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Batman's Treaties

These purported agreements whereby Aboriginal people granted John Batman two tracts of land amounting to 600 000 acres in return for a number of blankets, axes, flour and other goods and the promise of an annual 'rent or tribute' were controversial in 1835 at Melbourne's foundation and continue to be so.

The imperial and colonial governments were troubled by the spread of costly settlements beyond their control, and declared the treaties 'null and void' on the grounds that the Crown had an exclusive right of pre-emption. They could thereby put aside 'the question of the right' of the Aboriginal land-holders to sell land or 'the justice and fairness' of the treaties, for while they proclaimed respect for native title rights of usage and occupancy they were probably embarrassed by Batman's negotiations and intent on maintaining the legal fiction that the continent was a terra nullius and Aborigines had no rights of ownership; sanctioning the treaties would have amounted to recognition of the illegality of British settlement since 1788.

It seems the approach of Batman's Port Phillip Association was more pragmatic than principled; many contemporaries ridiculed the treaties and several historians have regarded Batman and his treaties as fraudulent in many respects. Aware of rising concern about indigenous peoples among influential English humanitarians, Batman and his associates claimed they regarded the Kulin as 'the real owners of the soil', wished to gain land on 'equitable and just' terms, and wanted to 'protect and civilise these tribes'. They might have conceived the treaties not only as a way of appeasing these critics but also as a means of conciliating the Kulin until the Association could establish superior numbers and force and at the same time effectively occupying the land while government was preoccupied with questions of legality.

The ngurungaeta (headmen) of the Woi wurrung, the Boon wurrung and the Watha wurrung, who had the authority to represent their clans and who allegedly signed the treaties, probably saw the ceremony Batman performed on 6 June as akin to one of their own. The feudal ritual of enfeoffment, whereby the transfer of land was partly effected by handing over a handful of soil or some other such property symbolic of the whole, and the exchange of gifts that occurred (the Kulin gave Batman fur cloaks, weapons and baskets), resembled the Tanderrum ceremony, whereby the presentation of some foliage to strangers signified that they had been granted access to and usage (but not ownership) of the host's land as well as protection and were expected to reciprocate by sharing their resources. The Kulin were to fulfil these obligations, unlike Batman and other whites.

In the years since, the treaties have been an uneasy reminder for many colonists and their descendants of their status as thieves, while radicals have mostly dismissed Batman's dealings as a shameful example of colonial self-interest and perfidy. Aboriginal people, however, have cast Batman as a 'kind and just' man who established mutual understanding with their forebears and recognised their ownership of the land. In the 1930s and 1960s the Australian Aborigines' League and the Aborigines Advancement League invoked his name in campaigning for Aboriginal rights.

Wurundjeri leader William Barak (c. 1823-1903) claimed to have been present as a child at the signing of the Batman treaties. Historians have questioned the authenticity of the uniform signature marks purported to have been made by Aboriginal representatives. The original pro-forma deed drawn up for John Batman by Hobart lawyer Joseph Gellibrand is now in Sydney's Mitchell Library, and a number of other presentation and facsimile copies including Governor Arthur's special deed and the Geelong deed are in the collections of the State Library of Victoria, the Tasmanian Archives and the Mitchell Library.

Bain Attwood