The Port Phillip District
The Henty family — Batman in Port Phillip — His ‘treaty’ with the natives — He determines on ‘the place for a village’ — Fawkner’s party on the Yarra — Official objection to Port Phillip Settlement — Captain Lonsdale takes charge — Bourke names Melbourne — Latrobe appointed superintendent — Batman’s reward and death.
As explained in Chapter XI, when Major Mitchell came upon Portland Bay during his overland journey in 1836, he found that the Henty brothers had formed a settlement there. Their father, an English farmer, had emigrated with his whole family from Sussex eight years before, attracted by the prospect of becoming possessed of a great estate on the Swan River. But the Hentys were amongst those who discovered that the reality fell far short of the fancy picture drawn by the promoters of Thomas Peel’s colony; and the family, after prospecting for hundreds of miles and finding no piece of land upon which they would care to settle, transferred their capital to Van Diemen’s Land.
Thomas Henty was a man of seventy and was possessed of about £10,000, after realizing his former property in Sussex. His main reason for leaving England was not to better himself, but to establish his seven strong and enterprising sons on properties of their own in Australia. Three of them had wrestled with the Swan River disappointment for some months after their brothers had departed; a fourth, Edward, whilst on a cruise examining the southern shores of Australia, ran into Portland Bay, where not a soul then lived. He saw there the prospect of establishing a profitable farm. There was abundance of rich grass land, and there was nobody to dispute his right to build a home. Thomas Henty went to look at the place, and approved of Edward’s choice; so, in November 1834, they chartered the schooner Thistle of Launceston, loaded her with livestock, agricultural implements, tools, plants, and fishing tackle, engaged labourers, and with these Edward Henty commenced the first Victorian settlement. A little later he was joined by his brothers Francis, Stephen, and John; and the four entered upon a partnership in whaling, sheep-farming, and cattle-raising. Their father, mother, and three brothers remained in the southern island. The Hentys had their houses built, their stock at grass, their gardens under cultivation, long before the Government in Sydney knew that a single rood of land south of the Murray was occupied.
Seven years before these sturdy Sussex yeomen fixed upon Portland Bay two Launceston men, J. T. Gellibrand and John Batman, had proposed to Governor Darling that they should be allowed grants of land at Westernport, where they wished to pasture sheep, cattle, and horses to the value of £4,000. But in 1827 Darling was not eager to encourage settlement there. The Westernport settlement which had been started lest the French should select a site, was abandoned at the end of 1826, and the Governor was not disposed to allow private persons to try to succeed where an official settlement had failed. So he minuted the application: ‘Acknowledge, and inform them that, no determination having been come to with respect to the settlement of Westernport, it is not in my power to comply with the request.’
But John Batman, a man of dogged perseverance, fond of adventure, fixed his gaze steadily on the mainland to the north of Bass Strait, interest in which was increased when the story of Messrs. Hume and Hovell’s overland journey was published. In 1834 he joined a syndicate of fifteen Launceston men who found the money for sending out a small expedition to examine Port Phillip. In a thirty-ton schooner, the Rebecca, Batman put forth in May of 1835, landed, and traversed country which made his eyes sparkle. ‘I never saw anything equal to the land; I never was so astonished in my life,’ he wrote in his journal.
Two very memorable things occurred during this expedition. The first was Batman’s encounter with a party of aboriginals with whom he made what he supposed to be a legitimate bargain for the sale of two tracts of land, having a total area of about 600,000 acres — rather more than the whole of Warwickshire. The black-fellows were friendly, and he distributed knives, scissors, mirrors, and blankets among them. He then produced two portentous pieces of parchment, previously prepared by lawyer Gellibrand. Upon each of them was inscribed a rigmarole setting forth that the ‘chiefs’ granted this huge territory to him ‘with livery of seisin.’ They had, he solemnly wrote afterwards in an official letter, marked the trees at the boundaries of the territory assigned to him, ‘and they also gave me their own private mark, which is kept sacred by them, even so much that the women are not allowed to see it.’ He averred that the ‘chiefs’ quite knew what they were doing, though in truth the aboriginals understood nothing of private land ownership. These untutored children of the bush were supposed to know what ‘livery of seisin’ meant; and they even put mystical marks against what Batman alleged to be their names. The names were such sweet-sounding strings of syllables as Jagajaga, Cooloolook, and Mommarmalar, and may really have stood for such noises as the blacks made when Batman asked them what their names were; but the alleged ‘marks,’ as an examination of the original parchment shows, were made by a hand accustomed to use a pen, which could have been none other than that of Batman himself. Yet on the strength of these weird documents — copies of which were formally handed to the ‘chiefs’ — Batman expressed the hope that ‘the British Government will duly appreciate the treaty which I have made with these tribes, and will not in any manner molest arrangements which I have made.’ Governor Bourke’s reply, when Batman’s diplomacy was brought under his notice, was the issue of a proclamation warning off him and his syndicate as trespassers on crown land.
The second notable thing done by Batman on this expedition was to take the Rebecca’s boat up the river Yarra to a place where a ridge of rocks blocked the inrush of the tide, and where therefore he could obtain fresh water. He scrutinized the slope on the north bank of the stream, and pencilled in his notebook these words: ‘The boat went up the large river I have spoken of, which comes from the east, and I am glad to state about six miles up found the river all good water and very deep. This will be the place for a village.’ Batman did not discover the Yarra, nor was he the first European to look upon this site. That had been done in 1803. But he was the man to indicate where Melbourne would be built; and he actually marked upon his sketch-map the words ‘reserved for a township and other purposes.’
It is very remarkable that, of the six state capitals of Australia, the only one which stands to-day precisely in the place where it was in the first instance intended to build it, is Melbourne. Three of the states were originally colonized from England, and in not one of those instances was any survey made, before shiploads of people were sent 16,000 miles, to ascertain where it would be most desirable to put them. A sensible man would not start to build a house without making a preliminary examination of the ground available, in order that he might lay his foundations in the best situation. But no such forethought was shown in determining the proper localities for three colonies which were to be the homes of hundreds of thousands of people. New South Wales was originally intended to be centred at Botany Bay, and had Arthur Phillip followed the letter of his instructions he would have commenced his work with misfortune and failure. His own promptitude and initiative saved the situation there. In the Western Australian instance the first colonists were left shivering in misery on the white sand-dunes of Garden Island until the site of Perth was found. South Australia was intended to be established on Kangaroo Island, which was lauded in glowing descriptions written by those who had never been there; but Colonel Light recognized at a glance that a blunder had been perpetrated, and insisted on the site of Adelaide. The cases of Hobart and Brisbane are not so serious, though there also the situations originally chosen were afterwards found to be undesirable. But John Batman’s ‘place for a village’ was an excellent choice, which had not to be altered afterwards, and the village — rather large for its name, however — stands in justification of his judgement.
Batman hurried back to Launceston to report what he had done, and to advance the claims of his syndicate, the Port Phillip Association, to the territory which he professed to have acquired by treaty. He left behind him three of his servants, with three months’ rations, to guard the estate against intruders.
The latter move was not so absurd as it may seem. Batman knew that there were other Launceston adventurers who had designs upon Port Phillip. In fact, his rivals were on the move while he was engaged in writing voluminous letters in support of his claims. The leader of the opposition party was John Pascoe Fawkner, who, as a lad of eleven, had, in company with his father, been one of Colonel Collins’s party in the Calcutta when that officer’s abortive colony at Port Phillip was founded and abandoned in 1803. Fawkner had purchased the Enterprise, and was making preparations for an expedition of his own when Batman returned with his astonishing tale. On July 29 the schooner sailed. Fawkner himself went on board, but became so ill that he had to be put ashore. Hardly had the Enterprise entered Port Phillip than Batman’s representatives, in a whaleboat, stopped her and warned her company that ‘trespassers would be prosecuted.’ But there was no quarrel, and the Enterprise worked her way up the bay and the river, landing Fawkner’s people on the very site which Batman had selected for his village.
Three days later appeared J. H. Wedge, Assistant Surveyor-General of Van Diemen’s Land and one of Batman’s syndicate, who informed the invaders that they were encamped upon the tract of land obtained by Batman ‘by a treaty with the natives.’ But both parties remained, and both were alike trespassers in the view of Governor Bourke. The solemn proclamation issued by him commenced: ‘Whereas it hath been represented to me that divers of His Majesty’s subjects have taken possession of lands of the Crown’; it admonished them that they were liable to be dealt with ‘as other invaders upon the vacant lands of the Crown’; and it ended with the customary flourish, ‘God save the King.’
But it was useless to issue prohibitions. Batman’s party and Fawkner’s were alike eager discoverers of good pastures, and at Port Phillip they found great areas of grass-land upon which thousands of sheep and cattle could fatten. To permit this great stretch of rich country to remain unoccupied was absurd. Even before either of the rival syndicates could bring their sheep across Bass Strait, a third claimant, John Aitkin, landed a flock on the east side of Port Phillip — near Arthur’s seat — and became the first squatter in this part of Australia; and there was quite a rush of land-seekers to the new territory before any of them knew of Governor Bourke’s proclamation. ‘All I see I claim,’ was the rule of the new-comers as they ascended hills overlooking desirable territory.
It is clear from the official correspondence that Port Phillip was not settled with the countenance of the British Government, but in spite of its disapproval. The Colonial Office did not conceal its vexation. The Under-Secretary (R. W. Hay), wrote in December 1835, with reference to Batman’s case, ‘all schemes of this kind have been of late years discountenanced as leading continually to the establishment of fresh settlements and fresh expense; and if every one were allowed to follow his own inclination by selecting a fit place of residence on the coast of New Holland, all hopes of restricting the limits of our settlements in that quarter must be at once abandoned.’ The limitation of settlement was, then, the policy of the Colonial Office. The expansion of settlement was the policy which the colonists themselves enforced.
To eject the settlers was out of the question. They had entered into occupation of vacant land and could not be got out of it by issuing proclamations, and writing letters from Downing Street. Governor Bourke reported to the Secretary of State that he ‘simply could not prevent’ settlers from pasturing their flocks and herds outside the official boundaries. Something would have to be done to regulate the settlement and adjust the claims. The Crown asserted a right over the whole of the territory comprised within the Governor’s commission, and that certainly included Port Phillip. By an Act passed by the Governor and Council of New South Wales earlier in 1835, the occupation of crown lands without authority, by residing or erecting any hut or tent upon them, was made an offence punishable by fine; but when that Act was passed the spontaneous rush of settlers into Port Phillip was not contemplated. Still, the lands there came within the purview of the Act. Even the learned counsel in London, whose opinion Batman’s Association obtained, advised that ‘the Crown can legally oust the Association from their possession.’ The law need not respect the claims of either Batman or Fawkner, which were mutually asserted with such energy that there was talk of using force. Each party resented the intrusion of the other and of independent groups of squatters. Some of Batman’s supporters advocated ‘at once setting on the blacks to eat them out or drive them out’; but Batman himself would have no violence. ‘I should think a long time,’ he wrote, ‘before I would cause the natives to use anything like violence towards any whites, as I fully agree as to the consequences that might occur hereafter towards ourselves.’ So the rivals lived on uncontrolled by authority, disregarding Bourke’s proclamation, frowning upon each other, and brandishing their fictitious claims, until, in May 1836, Bourke sent over a police magistrate to report upon the situation.
The magistrate, George Stewart, found 177 people settled upon or near the site of Melbourne, and they had 26,500 sheep. There were about 800 aboriginals in the vicinity. Already conflict between the whites and the blacks had occurred. The aboriginals had no notion of law or property. They speared and ate the settlers’ sheep, and the settlers felt it to be necessary to ‘teach them a lesson.’ The Government at Sydney was compelled to take notice of these outrages, and it was also necessary to have a magistrate permanently on the spot, invested with administrative powers.
In August 1836, therefore, Bourke sent over Captain William Lonsdale of the 4th (King’s Own) Regiment to take charge. He was not only to exercise the ordinary functions of a magistrate, but was also to take ‘the general superintendence in the new settlement of all such matters as require the immediate exercise of the authority of the Government.’ He was to protect the natives, endeavouring ‘to conciliate them by kind treatment and presents,’ and to ‘improve by all practical means their moral and social condition.’
Lonsdale arrived upon the scene on September 29 in the Rattlesnake, Captain Hobson, and from that time the career of the Port Phillip District, hereafter to become the state of Victoria, commenced.
The first important piece of business which Lonsdale had to undertake was to determine where the settlement was to be permanently fixed. Batman’s and Fawkner’s people had both erected their huts on the slope on the north side of the Yarra. But from some aspects a situation closer to the sea seemed more desirable. There was a good site near to the anchorage, named Gellibrand’s Point. But there was an inadequate water supply there, whereas Batman’s ‘place for a village’ offered an abundant supply. ‘I examined several places for location previously to coming to any determination,’ wrote Lonsdale to the Governor, ‘and have finally fixed upon the place already chosen as the settlement, and where the greatest number of persons reside’; this ‘being the most convenient place for the performance of my civil duties, I have selected it.’
Robert Russell, the surveyor, commenced to plot out a township; and in March 1837 Sir Richard Bourke himself came from Sydney to inspect and name the settlement. His perception of the probable trend of development was less clear than that of Lonsdale, for he thought that Gellibrand’s Point was the more important position, and named it Williamstown, after the sovereign, whilst he gave to the ‘village’ the name of the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Bourke was only just in time to connect this new province with the pre-Victorian era by giving the name of the last male sovereign of the Hanoverian dynasty to one of its towns. Three months later William IV was dead.
Lonsdale continued to administer the Port Phillip District till 1839, when C. J. Latrobe was appointed Superintendent, or Lieutenant-Governor. In the meantime the settlement had spread so rapidly and the mass of business requiring attention was so large and complex, that it was no longer possible to govern the district from Sydney. To Latrobe was therefore entrusted a wide margin of discretion, and, as he proved himself to be an energetic and capable officer, the control of affairs was left in his hands, subject only to the general supervision of the Governor, to whom he was subordinate.
The claims based by Batman on his ‘treaty’ with the eight ‘chiefs’ were of course not recognized. The lands of Port Phillip were placed under the same regulations as affected the remainder of the territory of New South Wales, and will be more particularly considered in Chapter XVI. The Port Phillip Association pressed its case very pertinaciously, and at length the Government of New South Wales agreed to recognize its pioneering work to the value of £7,000, to be paid in land. Accordingly, in February 1838, an agent of the company attended a land sale, and bought 9,500 acres near Geelong for £7,919, of which £7,000 was remitted by the Government.
Batman himself did not live long in the country to which he had come in such strange circumstances. He died in 1839. It cannot be said that he was generously treated. Even his little house and garden of twenty acres close to the Melbourne township were taken away from his widow, the Government merely allowing the building material to be removed from the ground ‘as an indulgence.’ The day of free land grants was gone. But Batman, whatever amusement may be derived from his treaty, had done enterprising and courageous work, and he was personally an estimable man. There were ex-convicts across the Murray enjoying enormous incomes through the mere good luck that they had come to the country at a time when land was easily obtained, and had grown rich in consequence of the rise in values created by the growth of population. By contrast this genuine pioneer of settlement was shabbily handled. He did not happen to be one of fortune’s favourites, and the haughty frown of authority was turned more severely on him, perhaps, because he had forced the road for advancing settlement in spite of official disapproval.
In pursuance of the same policy, the Hentys of Portland were not permitted to hold unquestioned the land upon which they had settled in 1834; though after much correspondence they were awarded compensation to the value of £1,750. The pioneers were certainly not treated liberally by the Government.
Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 153-163
[Editor: Changed “Batman in Port Philip” to “Batman in Port Phillip”.]