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John Batman: Not the savior of Gotham but a farmer, bounty hunter, and the founder of Melbourne

Boban Docevski

Melbourne, situated in Port Phillip, southern Victoria, Australia is a prosperous city with more than 4 million inhabitants that bears the title of “the most livable city in the world.” Like many famous cities around the world that were founded in the colonial era, Melbourne has a humble but interesting beginning, closely connected with the deeds of a man with a suspicious and violent past.

Theories about who founded the city of Melbourne include several people, and many Australians have their own opinion on who did it, including John Fawkner, William Buckley, and Charles Grimes, the first man who sailed up the Yarra River. Among all of these names, there is one that is mentioned in many accounts of Australian history; John Batman. Most Australian historians consider him to be the prime candidate as the founder of Melbourne.

Batman was born on 21 January 1801 in Parramatta, New South Wales. But this is not the Batman our beloved superhero, the savior of Gotham; Bruce Wayne and John Batman have little in common besides the fact that they are both linked to a certain city. This real-life Batman has a different story and a different background that makes him more villain than hero.

John Batman

John Batman

John was born in Rosehill, Parramatta (a suburb of modern day Sydney). His father, William Batman, was a former cutter and knife grinder who became a convict after receiving stolen saltpetre. He was deported to Australia and his wife and children traveled there with him. In 1821, when John Batman turned 20, he became a farmer and decided to begin his own life on a different piece of land. He and his brother moved to Van Diemen’s Land, the island that later became known as Tasmania. Back then, Van Diemen’s Land was a new colony, so the brothers managed to obtain a huge piece of land in the northeast of the island. Their land which they named Kingston was vast but with a poor farming quality. A few years later in 1825, Batman got lucky. He stumbled upon an infamous bushranger named Matthew Brad, who was wanted by the authorities. Batman managed to capture him and as a reward he was granted more land.

Statue of John Batman at former National Mutual Plaza off Collins Street in Melbourne unveiled 26 January 1979

Statue of John Batman at former National Mutual Plaza off Collins Street in Melbourne unveiled 26 January 1979

Soon Batman became a grazier with a huge piece of land in his care. In 1829, Batman got into the terrible business of organizing manhunts during which thousands of Tasmanian natives were captured or killed. He started leading the so-called “roving parties.” Bounty hunters like Batman did a lot of harm to the native population of Tasmania. Some of them were just cruel, and others were truly ruthless. It turns out that Batman belonged to the second kind. So cruel that even the governor of Tasmania noted that Batman “had much slaughter to account for.”

Here is one instance in which Batman acted extremely cruelly toward a group of Aboriginals from the Ben Lomond district of northeast Tasmania. In September 1829 Batman and his roving party located the family group of 70 people, including women and children. Around midnight, Batman ordered his men to shoot and kill 15 of the Aboriginals. On the way back to his farm, he took two wounded aboriginal men, a woman, and her 2-year-old son. Batman mercilessly murdered the two men who couldn’t walk and later separated the boy from his mother. She was sent to prison and he kept the boy, allegedly to “take care of him and make him into a man.”

1880s Artist impression of Batman’s Treaty being signed

1880s Artist impression of Batman’s Treaty being signed

Batman became even more popular in the eyes of the government during the infamous Black War (1830), during which the settlers formed a “Black Line” across Tasmania. The Black Line was a chain of armed colonists that was made to chase away or kill all of the Aboriginal Australians that were outside of the manageable area.

By 1835 the land he already owned wasn’t enough. Batman sought more. He became very interested in land in the Western Port area, but the New South Wales colonial government refused to give him any. Despite the refusal, Batman was determined to have the land that he desired. In 1835 he founded the Port Phillip Association with a group of enthusiastic colonists. They set sail for mainland Australia and explored almost the whole area of Port Phillip. It is during this expedition that the colony which became Melbourne was determined.

Port Phillip area in 1839. Author: Stephen Bain CC BY-SA 3.0

Port Phillip area in 1839. Author: Stephen Bain CC BY-SA 3.0

Today, there is a huge debate about the exact story of how Melbourne was born. According to Batman’s writings in his diary, his boat went up the Yarra River on June 8, 1835. He and his companions determined that the water was deep for about six miles upstream. Batman then wrote the following: “This will be the place for a village. The natives on shore.” He named this location Batmania. Although Batman wrote that he visited the location, scholars today are in doubt whether he visited the new village at the moment when it was founded. Some scholars think that there were already Aboriginal Australians living close to the place that Batman chose for the new colony. Also, it is a fact that Batman wasn’t the first to explore Port Phillip. It was previously visited by many British explorers.

Melbourne, 1840: picture by W. Liardet (1840)

Melbourne, 1840: picture by W. Liardet (1840)

In order to somehow claim the desired land in Port Phillip, Batman had to make a deal with the local people. He met with the Wurundjeri people (the natives living around modern day Central Victoria) in June 1835 near Northcote, which is a suburb of Melbourne today. The treaty for the land was handwritten by Batman himself on a parchment that is today kept in the National Museum of Australia. In the contract it is stated that the natives are willing to lease 500,000 acres of the land in Port Phillip for a yearly rent of “20 blankets, 30 tomahawks, 100 knives/scissors, 30 mirrors, 200 handkerchiefs, 100 pounds of flour and six shirts.” Although the deal is clear and written in a manner that is understandable for most Europeans at the time, it is highly possible that the Kulin people didn’t have a clue that they actually agreed to give away their land. The treaty was signed by the tribal chiefs. They signed it with some undefined symbols. Some historians claim that the same or similar symbols can be found in Batman’s diary.

The historical monument marking where Batman landed at Indented Head in 1835.

The historical monument marking where Batman landed at Indented Head in 1835.

Although Batman managed to “get” the land from the natives, the Crown seemed to think otherwise. Governor Richard Bourke, the governor of New South Wales at the time, proclaimed that the treaty is not valid because that land belonged to the Crown and not to the native population.

Unfortunately for the Crown, Batman was already back in Tasmania, describing the riches of his new land and motivating people to settle there. Very soon, Victoria was overwhelmed with new settlers, and the governor couldn’t stop the colonization of the region. After a while, Batman took his family and moved there himself. He made a house at a place he named Batman Hill (this place in Melbourne is now called Batman’s Hill Drive). He spent his last days here, spending all that he earned on a lavish lifestyle and he eventually died of syphilis when he was 38.

A roadsign for Batman Avenue in Melbourne. Author: SuperJew CC BY-SA 4.0

A roadsign for Batman Avenue in Melbourne. Author: SuperJew CC BY-SA 4.0

Batmania, the name Batman chose for his colony, was soon replaced by the Queen of England. She decided that the new city should be named after Lord Melbourne, her friend and advisor. In 1837, the small city became known as Melbourne.

For many years, Batman was considered one of the first colonists who was kind and good with the natives in Australia, mainly because of his deal in Port Phillip where he recognized the Aboriginals as rightful owners of the land. This was the case until facts about his darker dealings with those people surfaced. It turned out that Batman was no different than other aggressive colonists who did a lot of harm to people. Once Batman and the people that were inspired by him to populate Port Phillip came, the Wurundjeri realized that they made a mistake, but it was too late.

Read another story from us: Thomas Hooker: preacher, populist, and founder of the Connecticut Colony

Recently, the City of Darebin in the northern suburbs of Melbourne decided to ask the Australian Electoral Commission to change the name of the electoral division in which they belong. One of the representatives of the City of Darebin council stated that the division should be named after somebody more appropriate, not after a historical figure like Batman.