The Upside Down Under


Melbourne, the capital of the Australian state of Victoria, was once called ‘Batmania’!

Now, I'm sure glad the name didn't stick - it just wouldn't sound right to say, "let's head into Batman for the weekend"!  And how about this for an advertising pitch, "the Australian Open Tennis Championships are held in Batman each year".  Nah, I don't think so.  But that was almost the case.  Things could've been even worse with names like Bearbrass, Bareport, Bareheep, Barehurp and Bareberp being proposed. These names are thought to have been a European take on the Indigenous name for the area – Berren or Bararing.

The exact circumstances of the foundation of Melbourne, and the question of who should take credit, have long been matters of dispute.  This said however, credit is normally given to John Batman.  In fact, for two years (from 1835 until 1837), the newly found settlement was actually named ‘Batmania’ before changing to its current Melbourne.

John Batman

In June 1835, John Batman, an Australian entrepreneur and explorer, sailed to explore the Port Phillip Bay area on the Australian mainland. When he got there, he claimed to have signed a deed with the men of the local Dutigullar tribe at Port Phillip, purchasing 500,000 acres of land – land on which to found a new colony. He specifically selected the site on the northern bank of the Yarra River, as “this was the perfect place for a village”.

John Batman
John Batman

In 1836, the city was declared the administrative capital of the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, and Governor Bourke commissioned the first plan for the city. The settlement was named Batmania after Batman. However, one year later, the colony was named ’Victoria’ after the English monarch Queen Victoria and the town ‘Melbourne’ after William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne who was Queen Victoria’s most dedicated Prime Minister.

Other famous (and infamous) exploits Batman got up to were...

John Batman statue
Statue of John Barman

Batman's Treaty

Batman's Treaty was an agreement between John Batman, an Australian grazier, businessman and explorer, and a group of Wurundjeri elders, for the purchase of land around Port Phillip, near the present site of Melbourne.

Batman signs a treaty
1880s Artist impression of Batman's Treaty being signed

He negotiated the Batman Treaty, 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 or agreed to it if they had, but, as Percival Serle wrote, "No doubt the blankets, knives, tomahawks, etc., that he gave them were very welcome". 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 arrived to settle Melbourne.

The Batman Treaty
Photo of the Batman Treaty

The document came to be known as Batman's Treaty and is also considered significant as it was the first and only documented time when Europeans negotiated their presence in,  and occupation of, Aboriginal lands directly with the traditional owners. The so-called treaty was implicitly declared void on 26 August 1835 by the Governor of New South Wales, Richard Bourke.

Disputes over the Treaty

The validity of the treaty has been widely disputed.

It is possible that the marks which Batman claimed were the signatures of the eight Wurundjeri elders were instead made by one of the five Aboriginal men he had brought with him from Parramatta, since they resemble marks commonly used by Aboriginal people from that area.

Furthermore, since neither Batman, the Sydney Aboriginal men or the Wurundjeri men spoke anything approaching the same language, it is almost certain that the elders did not understand the treaty, instead probably perceiving it as part of the series of gift exchanges which had taken place over the previous few days amounting to a tanderrum ceremony which allows temporary access to and use of the land.

In any case, the European system of understanding property was entirely alien to almost all Aboriginal peoples. Nevertheless, the treaty has been praised as the only documented attempt to reach an agreement for land use between white settlers and the local Aboriginal people. The treaty is significant more broadly as it is the first and only documented time when Europeans in Australia have negotiated their presence in and occupation of Aboriginal lands. Batman maintained until his death in 1839 that the treaty was valid.

Some historians continued to assume that the treaty was a forgery, but the recollections of the Aboriginal elder Barak, who was present at the signing of the treaty as a boy, established that Batman, with the aid of his New South Wales Aborigines, did in fact participate in a signing ceremony.

Syphilis Kills John Batman

Batman and his family eventually settled at what became known as Batman's Hill at the western end of Collins Street. He built a house at the base of the hill in April 1836. Batman's health quickly declined after 1835 as syphilis had disfigured and crippled him, and he became estranged from his wife, convict Elizabeth Callaghan. They had had seven daughters and a son. His son drowned in the Yarra River.

In his last months of his life Batman was cared for by the local Aboriginal people. On Batman's death on 6 May 1839, his widow and family moved from the house at Batman's Hill and the house was requisitioned by the government for administrative offices.

There is controversy about Batman's actual role in his dealings with Indigineous Australians .  Batman had previously held a reputation of being somewhat sympathetic to Aboriginal people in the Melbourne area because he brokered what was described as a treaty to rent their land.  But a modern audience has begun to look less than kindly on his role as colonist, including his involvement in the murder of Aboriginal people in Tasmania in the early 1800s.

The Wurundjeri Land Council have declined to comment for this story.


Exploring the forgotten city of Batmania

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