John Batman – Rogue or Entrepreneur?

Whether John Batman, one of the founders of Melbourne Australia, was just another rogue or an entrepreneur with a cunning plan is still being debated.

Early Years

He was born in Sydney in 1801, but from 1821 lived as a grazier in Van Diemen’s Land, now called Tasmania. There he was renowned for hunting down outlawed bush rangers that were terrorising the country.

He also worked towards conciliation with the Aboriginals, spoke their languages and attempted to stop their extermination. That this involved isolating them into certain areas can in hindsight be taken against him, but was at his time not necessarily a sign of cruelty.

John Batman was known for his spirit of adventure, determination and kindness. He was also able to see and grasp an opportunity.

Accessible land was in short supply in Tasmania. As a free colonist, Batman planned to expand sheep and cattle farming across the Bass Straight. He applied for land in what today is Victoria. This was rejected. Being who he was, Batman did not give up and looked for other solutions.

Batman's Land Deals

In 1835, he sailed to Port Phillip and into the Yarra. His way of obtaining land involved a treaty with the Aboriginals that would enable him to use their land through peaceful means.

This Batman Treaty was a ‘signed contract’ with senior Aboriginal Kulin chiefs that gave him the use of about 600,000 acres of land in exchange for goods: axes, clothing, mirrors, scissors and flour.

This was a clever move and a viable undertaking. While it gave Aboriginals recognition of their ownership of the land, it enabled him to avoid payments and legal issues with the Colonial government. The Kulin were unaware of what they were getting themselves into.

Batman moved into the mouth of the Yarra, and into the area between Geelong, the Maribyrnong River and Merri Creek.

On June 7, 1835, he decided the location of the settlement, which would later become Melbourne. John Batman felt like one of the richest landowners in the world, and life was good.

While Batman’s ingenuity was celebrated in Tasmania, it was immediately crushed by Colonial Governor Bourke in Sydney. In the name of Aboriginal wellbeing and to maintain colonial control, he called the treaty null and void.

Batman’s crew was now trespassing against the rights of the Crown.

Competition from John Pascoe Fawkner

A couple of months after Batman, his jealous rival John Pascoe Fawkner arrived from Tasmania with his team. They settled on the very Melbourne site chosen by Batman. Batman’s men were unable to remove Fawkner from the area.

Melbourne was called Batmania for a short while, but neither that name nor Batman were able to hang onto their respective glory.

The flood of people and animals across the Tasman was unstoppable. In the end, Fawkner proposed a resolution to Bourke, who legalised the settlement, appointed a magistrate and named Melbourne.

Times were rough. The Kulin people and native animals were overrun by settlers and their sheep. Violence on the edge of the colony was common and land was in dispute. Aboriginal Reserves were established to ‘civilise’ the Kulin. In Melbourne Aboriginals became victims to disease.

John Batman and his family settled on Batman Hill, near today’s Spencer Street. While he enjoyed a short period of prosperity and wealth, he was never able to reap the glory of the new settlement.

Batman's Demise

Batman's health failed him and forced him to become a trader and investor. But he borrowed too much and lent without security. He was disfigured and disabled from syphilis; his only son drowned in the Yarra; and his wife had left him.

Batman died, just 38 years of age, a poor man less than four years after his arrival in Melbourne. He was denounced and maligned as a fraud by John Pascoe Fawkner. There are reports of him being a rogue, drunk, thief and liar.

Nevertheless, he remains an important figure in Melbourne’s history, a character with two faces.

He keeps his legendary status as one of the founders of Melbourne, as an entrepreneur with boldness and flair - perhaps more the pioneer than builder of a city.

The Development of Melbourne

His arch rival John Pascoe Fawkner ended up settling Melbourne before him. Fawkner became a leading figure in the community and erected the first Melbourne buildings.

He was the son of a convict and was himself known as a rebel and rough character, implicated in convicts' escapes and assaults in Tasmania.

Fawkner occupied a central position by running a hotel and publishing the first Melbourne newspapers and made quick money. He was a short, squat passionate man with fiery speech and a determined gait.

He brought education and the arts to Melbourne. Fawkner was later elected first councillor and then member of the first legislative council in 1851.

Fawkner became a respected Melbourne leader while John Batman had come to an early demise.

Although Fawkner and Batman are seen as the co-founders of Melbourne, both of them would have protested that association. They had always been antagonistic to each other, building the settlement of Melbourne 'worlds apart'.

Check this for more information on the Batman's legend.

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