The story of Batman's treaty

The start of Batman's


Image: The top of Batman's alleged treaty.


This is the story...

I intend going ashore to-morrow morning to the camp of natives, and, if possible, shall establish a friendly intercourse with them, in order to effect a treaty for the purchase of a large portion of their fertile and hitherto useless territory.
(From John Batman’s journal, 30 May, 1835.)


John Batman sailed into Port Phillip on 29 May 1835. He was the head of an expedition sent on behalf of the Port Phillip Association – a representative body of squatters and businessmen from Van Dieman’s Land. Their aim, as spelled out by Batman in his journal, was ‘that of secretly ascertaining the general character and capabilities of Port Phillip [as yet unsettled], as a grazing and agricultural district.’*


From May 29 to June 6, Batman and his party, including five Aboriginal men from Sydney, traversed the land: first around the area where Geelong is now situated; and then North along what is now the Maribyrnong River. In his journal Batman describes observations of a clearly inhabited landscape. He mentions ‘tracks of the natives’, which he and his party regularly follow; numerous ‘village[s] of huts or gunyahs; ‘at least a dozen dams or wears’ constructed in creeks ‘for the purpose of catching fish’.


He even observes and correctly identifies the benefits of what we now know as fire-stick farming: ‘Where [grass] had been burned by these people, the young blades are from ten to twelve inches high, affording fine feed for the kangaroos and other animals.’ But while Batman clearly documented the link between the land and the subsistence of the people who already inhabited it, his view of the land was beholden to other interests. Back on board his ship after his first day ashore he reflects on the ‘softly undulating hills and plains, with the richest grass and verdure, so delightful to the eyes of the sheep farmer.’


During their sorties, Batman and his party also had numerous encounters with local Aboriginal people. By Batman’s accounts, and thanks to the help of his ‘Sydney natives’, these interactions were friendly, each one marked with an exchange of gifts or services. On May 31, Batman’s party came across a large group of Aboriginal women and children. Batman distributed ‘8 pairs of blankets, 30 handkerchiefs, 1 tomahawk, 18 necklaces of beads, 6 pounds of sugar, 12 looking glasses, and a quantity of apples.’ In exchange the women gave Batman three handmade baskets and several spears.


Early on June 6, Batman claims his party encountered an Aboriginal family - ‘one chief, his wife and three children.’ Again Batman apparently distributed gifts: ‘one pair of blankets, handkerchiefs, beads, and three pocket knives.’ In exchange for these goods, the Aboriginal man is said to have acted as a guide.


According to Batman, the guide led him to the ‘chiefs’ of the tribe whose marks allegedly appear on the treaty that Batman later used to claim an area of land on behalf of the Port Phillip Association. In exchange for ‘about 600 000 acres, more or less’, Batman parted with ‘blankets, knives, looking-glasses, tomahawks, beads, scissors, flour &c’ and in addition agreed to pay a yearly tribute or rent of quantities of similar items. After the treaty had been ‘signed’ by all parties, two of the Aboriginal men approached Batman, ‘begging [his] acceptance’ of ‘their royal mantles’, which they placed around his neck and shoulders.


According to Batman, the Aborigines ‘seemed much pleased at their share in the transaction’. Given the pattern of gift exchange already established by Batman’s earlier meetings with Aboriginal people in the area, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the Aboriginal party to read this final ‘transaction’ in a similar light. Batman’s generosity was immediately re-payed, the royal mantles completing an equitable exchange of gifts bestowing hospitality.


The local Aborigines were as unable to comprehend the idea of selling their land as Batman was of appreciating the value it held for them. The exchange that took place that day, and the ‘treaty’ that marked it, was at best the result of a cultural misunderstanding by both sides.


Inconsistencies in Batman’s accounts of how the ‘treaty’ was signed throw his claims of legitimate purchase into doubt. The story on the treaty deeds differs from the story in Batman’s journal and his report to the Van Dieman’s land Governor. Batman’s own journal describes how he actually made the chiefs ‘signatures’ on the deeds himself. So at worst, Batman’s actions on 6 June were trickery, deception and imposture. **


Four days later Batman was back in Launceston. With the help of surveyor John Helder Wedge, also of the Port Phillip Association, he soon had a map made of the Port Phillip area, showing the boundaries to the tract of land he purported to have purchased. The map is also conspicuous for the names that Batman has given to numerous mountains in the region – all bar two are named after members of the Port Phillip Association.


In August 1836, the Colonial authorities deemed Batman’s treaty invalid on the basis that the Aborigines had not settled the land, so had no title to it. The land immediately came under the jurisdiction of the Crown, making the Port Phillip Association’s claim to it defunct. They were eventually paid seven thousand pounds compensation for expenses incurred in the formation of the settlement that would become Melbourne. The people of the Kulin Aboriginal nation have to this date received no compensation.


John Batman spent the final few years of his life trying to reclaim rights to the land he claimed to have legitimately purchased. He died of syphilis on May 5, 1839.


by Mark Cunningham


* All quotes are from Batman's journal.
** Penny Van Toorn, ‘Transactions on the borderlands of Aboriginal writing’, Social Semiotics, Vol 11, No. 2, 2001.

Return to main Batman Page