Dabbling with the Diary

It seems that Batman expected his diary would be forwarded to London as part of the submission to the British Government. It was vital then, that his diary be consistent with the pro forma wording already on the treaty documents, and the reports, and maps which had yet to be completed by Gellibrand and Wedge.

During the expedition, Batman's most important priorities involved making sure he knew where he was going and how to get back; ensuring the safety of his party in an unknown country; evaluating it for pastoral settlement, seeking Aboriginal leaders and inducing them to negotiate treaties in line with the guidelines laid down by Gellibrand. The taking of reliable survey observations and measurements, and the keeping of an accurate diary would have to fit in with these more important objectives.

Living conditions were far from ideal for keeping a diary in the field, and we do not know the extent to which Batman made rough field notes, then wrote up his diary entries some time later - perhaps the same night, or even when he returned to the Rebecca. As a consequence, his diary is informative, comprehensive and detailed, but it could only be vague and cursory in parts, and distances, areas, and directions either roughly recorded or estimated, and sometimes mere guesswork.

Overall, Batman's assignment was extremely onerous - one which few people of his day would have attempted, let alone successfully complete. With the benefit of more than 160 years of hindsight, it is difficult to conceive of a more efficient way of handling the task. A critical inspection of the diary reveals no apparent evidence of it being other than a bona fide record of events and observations. The diary is a bound book. It is undoubtedly in Batman's handwriting. There are no crossings out of any significance or of any pages having been removed, and it is deliberate, free flowing in style, and bears all the hallmarks of having been written by a business-like, intelligent man.

Closer examination of the entries indicates that the diary can be relied upon as an accurate account of Batman's journeying up to about mid-day 5 June when the party was at Redstone Hill near Sunbury. After then there is a change in the character of Batman's descriptions, as well as improbably long distances of travel being recorded particularly if we link his descriptions to the published maps of his journeying.

The first maps of the Port Phillip land were drawn by Wedge using the diary and other information supplied by Batman. Subsequently other versions were published which copied, modified and/or added to Wedge's maps. When these maps are studied in conjunction with Batman's diary, all indicate that the treaties were negotiated in the Whittlesea/Kinglake region. Despite this, it was almost universally agreed in the first fifty years of settlement that the treaty site was at the Merri Creek Northcote.

The first person to question the popular belief was James Blackburn Jr. In 1885 he postulated that the treaties had been negotiated on the banks of the Plenty River near Eltham. If this were so, then on his return journey to Rebecca Batman would have had to travel between 30 and 40 miles on the afternoon of 7 June through hilly, in places heavily forested and unknown country where no white man had previously been - an impossible journey in anything under a day and a half or perhaps two days. Furthermore, it was in wintry conditions not favourable to travel through the bush, and at a time of the year when daylight was at its shortest.

In addition, Batman's close colleague, Gellibrand, explored the Whittlesea region eight months later and recorded discovering and naming, the Plenty River, claiming that he was the first white man to see it. If Batman had negotiated the treaties in that vicinity, Gellibrand would have known, and the creek which Batman named after himself would have been the Plenty River which deserved a better title than "creek". Thus we need to reject Blackburn's findings.

In 1986 the geographer Dr Stuart Duncan, using Batman's diary, traced the party's journey from Williamstown (3 June) to Redstone Hill (5 June) with impeccable accuracy. However as we have already noted, from that point of time the geographic references in the diary are so few and vague that defining Batman's route over the next day or so, becomes more of a matter of guesswork than judgment. We must therefore look to other evidence to establish the location where the treaty negotiations took place.

The accounts of Captain Robson, mate of the Rebecca, said to have been based on the ship's log, provide one alternative interpretation worth considering. He stated that the Batman party went up the Maribyrnong River towards the north west corner, were unable to contact Aborigines, so returned to the ship which was then taken into Hobson's Bay, whence native fires were sighted, bearings taken, then the party set out again. During the next two days the treaties were negotiated. This scenario of events is probable, and means that Batman varied the sequence in his diary. In response to the wording which Gellibrand had written into the pro forma of the deeds, stating that Batman and the chiefs had walked around the boundaries of the land:

The tract of Country...hath been, before the execution of these presents, delineated and marked out by us, according to the custom of our Tribe, by certain marks made upon the trees growing along the boundaries of the said Tract of land.

This was imposing a requirement on Batman and the chiefs which could not possibly be, and obviously was not, carried into effect. but by rearranging the sequence of events Batman could make it appear, and he was able to say in his official report to Governor Arthur, that he had marked trees at the corners of his land.

Robson's sequence of events has the advantage of being compatible with evidence other than Batman's diary and Wedge's map, but it is difficult to accept that the Batman party had sufficient time to return to the ship on 5 June and have the treaties negotiated on the 6th in the way Robson suggests. Whilst we cannot dismiss Robson's account, we need to look for alternative propositions.

Thus far we have been able to establish that Batman did dabble with his diary, so as to make it appear that he had confirmed, as best as humanly possible, with the wording which Gellibrand had already inserted into the treaty documents. We have the route of Batman's journey as far as Redstone hill and we can reject Blackburn's thesis that the treaties were signed on the Plenty River near Eltham. We know that Robson's sequence of events is tenable, but does not fit nearly into the time frame already established by the above conclusions.

To proceed further we need to study evidence other than Batman's diary, namely:

Statements by contemporaries, or near contemporaries of John Batman.
The painting of the treaty negotiations by the artist John Wesley Burtt.
Local folklore.

There is no contemporary evidence which conclusively establishes the true site of the treaty negotiations but during the first fifty years of the settlement it was almost universally agreed that the Merri Creek at Northcote was the site. When Blackburn questioned this in 1885 most of the original settlers would have passed on. During those first fifty years Fawkner consistently claimed that the treaties were negotiated at the Merri Creek. During his public lecturing about the founding of Melbourne in the 1860's he was reported as saying "that deed did not get signed at the Merri Creek, just outside of Fitzroy municipality.

Fawkner would have had many opportunities to identify and visit the site, and in particular he claimed that one of the men present at the treaty negotiations was in his employ. This would have been James Gumm who was a member of the Batman party in June 1835 but who left Batman the next year to work for Fawkner.

In 1872 the Melbourne historian G W Rusden corroborated Fawkner's statement:

It is a singular fact that the spot at which he made the treaty is supposed to have been, at or near, the spot where now the Old Colonists' Association of Victoria have been granted a site whereon to build their Founders' Home.

In the mid-1850's John Wesley Burtt, the Melbourne artist, painted his version of the treaty negotiations. In a separate lithograph outline of that painting, Burtt names the characters and salient landmarks. He identifies the Merri Creek in the foreground and in the rear he shows the outline of Rucker's Hill, the profile of which could only be seen from the southern aspect. It is highly probable that in planning the painting Burtt discussed this matter with persons who had first hand (or near first hand) knowledge and had visited the site with them. So, with some allowance for artistic licence, his painting must be a reasonably valid portrayal of the treaty scene.

It is to be expected that the true site would have a convincing folklore attached to it compatible with the other evidence. This aspect is taken up in detail in Supplement A and only the salient features are summarised here.

The many local versions tell of a "Batman Tree" with Aboriginal markings on it of an early plaque, a statuette of Batman, how the earliest settlers claimed that the treaties were signed in their backyards, how they as children were ushered inside their homes when the Aborigines were gathered there, and how the Batman Tree was uprooted during a severe flood and the Northcote Council arranged for workmen to cut a section from the fallen tree and have it mounted on a wooden base. All of these different stories are generally consistent with each other, and most facts have been verified by reference to other sources of information as well as being consistent with Burtt's painting and the other contemporary information quoted above.

It can therefore be concluded with a high degree of confidence that the treaties were negotiated on the small flood plain beside the Merri Creek just to the north west of Rushall railway station. This site was originally known as West Bend.

Dabbling with the Diary


Source: Southern Invasion Northern Conquest
Story of the founding of MELBOURNE
by Rex Harcourt


 
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