John Batman (1797-1868), pastoralist
John Batman (21 January 1801 – 6 May 1839) was an Australian grazier, entrepreneur and explorer, best known for his role in the founding of Melbourne.
Born and raised in the then-British colony of New South Wales, Batman settled in Van Diemen's Land (modern-day Tasmania) in the 1820s, where he rose to prominence for hunting bushrangers and as a participant in the Black War. He later co-founded the Port Phillip Association and led an expedition which explored the Port Phillip area on the Australian mainland with the goal of establishing a new settlement.
In 1835, Batman negotiated a treaty with local Aboriginal peoples by offering them tools, blankets and food in exchange for thousands of hectares of land. The treaty resulted in the founding of Batmania, a settlement on the Yarra River which became Melbourne, eventual capital of Victoria and one of Australia's largest and most important cities. Batman moved there with his convict wife, Elizabeth Callaghan, and their seven daughters, settling on what is now known as Batman's Hill. He died of syphilis shortly afterwards at the age of 38.
Batman's Treaty was a matter of controversy in his day, and the colonial government in New South Wales refused to recognise it as legitimate. Although his proposed transaction was exploitative, Batman's treaty stands as the only attempt by a European to engage Australian Aboriginal people in a treaty or transaction rather than simply claiming land outright. It remains an event of great historical interest and debate.
John Batman's English parents, William and Mary Bat(e)man, came to Sydney in 1797 aboard the ship the Ganges. William had been transported to the colony of New South Wales for receiving stolen saltpetre (a precursor ingredient for making gunpowder), but Mary accompanied him as a free passenger, along with their children Maria and Robert. John, the couple's second son, was born on January 21, 1801 at Rosehill, Parramatta, now a suburb of Sydney, but at the time one of the early farming settlements of the fledgling colony.
After obtaining his ticket-of-leave, William started a timber-yard business that prospered, and he owned several properties and the licence for the Duke of Wellington hotel in Church Street, Paramatta. In 1810, William had changed the family's surname from Bateman, perhaps to avoid convict stigma. William died in 1834, and Mary in 1840.
John (age 20) and his younger brother Henry journeyed to Van Diemen's Land in 1821. He soon acquired Kingston, a rural property in the north-east near Ben Lomond, and in 1826, captured the notorious cannibal bushranger Thomas Jeffries and later on fellow bushranger Matthew Brady, resulting in an additional grant of land by the government.
Brady had been wounded in the leg in a conflict with the authorities, but got away safely. Batman went out unarmed on his own in search of Brady, and found him quite accidentally. He saw a man limping in the bush near a shallow creek, and hastened forward to him. It was Brady. He induced Brady to surrender and return with him. The outlaw was ill and suffering much pain, and did as he was asked. Brady was duly handed over to authorities at Launceston Gaol. Both Jeffries and Brady were sentenced to death. They both hanged together on the gallows in Hobart.
Batman rose to prominence during the time of the Black War of 1830 (then aged 29), during which he participated in the Black Line – the formation of a "human chain" across the island to drive Tasmanian Aborigines from their lands into a 'manageable' area. In February 1830, Batman wrote to the British Colonial Secretary, John Burnett, about his difficulty in 'coming up' with [i.e., capturing] the Tasmanian Aborigines. In the same letter, in explaining his difficulty in capturing Tasmanians in the bush, he asked "...if he could follow known [Aboriginal] offenders once they had made it 'to their own ground'.
Batman participated in the capture of Tasmanian Aborigines in 1829. He employed mainland Aboriginal people hired in Sydney, New South Wales, for 'roving parties' hunting Tasmanians. Between 1828 and 1830, Tasmanians in this region were shot or rounded up by bounty hunters like Batman.
As Tasmanian Colonial Governor, George Arthur, observed, Batman "...had much slaughter to account for". Closer examination of this quote from Governor Arthur reveals a more complex picture of Batman's motives and actions on behalf of the government in these so-called "roving parties". For example, in September 1829, Batman (aged 28), with the assistance of several "Sydney blacks" he brought to Tasmania, led an attack on an Aboriginal family group together numbering 60–70 men, women and children in the Ben Lomond district of north-east Tasmania. Waiting until 11pm that night before attacking, he " ... ordered the men to fire upon them...". As their 40-odd dogs raised the alarm, the Aboriginal people ran away into thick scrub, but not after 15 of their number were killed.
The next morning, Batman left the place for his farm, with two badly wounded Tasmanian men, a woman and her two-year-old boy, all of whom he captured. However, he "...found it impossible that the two former [the men] could walk, and after trying them by every means in my power, for some time, found I could not get them on I was obliged to shoot them." The captured woman, named Luggenemenener, was later sent to Campbell Town gaol and separated from her two-year-old son, Rolepana (aka Benny Ben Lomond) , "...whom she had faced death to protect." Batman reported afterwards to British Colonial Secretary, John Burnett, in a letter of 7 September 1829, that he kept the child because he wanted "...to rear it...". Luggenemenener died on 21 March 1837 as an inmate at the Flinders Island settlement.
In 1835, Rolepana, now 8 years, travelled with Batman to Port Phillip as part of the founding party of Melbourne. After Batman's death 4 years later, Rolepana was employed by colonist George Ware at 12 Pounds a year with Board. He died in Melbourne in 1842, age 15.
Batman had openly defied Governor Arthur and [George Augustus] Robinson by refusing to hand over the two Aboriginal boys in his employ: Rolepana and Lurnerminer (John or Jack Allen). He claimed the boys were there with the consent of their parents. He effectively claimed ownership of the boys when he told Robinson they were 'as much his property as his farm and that he had as much right to keep them as the government'. Indeed Batman was convinced that the best plan was to leave the children with the colonists, who clothed and fed them at no expense to the government and raised them to become 'useful members of society'. In a series of letters to Governor Arthur, he 'pleaded hard for the retention of youths educated by settlers and devoted to their service'.
The 19th-century artist and Batman's neighbour in Van Diemen's Land, John Glover, captioned one of his Tasmanian paintings Batman's Lookout, Benn Lomond (1835): "... on account of Mr Batman frequenting this spot to entrap the Natives." Glover described Batman as "a rogue, thief, cheat and liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known".
By 1835, Batman's property, "...Kingston [near Ben Lomond], covered more than 7,000 acres (2,800 ha), had appropriate animals and buildings, and numerous hands; but it was too rugged to be highly productive." Consequently, Batman sought land grants in the Western Port area, but the New South Wales colonial authorities rejected this. So, in 1835, as the founder and agent for the Port Phillip Association which aimed to develop the Port Phillip area, he sailed for the mainland in the schooner Rebecca and explored much of Port Phillip. When he found the current site of central Melbourne, he noted in his diary of 8 June 1835, "This will be the place for a village." and declared the land "Batmania".
In the same year, John Pascoe Fawkner (1782–1869) led a rival party out of Launceston also seeking to settle the Port Phillip area. Fawkner acquired the Enterprise and after a couple of false starts left in September with stores for his new settlement on the Yarra.
Illustration of Batman making a treaty with the Port Phillip aborigines
Batman wrote in his diary on Monday, 8 June 1835 that ".. the boat went up the river I have spoken of, which comes from the east, and I am glad to state, about six miles up found the river all good water and very deep. This will be the place for a village. The natives on shore." The previous day Batman and his party had returned from their meeting with the Kulin Elders along the hills bordering the northern banks of the Yarra. It remains quite unclear whether the party saw the 'place for a village' by the 'Falls' – a long used homesite for the local peoples, and similarly unclear whether Batman was in the boat that explored the Yarra on the 8th. But the site has already been noted for its virtues by numerous Britons including John Helder Wedge and Batman's Parramatta friend Hamilton Hume."
Batman negotiated a treaty (now known as Batman's Treaty but also known as the Dutigulla Treaty, Dutigulla Deed, Melbourne Treaty or Melbourne Deed), with Kulin peoples to rent their land on an annual basis for 40 blankets, 30 axes, 100 knives, 50 scissors, 30 mirrors, 200 handkerchiefs, 100 pounds of flour and 6 shirts. It is unlikely that Kulin people would have understood this as a transfer of land and would not have agreed to it if they had". In any case, Governor Bourke deemed such a treaty invalid as the land was claimed by the Crown rather than the Kulin peoples, and other colonists including the rival party of John Pascoe Fawkner had also arrived to settle Melbourne.
Batman and his family settled at what became known as Batman's Hill at the western end of Collins Street. He had sold his property Kingston in Tasmania and brought his wife, former convict Elizabeth Callaghan, and their seven daughters to Port Phillip. He built a house at the base of the hill in April 1836. His son, John, was born in November 1837.
However, Batman's health was in decline, having contracted syphilis in the brothels of Van Diemens Land. It disfigured and crippled him, leaving him in constant pain. By the end of 1837 he was unable to walk and was forced to give up squatting and moved into trading and investment, but he greatly overstretched his finances and was left vulnerable by his reliance on delegating work to others. The disease eroded his nose, forcing him to wear a bandage to conceal his ruined face, and he became estranged from his wife. In his last months of his life Batman was cared for by his Aboriginal servants, who carried him around in a wicker perambulator.
Following his death on 6 May 1839, Batman's widow Eliza and family moved from the house at Batman's Hill and the house was requisitioned by the government for administrative offices. Batman's will, made in 1837, was out of date at the time of his death as many of the assets bequeathed to his children had already been sold. Years of legal wrangling followed, led by Eliza, who had remarried in 1841 to Batman's former clerk, William Willoughby, and had only been left £5 in the will by her embittered first husband. The case dragged on, even after Batman's heir-at-law, his son John, drowned in the Yarra River in 1845, and its costs absorbed what was left of Batman's estate.
Batman was buried in the Old Melbourne Cemetery but was exhumed and re-buried in the Fawkner Cemetery, which is named after his fellow colonist (and rival), John Pascoe Fawkner. A bluestone obelisk was constructed in 1922 which was later moved to Batman Avenue before being returned to the Queen Victoria Market site in 1992. The obelisk is inscribed with the Latin "circumspice" meaning "look around", the entire city of Melbourne being his legacy. The obelisk also states that Melbourne was "unoccupied" prior to John Batman's arrival in 1835.
Not surprisingly, Batman's legacy has been challenged in recent years, and most criticism has focused on his killings of Indigenous people in Tasmania. In 2016, Darebin Council voted unanimously to change the name of Batman Park in Northcote. It is now called Gumbri Park, after Gumbri (Jessie Hunter), great-niece of Wurundjeri leader William Barak and the last girl born on the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve in Healesville.
In 2017, artist Ben Quilty called for Batman's statue to be removed from the Melbourne CBD, describing him as a mass murderer who "makes the American Confederates look friendly" and adding that "changing the inscription [on his statue] to 'mass murderer' might slightly appease my sense of justice."