Melbourne’s Batman

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Photo: @norton_tim

An amusing photo was posted to Twitter this week of a giant billboard in suburban Melbourne captioned “Thank you Batman – David Feeney MP”. The tweet’s poster Tim Singleton Norton added “to those unaware of the name of the electorate, I’m guessing this billboard looks extremely odd.” When I appropriated the photo for my Facebook feed I added the comments “gratitude in Gotham City” and indeed, the humorous possibilities are endless. Batman, the DC Comics character, has been around since 1939 and transformed by television, cinema and video games, is now a cultural icon as probably the world’s most famous comic book superhero. Of course, David Feeney MP is not thanking the fictional Batman but the people of the Australian federal electorate of Batman, whose name predates the comic book figure.

The Division of Batman was created in 1906 and comprises mainly working class areas of north Melbourne, traditionally one of the safest Labor seats in the country. That almost changed in 2016 when Feeney survived a close challenge from the Greens. The hapless Feeney, already with an infamous reputation as one of the “Faceless Men” who unseated Kevin Rudd in 2010 did not help his own cause when he failed to declare $2.3m property on on the parliamentary register of interests. Then he was skewered in a car crash interview on Sky News, unable to answer questions on the $4.8b Schoolkids Bonus policy. The Greens beat Feeney on primary votes but with the help of Liberal preferences Feeney scraped over the line to retain the seat with a 51-49 2PP victory over the Greens. It was probably with much relief Feeney could take to the billboards proclaiming Thank You Batman oblivious to the irony of the other meaning.

Batman the electorate was named for John Batman (1801-1839), a native Vandiemenlander, and one of the original founders of white settlement in Melbourne in 1835. Batman had a mixed reputation as a likely killer of Aboriginal people in Tasmania before treating with Victorian Aborigines. Batman died of syphilis aged 38 and his early death meant there were no portraits of him in his lifetime.

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The quaker version of John Batman.

Those that survive are based on William Penn, the English quaker who founded Pennsylvania. Penn was famous for his supposed peace treaty with Delaware natives in 1683 immortalised in a Benjamin West painting “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians”. Batman was an important member of the Port Phillip Association, an informal group of well-connected Tasmanians. Their self-serving yet unique attempt to treat with the indigenous bands of Melbourne was influenced by stories of Penn’s Treaty with the Shackamaxon native Americans. The imaginary connection between the two would lead to the agreement the PPA struck with the Kulin people of Victoria being called “Batman’s Treaty“.

That was the Treaty Batman claimed he signed in 1835 with the Kulin to occupy hundreds of thousands of acres of their territory around what would become Melbourne and Geelong. According to Batman the Kulin consented to the transfer of hundreds of thousands of acres in return for “the yearly rent or tribute of one hundred pair of blankets one hundred knives one hundred tomahawks fifty suits of clothing fifty looking glasses fifty pair of scissors and five tons flour.” Though white sealers and whalers had lived independently around Port Phillip Bay since the late 18th century, the PPA’s treaty was the first formal settlement proposal and a significant threat to the 19 counties Limits of Location the British government imposed in the Sydney hinterland of New South Wales.

The Treaty was initially respected around the Port Phillip area until complicated by the arrival of a rival settlement party from Tasmania in August 1835 led by John Fawkner. In the middle of the white men’s fight, life got dangerous for the original owners. New South Wales governor Richard Bourke was also alarmed, seeking legal advice before disavowing the Treaty. It was an awkward reminder the rest of Australia was being taken up without treaties. The British view was the land belonged to the crown since Cook’s statement of possession in 1770. Though absurd to the Kulin owners, that statement was a “matter of history” and could not be contested. The Treaty was abrogated but the flow of white settlers continued into Melbourne forcing the Kulin people off their land. The significance of events was not the Treaty but that the limits of location were smashed forever. The pace of colonisation of Australia increased dramatically in the decades that followed.

John Batman would have been forgotten given his early death, but for another Tasmanian, historian James Bonwick. Bonwick was an evangelist troubled by British dispossesion of the Aboriginal people though he was more concerned by redeeming the sins of the British than upholding Aboriginal rights. He praised the short-lived Batman’s Treaty but accepted the government’s decision to abrogate it. He was more concerned about Batman’s reputation as a founder of Melbourne then he was about Kulin land claims.

Bonwick began a revisional process which saw Batman become a major historical figure, though those that promoted him glossed over the Treaty. What became more important was an entry in Batman’s diary about a trip up the river where Batman apparently exclaims “this will be a place for a village”. These words – taken out of context – would take on extraordinary significance in narratives about Melbourne. As the grandees of Melbourne celebrated the city’s 50th and then 100th birthday, they celebrated the extraordinary growth from a “village” to a great world city. For their purposes Batman took “unoccupied” lands; the Treaty forgotten as an awkward reminder the land had prior owners who were dispossessed without compensation or apology.

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The First Settlers Discover Buckley

Yet Batman’s image offered a ghostly reminder of that treaty. Artist Frederick William Woodhouse re-enacted Penn’s Treaty with the Indians in his own painting The First Settlers Discover Buckley. William Buckley was the convict who escaped the short-lived Victorian settlement of 1803 and lived with Aboriginal people for 32 years until he met the new settlers in 1835. Batman was not in that meeting but Woodhouse imagined he was and influenced by Benjamin West painted him in a Penn-style quaker necktie and hat. The image stuck and was passed on to all future depictions of Batman.

The Treaty found a new political purpose in the late 1960s when Victorian Aboriginal people led by Pastor Doug Nichols appropriated it for their needs. “The importance of the Batman Treaty lies in its explicit recognition that Aborigines did, in fact, own the land,” a supporter, Barry Pittock, wrote to The Age. Though Batman’s Treaty is not explicitly mentioned, it is probably no coincidence the 2016 Victorian government is the first Australian administration to publicly back a Treaty. “We understand that it’s not for us to decide what treaty or self-determination should look like,” Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Natalie Hutchins said. “We know that action needs to come from the Victorian Aboriginal community.” Like Feeney, she might have added, Thank You Batman.

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