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Founding Myths

The vigorous rivalry between John Batman and John Pascoe Fawkner as 'founding fathers' has overshadowed much of the written history of early Melbourne. Each man has been in turn rehabilitated or privileged over the other in the founding mythologies created since the earliest days of this settlement built on Aboriginal land.

In 1835 two groups of Europeans, overstraiters from Van Diemen's Land, raced each other to claim the Port Phillip region around the site now known as Melbourne. The parties, one led by Batman and the other led by Fawkner, drew up allotments, sought to make a European cognate space through mapping, naming and, for Batman, ostensible treaty and purchase. Batman was a representative of the Port Phillip Association and a farmer. Fawkner was a Launceston publican. Each man claimed to have founded the settlement on the banks of the Yarra River. Batman's party had drawn up a dubious 'treaty' with eight chiefs of the Kulin Nation on 6 June 1835, and on 8 June had apparently taken a boat up to the Yarra Falls, where he recorded the famous phrase 'this will be the place for a village'. Some historians now believe that Batman was actually somewhere on the Maribyrnong River when he wrote these words before returning quickly to Hobart to make his claim to Governor Arthur. Soon after, Fawkner's party, guided by information from Batman's reports, reached the Yarra River on the schooner Enterprize in late August 1835. By 1 September, huts were erected, ploughing had begun, and a small settlement was under way.

There was much mythic self-imagining indulged in by both men. Reminiscing in 1862 on his role in the founding of Melbourne, Fawkner evokes the godlike predestiny of a hero on an epic voyage in describing his voyage across Bass Strait: 'In March 1835 I made up my mind to venture across the straits and commence the world again'. Yet, the land of the Kulin Nation - the five linguistically related Aboriginal groups of south-central Victoria, including the Port Phillip Bay area - was a world fully formed and complete unto itself. Aboriginal people had lived in the area for many thousands of years. The water wells that the Europeans used to sustain themselves, and the trails in the landscape that assisted them to find their way to new pastoral lands, were part of the rich and long-standing indigenous heritage staked in the land. Rather than commencing the world again, Fawkner, Batman, and the Europeans who came after them used indigenous knowledge and labour, and appropriated indigenous land to realise their entrepreneurial goals. Even as Fawkner loaded the schooner Enterprize on the Tamar River in Tasmania in 1835, preparing to join his party in Port Phillip, one of those he took with him was a 'native youth as a ploughman'. Later, in his writing on the early settlement, he could not ignore the presence of numerous Aboriginal people, who looked on warily and at times provided food. The banks of the Yarra, he observed, were 'literally lined with Aborigines'. Reflecting on the treaty or 'purchase' of land that Batman had attempted to make with the indigenous owners of the Port Phillip District, Fawkner identified many inconsistencies in Batman's account and argued that the dates for the signing of the deeds were suspicious, noting sarcastically that on the signing of the treaty, 'Mr. John Batman was proclaimed King John the First, of Port Phillip, the largest landed proprietor in the World'. Fawkner's 1836 claim that he too had purchased a tract of land from the Aboriginal people had come to naught.

Batman, also, seemed to be skilled in the art of self-memorialisation. As the journalist Edmund Finn, ('Garryowen'), recalled of early Melbourne:

Batman seems to have had a weakness for perpetuating himself in nomenclature, for some of the most prominent localities were very soon branded with his cognomen. The beautiful tree covered hill ... was called Batman's hill, the Yarra was Batman's river, and the marsh was Batman's swamp, the town was to be called Batmania.

In 1869 Melbourne mourned Fawkner's death, which, the Port Phillip Herald wrote, 'snapped the link which bound us to a memorable past'. By the 1880s Batman and Fawkner had been given the hyperbolic appellation of the twins 'Romulus and Remus', the mythical founders of Rome. Marvellous Melbourne, at the edge of the British Empire, was likened to this classical city, with Horace Perkins noting, 'True, Fawkner and Batman were not twins, but like Romulus and Remus they undertook to build a city, and quarrelled for precedence' (Melbourne illustrated and Victoria described, 1880).

In 1882 a memorial stone was erected by 'public subscription to perpetuate the memory of John Batman, the adventurous settler who first selected the site of Melbourne' in the old cemetery at West Melbourne. The early 20th-century historian Arthur W. Jose lauded John Batman not only for single-handedly capturing the Tasmanian bushranger Matthew Brady, but also for the dubious reputation of being 'one of the few who had at all distinguished themselves in the Black War'. Batman's historiographical apogee probably reached its peak in the 1930s centenary celebrations, his ignominious and early death in 1839 from syphilis politely glossed over.

By the 1990s the debate over Melbourne's mythic founder was mired in arcane historical detail, and in claim and counter-claim from one camp or another of descendants and enthusiasts. The Fawkner ascendancy, however, seemed more assured, with the building of a replica of John Pascoe Fawkner's schooner, the naming of Enterprize Park at the Yarra turning basin, and the assertion from some quarters of 30 August as Melbourne's 'Foundation Day', commemorating the day Captain John Lancey moored the Enterprize at the site of the future metropolis.

Batman's pronouncement, 'this will be the place for a village', has been treated with mythic reverence and invoked repeatedly by historians and eager city-builders for well over 150 years. Yet, even in this act of grand, colonial imagining, Batman had acknowledged indigenous presence on the land and its tantalising implications for his plans to possess the land and shape a townscape. In recording his journey up a river that he thought was the Yarra, his actual words were 'this will be the place for a village - The Natives on shore'. While many historical accounts of Melbourne's foundation erase indigenous presence, Batman and Fawkner each in his own way acknowledged Aboriginal people on the first site of Melbourne, and had many dealings with them.

Penelope Edmonds