In 1835, John Batman declared that he had negotiated a “treaty” to claim the lands of the people of the Kulin Nation.
However, this ‘treaty’ was not valid under European law or Kulin lore and is now recognised by many in the Victorian Aboriginal Community as an attempt to disadvantage the people of the Kulin Nation. While it is recognised as being an invalid treaty, it will be referenced as ‘Batman’s Treaty’ in this article for consistency.
Details of the ‘treaty’
On 6 June 1835, John Batman met with a group of Wurundjeri leaders near a small stream. The exact location is not known but some historians believe it is likely to be along the Merri Creek in what is now Northcote.
Batman had recently come to Kulin Country from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) where he had been a key figure in the dispossession, colonisation and violence against Aboriginal people. During the time of the Black War between Aboriginal people and Europeans in the early 1830s, he participated in the Black Line – a brutal campaign to drive Tasmanian Aboriginal people from their lands into islands in the Bass Strait.
His aim in coming to Port Philip was to take land for squatters and this drove him to arrange a meeting with Wurundjeri leaders in 1835. At this meeting, John Batman sought agreement from Wurundjeri people to hand over rights to the land around Port Phillip (the present site of Melbourne).
This ‘treaty’ was used to claim that local Aboriginal people had given consent for Batman to take their land in exchange for goods and rations. It is often considered to be the first and only documented time when Europeans negotiated their presence and occupation of Aboriginal lands directly with the Traditional Owners.
Image: Batman's treaty with the Aborigines at Merri Creek, 6th June 1835, State Library Victoria.
Important Wurundjeri leaders at the time of invasion
Many people are only aware of John Batman, however the Wurundjeri leaders present at the signing of the ‘treaty’ are extremely important figures in Victorian history. They were leaders of their people at a time of huge change and destruction of their way of life. Many were seeking to make contact with and engage with Europeans to try and protect their people.
Uncle Billibellary was Ngurungaeta (or head man) at time of invasion of Wurundjeri Country and continued to lead his people for the ten years that followed. He witnessed the injustices inflicted on his people by Europeans and acted as a mediator between his clan and the invaders. He was assisted in this by Assistant Protector and later Guardian of the Aborigines, William Thomas, who Uncle Billibellary had a close relationship with.
When he saw that the invaders were staying and taking the land, he negotiated through William Thomas and was one of the eight men who signed the ‘treaty’ with John Batman, a meeting which his son and future Ngurungaeta Uncle Simon Wonga also witnessed. Billibellary was persuaded to join the Native Police (Aboriginal troopers under the command usually of a single white officer) and due to his position in community, he had some influence over the behaviour of other members in the force. He did not last long in the service though, stating:
I am king, I no ride on horseback; I no go out of my country; young men go as you say, not me.
He passed away on the 10th of August, 1846 after developing a serious chest infection. He was succeeded as Ngurungaeta by his son, Uncle Simon Wonga.
Uncle Bebejan was also a Ngurungaeta of the Wurundjeri people. Little is known about him except that he was also present at the signing of the ‘treaty’ along with his son Uncle William Barak who became Ngurungaeta following his cousin, Uncle Wonga’s death. All Wurundjeri people are descendants of Uncle Bebejan through his daughter Aunty Annie Borate (Boorat), and in turn, her son Uncle Robert Wandin (Wandoon).
You can read more about Uncle Simon Wonga and Uncle William Barak in the Deadly Story article about Coranderrk Station.
Image: The Batman deed [Melbourne] 1835 June 6, State Library Victoria.
Problems with the ‘Batman Treaty’
John Batman was calculating and his ‘treaty’ was problematic for a range of reasons. Many Kulin people view his actions as manipulative and an attempt to take advantage of the Aboriginal people who he had interactions with.
Batman’s claim to the land was based on the European idea of legal contracts and land ownership. This concept was completely foreign to the Indigenous people of Victoria who saw land not as a possession but as something they belonged to. Land may belong to different groups, but it could not be bought or sold. The Wurundjeri present at the signing would therefore not have consented to the transfer of land as Batman saw it, as for them this was not possible.
Batman also brought with him Aboriginal translators from New South Wales – who spoke a completely different language to the Wurundjeri people and therefore were unable to translate appropriately. The documents he produced for his ‘treaty’ not only used a language the Kulin did not know – English – but also used a legal form of language understood by few.
In addition, the ‘treaty’ claims that Wurundjeri agreed "To Give, Grant, Enfeoff and confirm unto said, John Batman, his Heirs and Assigns" (in relation to their land). Enfeoff was a term to describe the practise of passing a handful of soil or leaves to another as a symbol of the land being transferred. This was similar to a practice between members of the Kulin Nation, however for them it meant only safe passage for the recipient and their children for as long as they were friendly to the Traditional Owners on their land.
As a result it is likely that the Wurundjeri people thought Batman was offering them gifts in exchange for safe passage and temporary use of land – a transaction they had made many times before with other members of the Kulin Nation. This suggests that they met with the Europeans in good faith to negotiate and form relationships and alliances and to grant them safety on their land.
Finally, there are also records that cast doubt on the signatures obtained by Batman on the ‘treaty.’ Alastair Campbell in John Batman and the Aborigines analysed the signatures (among other treaties Batman had made) and found that they were perfect with no errors or false starts. It was in his opinion that it was “inconceivable that Batman could have persuaded eight unrehearsed Aborigines in a few hours to have drawn the marks with the neatness and penmanship shown in the document, not once but twelve times” (three copies of the deeds were drawn up and required twelve marks by each man). The signatures were also suspicious as the names of the eight men in the Batman Treaty also feature on the Geelong deed insinuating that the eight men also possessed the Bellarine Peninsula (Wathaurong Country) – something that was not possible.
‘Batman’s Treaty’ declared void
Ultimately, the Batman Treaty had no legal significance in colonial, European law. The Governor of New South Wales, Richard Bourke, declared the ‘treaty’ void on August 26 1835. The colonial government already viewed this land as belonging to the Crown, not to the Wurundjeri people, and so Batman’s attempt at a ‘treaty’ would never have been accepted even if it had been fair for the Kulin People. As he was not an official representative of the colonial administration he was, in the eyes of the Crown, stealing land from the colonists and not from the Aboriginal people.
Batman’s ‘treaty’ is often referred to as a positive example of relations between Aboriginal people and Europeans at the time. It is sometimes seen an example of a treaty in Australia’s history. However, given the deception and unequal playing field between the two groups negotiating, this is simply not true. For many members of the Kulin Nation, John Batman and his ‘treaty’ showed that self-interest, manipulation and deceit were essential elements in the colonisation of our country.
Sources used in writing this article:
- Convincing Ground: Learning to fall in love with your country, Bruce Pascoe, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2007
- John Batman and the Aborigines, Alastair Campbell, Kibble Books, Malmsbury, 1987
- Batman's treaty, State Library of Victoria
- Treaty, the Aboriginal history of Yarra
- Batman's Treaty of Melbourne, Only Melbourne