John Batman may well have signed his so-called “treaty” somewhere by the banks of Merri Creek in present-day Northcote in 1835, but Darebin Council is considering renaming its Batman Park in acknowledgment of the area’s more complex shared history. No doubt a survey of local residents’ views will influence the final decision.
Rival claims to primacy as Melbourne’s founder have ebbed and flowed over the course of the centuries, with Batman’s apogee as the preferred candidate reaching its height around the time of the city’s centenary in the 1930s. Neither Batman nor Fawkner were commemorated in the street names of Hoddle’s grid in 1837, which tells us something about what the New South Wales government thought of their solo dash for land and the sleight-of-hand of these sons of convicts. The renegade overstraiters from Van Diemen’s Land may have founded a farming camp, but it was the government who established the town of Melbourne.
While an intrinsic part of the history of this place, these debates around the foundation mythology are somewhat arcane in this day and age, and continually distract from the reality that Melbourne was founded on Aboriginal land. Placenames obviously reflect the particular cultural values of their day, but it is normal for these values to change over time. Changing the name of Batman Park—perhaps to that of a Wurundjeri Ngurungaeta—is completely consistent with a long history in Melbourne and other places of naming and renaming practices.
Older associations are often recalibrated in the light of new knowledge and changing sensibilities. By the end of the nineteenth century, Stephen Street had become Exhibition Street, and Romeo and Juliet turned into Liverpool and Crossley. In 1913, the Saltwater River became the Maribyrnong, and Yarra Bank Road became Batman Avenue (the Batman name, it might be said, lives on in a number of streets, memorials, an avenue and an electorate). Further afield, of course, the symbolic legacy of colonialism has been expunged in nomenclature from Bombay (Mumbai) to Leopoldstad (Kinshasa).
It’s easy to forget the end of the entry for 6 June 1835 in Batman’s famous journal—“This will be the place for a village—The natives on shore’. Any symbolic restitution of Aboriginal sovereignty in an inner-suburban street is a small act of placemaking but a significant gesture of acknowledgment and reconciliation.