The story of Batman's treaty
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
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.
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