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1880s Artist impression of the Treaty being signed
Batman's Treaty was a treaty made on 6 June 1835 between John Batman, Australian farmer and businessman, and a group of Wurundjeri elders, for the rental of land around Port Phillip Baymarker, near the present site of the city of Melbournemarker. The treaty was significant as it was the first and only documented time when Europeans negotiated their presence and occupation of Aboriginal lands., although it was later declared void by the Governor of New South Wales, Richard Bourke.

Making of the treaty

Batman was the head of an expedition sent from Tasmaniamarker by the Port Phillip Association, a group of businessmen and farmers, which aimed to gain legal control over the area of Port Phillipmarker (at the time still part of the colony of New South Walesmarker). The expedition included five Aboriginal men from Parramattamarker, outside Sydneymarker. The party sailed into Port Phillip Baymarker aboard the Rebecca on 29 May 1835, landing at Indented Headmarker. Over the next week, they explored the area around the Bay, first at Corio Baymarker, near the present site of Geelongmarker, and later moving up the Yarramarker and Maribyrnongmarker rivers at the north of the Bay.

Batman's party met with Aboriginal people several times, presenting gifts of blankets, handkerchiefs, sugar, apples and other items, and receiving gifts of woven baskets and spears in exchange.

On 6 June, Batman met with eight elders of the Wurundjeri, including ngurungaetas Bebejan and Billibellary, the traditional owners of the lands around the Yarra River. The meeting took place on the bank of a small stream, although the precise location is unknown. A likely location is Merri Creekmarker, in what is currently Northcotemarker. After another exchange of gifts, including blankets, knives, scissors and flour, he produced treaty documents, which he signed, and which were then supposedly signed by the eight elders. For a purchase price including more scissors, flannel jackets, red shirts and a yearly tribute of similar items, he obtained about 200,000 hectares (2,000 square km) around the Yarra River and Corio Bay. The total value of the goods has been estimated at about GBP100 in the value of the day.

In return the Woiwurrung offered woven baskets of examples of their weaponry and two Possum-skin cloaks, a highly treasured item. After the treaty signing, a celebration took place with the Parramatta Aborigines with Batman's party dancing a corroboree.

Batman returned to Launcestonmarker on 14 June. Several days later he wrote to the Governor of Tasmania, George Arthur, informing him of the treaty, and of the Association's plans to run 20,000 sheep on the lands purchased. Arthur was not pleased, and wrote to the Governor of New South Wales, Richard Bourke. Not only had Batman attempted to negotiate with the Aboriginal people, whom the British did not recognise as having any claim to any lands in Australia, he had purchased the lands for the Association, and not for the Crown.

On 6 August, Bourke issued the Proclamation of Governor Bourke, a document which formally declared that the British Crown, relying on the doctrine of terra nullius, owned the whole of the continent of Australia, and that only the Crown could distribute or sell any land. It voided any contracts or treaties made by any person without the consent of the government, and declared any person attempting to rely on such a treaty to be trespassing. It was the ultimate absolvement of Batman's treaty. The proclamation was approved by the Colonial Office on 10 October 1835.

John Helder Wedge, another member of the Port Phillip Association, had left Launceston on 7 August 1835, to make a settlement on the Association's land. They had left before Bourke had invalidated their purchase. After stopping at the Barwon Rivermarker, Wedge moved on to the Yarra River, where he encountered a party led by John Pascoe Fawkner. Wedge told Fawkner of the treaty, but Fawkner would not leave, dismissing the treaty as worthless. Ultimately, however, both men were trespassers, since they did not have the authorisation of Governor Bourke.

Disputes over the treaty

The validity of the treaty has been widely disputed. It is possible that the marks which Batman claimed were the signatures of the eight Wurundjeri elders were instead made by one of the five Aboriginal men he had brought with him from Parramattamarker, since they resemble marks commonly used by Aboriginal people from that area. Furthermore, since neither Batman, the Sydney Aboriginal men or the Wurundjeri men spoke anything approaching the same language, it is almost certain that the elders did not understand the treaty, instead probably perceiving it as part of the series of gift exchanges which had taken place over the previous few days amounting to a tanderrum ceremony which allows temporary access and use of the land. In any case, the European system of understanding property was entirely alien to almost all Aboriginal peoples. Nevertheless, the treaty has been praised as the only documented attempt to reach an agreement between white settlers and the local Aboriginal people for land use was made. The treaty was significant as it was the first and only documented time when Europeans negotiated their presence and occupation of Aboriginal lands.

Batman maintained until his death in 1839 that the treaty was valid.


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