When John Batman arrived in Port Phillip in 1835, he approached local Indigenous leaders with a contract, to ‘buy' their land. His negotiations were successful, and he walked away with 240,000 hectares of prime farming terrain – almost all of the Kulin nation's ancestral land.
However, this transaction was not as straightforward as it appears.
Batman's claim to this territory was based on the European idea of land ownership and legal contracts – a concept that was completely foreign to the Indigenous people of Victoria. For them land was not about possession, but belonging. Territories may belong to different groups, but land cannot be bought or sold.
Batman also claimed that he had negotiated with Aboriginal ‘chiefs' who were in charge of this land. But he was actually negotiating with the tribal elders who weren't, in fact, in a position to sell their people's land, even if they had wanted to.
As William Buckley, who lived with the Wathaurung Aboriginal community for 32 years, observed:
...they had seen several of the native chiefs, with whom, as they said, they had exchanged all sorts of things for land; but that I knew could not have been, because unlike other savage communities, or people, they have no chiefs claiming or possessing any superior right over the soil: theirs only being as the heads of families. [...] I therefore looked upon the land dealing spoken of as another hoax of the white man, to possess the inheritance of the uncivilised natives.
– William Buckley
Morgan, J 1852, The life and adventures of William Buckley, Archibald MacDougall, Hobart, Tas.
This quote shows that even in 1835, Buckley had a unique understanding of Indigenous people that Europeans lacked.
When Batman arrived in the Port Phillip region, he had with him Aboriginal translators from New South Wales, who would have spoken a completely different language to the Wurundjeri people. It is now believed that the Wurundjeri may have thought Batman was offering them gifts in exchange for safe passage – a transaction known as tandarrum.
It is also thought by some historians that the ‘marks' Batman claims were made by eight Aboriginal chiefs to sign the contract are identical to marks found in his journal, which raises the question of whether they might have been forged.
Batman's treaty was almost immediately declared invalid by the Proclamation of Governor Bourke of New South Wales. On 6 August 1835, he declared the British Crown owned the entire land of Australia, and that only it could sell or distribute land.