As was custom, before my colleague Jon finished working with us he made a contribution to the wall of ‘Favourite characters in Victoria’s history’. Not like these new fandangled Facebook walls, this was an old-school coloured paper and blu-tack job, with an envelope of slips waiting to be filled out when new characters were discovered. Some were serious, others not so much. Jon’s was titled ‘John Batman’ and began a little something like this:
“After witnessing the shock death of his parents at the hands of a mugger, J.B. vowed to avenge them by fighting crime and subsequently moved to mainland Australia from Launceston in 1835. Living in what is now known as Melbourne, he established a secret headquarters in the caves underneath the Flagstaff Gardens, keeping the citizens of the city safe from harm.”
Whilst not entirely accurate, it paints a comical (pardon the pun) picture of the man who Melbourne was almost named after. The real Batman’s life, however, is interesting enough that it doesn’t need embellishment to still be a good story.
John Batman did indeed live in Launceston, but he was born in Parramatta, New South Wales in 1801. Some reports suggest that he left Parramatta after a scandalous affair with a young orphan woman, which resulted in her becoming pregnant. No-one has yet come forward claiming to be a descendant of John Batman’s love child, unlike Ned Kelly, whose supposed descendants seem to comprise half the population of Victoria.
Batman made a living in Van Diemen’s land as a grazier, and when the possibility of finding new pastures on the mainland was floated, he jumped at the opportunity. Heading up the Port Phillip Association, Batman went ashore at Indented Head and through somewhat dodgy dealings claimed a good 240,000 hectares of land from people he believed to be the owners.
The story of the Batman Treaties is an interesting tale within itself. Even if Batman was looking to make a fairer, and more legal, transaction than some of the colonists in previous settlements, it’s pretty safe to say that by handing over some looking glasses and bags of sugar in exchange for a whole whack of land someone was going to get stooged.
One of the best things about the Batman Treaties is that, even though they (legally) weren’t worth the paper they were scripted on, they have survived to paint a picture of what Batman was trying to do. Likewise, his journal lives on in all its glory at the State Library of Victoria. In it, he makes many observations about the weather at sea and the local wildlife onshore and remarks, unsurprisingly, that the Indigenous children seemed, “dreadfully afraitted by the discharge of a Gun, and all of them dropped down immediately.” No shit, Batman, I’m sure I would have done the same.
It has been suggested that Batman was chosen to be the leader of the party arriving in Port Phillip because his syphilitic brain gifted him with a diminished sense of fear, and just enough crazy to think it was a good idea. He lived an extravagant lifestyle, and managed to put enough people offside in his lifetime that he was hardly honoured in death – he may have scored Batman Avenue, but there was no
way he was getting a look in for the main streets making up Hoddle’s grid in the CBD.
Batman’s legacy was a sad one in the end, with most of his assets being sold off to pay his debts. He died alone in his house on Batman’s Hill (near where Southern Cross station stands today) on 6 May 1839.
There are no photographs of John Batman in existence, which is probably just as well given that his nose fell off in the end. He fathered eight children with his wife, Eliza, although she was said to have run off with a storeman once Batman’s health (and face) deteriorated. There is a contemporary sketch of him which does make him appear quite handsome, but let’s face it – he’s no Bruce Wayne. Still, it would have been pretty cool to tell people that we live in Batmania.
If you want to know more about John Batman, try the State Library of Victoria’s ergo (http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au) website, or read his journal. There is also an article in the Australian Dictionary of Biography which more generously refers to traits of “lively imagination” and “persistent vigour”.