriginal ‘chiefs’ on 6 June 1835 in a clearing of land by the Merri Creek, which now runs through the north of Melbourne, where they agreed on a price to rent the land. The exact location of this agreement isn’t known, but historians now believe it may have taken place in the modern-day suburb of Northcote.

Batman drew up his treaty on a piece of parchment that is now in the National Museum of Australia. In it, he offered a yearly rent of 20 blankets, 30 tomahawks, 100 knives/scissors, 30 mirrors, 200 handkerchiefs, 100 pounds of flour and six shirts in exchange for over 200,000ha of land.

Batman treaty 

This copy of the Batman Treaty, also called the Dutigullar Deed or Treaty (spelling various) is held at the National Museum of Australia (NMA). (Credit: George Serras/NMA).

The chiefs appear to have signed the treaty with squiggly symbols, however, some historians have noted they look suspiciously similar to markings later found in Batman’s diary.

Batman promptly named the land Batmania. However, news of this transaction travelled to the new NSW Governor Sir Richard Bourke and 81 days after the treaty was signed, Bourke deemed it invalid.

Prompted by Batman’s move, Bourke proclaimed that under terra nullius indigenous people were not recognised as owning the land, and therefore the Crown claimed ownership of the area. His proclamation in October was one of the most forceful expressions of the idea of terra nullius at the time.  

Batman had by that point returned to Van Diemen’s Land boasting of the rivers and the land he had found. People soon flocked to Victoria and eventually there was nothing Governor Bourke could do to stop them from creating settlements. Batman and his family also returned, but had to buy land like everyone else. They set up a property called Batman Hill. Batman’s Hill Drive in Melbourne today marks where his property stood.

Fatefully, John Batman squandered his wealth trying to create a lavish lifestyle and died of syphilis at the age of 38.

And as for the name change, Queen Victoria decided against Batmania in favour of naming the city after Lord Melbourne in 1837, a close friend and mentor of hers.

John Batman: Hero or villain?

In some ways Batman is seen as one of the first colonists to treat Aboriginal people with enough respect to acknowledge their ownership of land.

On the other hand, some experts say Batman most likely took advantage of the Woi wurrung, who were probably unaware of the full consequences of the treaty.

Nonetheless, the rent Batman offered would have been a significant amount for anyone from that time, says Nicholas Clements, honorary research associate at the University of Tasmania. However, he says, the indigenous group may not have recognised it as an exchange for their land but rather a gift offering, something that was common between colonists and Aboriginal people at the time.

Dr Joanna Cruickshank, a historian at Deakin University in Melbourne, says Batman was a complex man, and of his time with regards to his dealing with indigenous people.

But she says that when he struck the deal with the Woi wurrung he was probably not intending to be either caring or aggressive, but was probably just been acting on an opportunity to make a living off some prime land.

About Melbourne 

  • While Canberra was being built, Melbourne was the capital of Australia from 1901 to 1927. 
  • There were several names before Melbourne was officially decided on – Batmania, Bearbrass, Bareport, Bareheep, Barehurp and Bareberp. Other than Batmania they are thought to have been based around the Aboriginal name for that land called Berren or Bararing.
  • Melbourne was named Melbourne in 1837. The first census on 12 September 1838 showed Melbourne’s population of settlers was 1,036 with almost twice as many males as females.
  • The famous street grids were laid in 1837, planned by Robert Hoddle and Governor Bourke. The streets from West to East read King, William, Queen, Elizabeth
  • NSW Governor Bourke insisted that every second street be ‘little’ streets. Although this caused many disagreements between Hoddle and Bourke and proved to be very inconvenient at the time, Melbourne is now renowned for having a laneway culture.