ByKit Simpson Browne, writer at
Writer-at-large. Bad jokes aplenty. Can be gently prodded on Twitter at @kitsb1
Kit Simpson Browne

Now, one of the peculiar truths about Batman is that he's not, in fact, the only one to hold that name. There's an entire province of Turkey called Batman, as well as an Iranian village, a role in the military, and an ancient Ottoman unit of measurement. What's more, Bruce Wayne may be the most famous man to hold the name, but back when he was first created in 1939, he would have struggled to make the top 3.

Y'see, long before Wayne arrived on the scene, the world had already met Stephen Batman, an English author and translator, Ira Coleman Batman, an American politician, and - as any Australians reading this will surely know - John Batman, a sort-of-founding-father of the antipodean nation.

The only problem?

John Batman's History Makes Him Sound More Like a Batman Villain

It all started out promisingly enough, with the young Batman being born in what is now a suburb of Sydney back in 1801, to two recent English immigrants, William and Mary Batman. In 1816 John was apprenticed to a blacksmith, and in classic Batman fashion, helped bring the man to justice for burglary (which led to his master's execution).

By 1821, John and his brother Henry found themselves travelling to Van Diemen's Land (what is now known as Tasmania) and quickly established themselves as successful landowners, with John's new home of Kingston eventually encompassing over 7000 acres. Around 1826, Batman even captured a notorious outlaw named Matthew Brady, unarmed. What's more, for many Australians, he has long been known as a historical figure who "acted always with a humanity and kindness unheard-of for his day."

So far, so Batman, then, right? Well...

Then Things Took a Turn For the Less Heroic

Y'see, between 1828 and 1830, Batman became something of a specialist in hunting down - and often killing - the Aboriginal Tasmanian people. Now, that was very much the sort of thing that was approved of by the authorities back in 1820's Van Diemen's Land, but even historical moral relativism isn't going to turn the systematic expulsion and murder of indigenous peoples into anything other than a monumentally awful thing to do.

Indeed, Batman was a key figure in what is known as the 'Black War,' a guerrilla-warfare-filled conflict in which close to 1000 Aboriginal Tasmanians lost their lives as part of an effort by white colonists to pacify the pre-existing population. Batman, for his part - in the words of the then governor - had "much slaughter to account for," and took part in the 'Black Line' -- a 1930 effort to restrict the Aboriginal inhabitants of Van Diemen's Land to a small area in the southeast of the peninsula. With this being the 1830's, however, Batman was hailed as a hero for his part in the war, and eventually went on to found what would later become the city of Melbourne (in an area he dubbed Batmania), negotiating the sale of the land with the Kulin peoples who called it home.

For Generations of Australians, Batman Was a Hero

Indeed, for close to two centuries he was not only widely treated as a sort-of-founding-father of the nation, but widely considered to have been unusually sympathetic towards Aboriginal people for his day.

More recent historical scholarship, however, has suggested that the view of Batman as a benevolent founding father is inaccurate, and that his famous treaty with the original inhabitants of what is now Melbourne (known as Batman's Treaty) was never understood by them to be an exchange of land. Instead, his negotiations with the Kulin peoples are now understood to have more in common with early American settlers' negotiations with Native American groups, in which settlers failed to clarify what it was they considered themselves to be trading for (thus essentially stealing the land in question).

In other words? Batman was an arch-colonialist, who had as a young man taken part in the whole-sale slaughter of indigenous peoples.

Batman, Then, Wasn't Much of a Hero

No matter what we ultimately label Batman, though - a flawed hero, or a colonial villain - his sad end wasn't something to be wished on anyone. Having contracted syphilis back in 1833, Batman's health soon declined, and he eventually died in 1839 - estranged from his wife, disfigured and crippled by the disease, and having lived to see his son drown in the Yarra river.

Not a heroic end, perhaps, but a tragic one worthy of a Shakespeare play.

Or, a Batman comic-book for that matter.

What do you reckon, though?



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