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The truth about John Batman: Melbourne’s founder and ‘murderer of the blacks’

Tasmania’s “Black War” is a stain on Batman’s past.

John Batman, the beloved founder of Melbourne, is widely considered to have been sympathetic towards Aboriginal people.

This reputation stems largely from his famous attempt (unique in Australian history) to purchase the land around Port Phillip via a treaty with the local Wurundjeru people.

This snippet of Batman’s life, nurtured by a long tradition of venerating pioneers, has endeared him to generations of Australians, particularly as a friend to the Aborigines.

In the school book series Great Australians, Batman is said to have “acted always with a humanity and kindness unheard-of for his day.”

Why then, in his 2011 Vogel Award-winning novel, The Roving Party, would Rohan Wilson depict Batman as a scoundrel and a murderer?

This fictional account, which Wilson claims is based on real events, describes Batman’s exploits as a “roving party” leader in Tasmania during the late 1820s and early 1830s, sent out to hunt down Aborigines.

This is not the version of John Batman that most of us were taught in school, so it’s no surprise that The Roving Party has generated some discomfort.

But as someone immersed in the history of Tasmania’s “Black War”, I must admit that it is not so much Wilson’s vision of Batman that strikes me as unrealistic, but the Australian public’s.

While I would not go so far as to label him a monster – he was a far more complex figure than that – Batman was no humanitarian.

His involvement in the Tasmanian conflict should make this only too clear.

But first some context. The so-called “Black War” in Tasmania gained momentum from the mid-1820s, climaxing in late 1830 with the so called “Black Line” – Australia’s largest domestic military operation prior to the defence of Darwin.

Close to 400 white people were killed or wounded in this time, and probably no less than 1,000 Aborigines lost their lives in violent encounters.

Nowhere in Australia was the frontier fighting more intense, and nowhere was the Aboriginal resistance more effective.

By the late 1820s, colonists were at their wit’s end. Although a great number of Aborigines were ambushed and killed around campfires, the most dangerous tribes remained vexingly elusive, and their attacks grew more frequent every day.

By this time Batman had established himself as an enterprising farmer and, having captured the infamous bushranger Matthew Brady two years earlier had gained considerable renown for his bushcraft.

He was savvy and opportunistic, but also vain and adventurous.

It is not surprising, then, that Batman seized on the “Aboriginal Problem” as a way to increase his holdings and inflate his reputation.

His first known confrontation with the Aborigines occurred on 3rd April 1828, after his shepherd was chased off by a local tribe.

The next day he discovered their campfires. The Hobart Town Courier reported the incident as follows:

“Mr. Batman hastened, creeping on his hands and feet within 20 yards of the place, before the blacks discovered him. He then endeavoured to make them stop, but to no purpose; one of them was in the act of throwing a spear at him, when he fired at him in his own defence. The man fell, but got up again and ran off. Mr. Batman then pursued them, and at last overtook a boy about 16 years of age, whom he took prisoner… [but] during the night the boy made his escape, by groping his way up the chimney.”

The following year in June, Batman petitioned Governor Arthur for the convicts and resources to form a “Roving Party” to go in pursuit of the Aborigines, conveying “the benevolent intentions of the Government.”

In return, Batman wanted 2,000 acres of land after the first year, plus a reward for every “live Aborigine” brought in.

Fatefully, Arthur approved of all but the latter request.

On the 5th of August 1829, Batman’s party came across a large Aboriginal camp. He and his eleven men (two of whom were “Sydney Blacks” recruited by Batman as trackers) crept as close as they could before one of them “struck his musket against that of another party, which immediately alarmed the dogs”.

According to Batman’s own words, the Aborigines:

“Were in the act of running away into the thick scrub, when I ordered the men to fire upon them, which was done, and a rush by the party immediately followed, we only captured that Night one woman and a male child about Two years old, the party was in search of them the remainder of the Night, but without success, the next morning we found one man very badly wounded in his ankle and knee, shortly after we found another 10 buckshot had entered his Body, he was alive but very bad, there was a great number of traces of blood in various directions and learned from those we took that 10 men were wounded in the Body which they gave us to understand were dead or would die, and Two women in the same state had crawled away, besides a number that was shot in the legs… on Friday morning we left the place for my Farm with the two men, woman and child, but found it quite impossible that the Two former could walk, and after trying them by every means in my power, for some time, found I could not get them on. I was obliged therefore to shoot them.”

When he received the above report, Arthur scribbled anxiously on the page:

“…shoots wounded Natives because they could not keep up… has much slaughter to account for.”

But he never reprimanded Batman.

As Batman’s biographer Alastair Campbell rightly points out:

“Perhaps Batman would have improvised stretchers or sent for horses if he was to have been rewarded for each ‘live Aborigine’.”

Two days before Batman was questioned on the matter by the Police Magistrate, he secured the capture of eleven Aborigines at Oyster Bay. He was heralded a hero and any previous indiscretions were forgotten.

Much to Batman’s frustration though, he was never able to repeat this success. He did however grow bitterly jealous of the man who was able to conciliate the Aborigines, George Augustus Robinson, taking every opportunity to undermine his rival’s efforts.

A summary this brief is scarcely a summary at all, but it does hint at the kind of man Batman was, and his attitude towards the Tasmanian Aborigines.

While he was unquestionably a very pragmatic and determined man, Batman was by no means principled.

He was often dishonest in both word and deed, and there is little evidence that his humanitarianism was any more than the rhetoric of a self-promoter.

Robinson thought him “a bad and dangerous character”, and the prominent artist John Glover referred to him as “a rouge, cheat, thief, liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known”.

But this is not to say that Batman was uncommonly cruel by the standard of his day – he wasn’t.

In many regards he may be worthy of his illustrious reputation; but if so, his conduct during the Black War must be balanced against this.

It is not for me to do the sums, but I do hope that Rohan Wilson’s novel gives people pause to consult the evidence and make up their own minds as to what sort of man John Batman really was.

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