Memorials to a murderer

To make it clear about the moral character of John Batman, his neighbour, the colonial landscape painter John Glover, described him as “a rogue, thief, cheat and liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known”. Even Batman’s wife did not stand by the evil, syphilitic, alcoholic man who claimed to have bought the land where Melbourne now stands for a few axes and bags of flour.

John Batman Memorial at Fawkner Cemetery

So how many statues and memorials does Melbourne need to this awful man? How many places, parks and railway stations need to be named after him? Melbourne had over half a dozen, but fortunately, that number has been lowered. A statue of Batman on Collins Street was removed for construction purposes in 2016. Batman Park in Northcote has been renamed Gumbri Park, but there is still a Batman Park in the CBD. The Australian Electoral Commission renamed the inner-city federal seat of Batman in honour of Indigenous rights campaigner William Cooper. Batman train station and two obelisks, one at Fawkner Cemetery and another at Queen Victoria Market, remains.

In 2020 I made a formal complaint about having a memorial to a genocidal criminal in the City of Melbourne. I was informed that: “it is currently being considered in the context of the Queen Victoria Market site. The memorial is an existing feature of the space, and its future will be considered as part of the overall design process. Close consultation with the relevant Traditional Owner groups and descendants of the Batman family is currently being undertaken.” The ongoing consultations have gone nowhere. The inadequate explanation of Batman on the memorial is barely an acknowledgement. The City of Melbourne should return this lump of stone to an Indigenous artist Mandy Nicholson, who carves impressive petroglyphs. 

Thanks to Jo Waite for pointing out the historic photograph of the Batman memorial at Fawkner Cemetery. Melbourne City Councillors in top hats and frock coats standing next to a new obelisk. I rode my bicycle north along the Upfield railway line to see for myself. I found it easily enough, it stands several metres tall in the flat lawn cemetery. It is amongst the old gravestones removed from the old Melbourne cemetery to make way for the Melbourne market (“money before decency” is the Australian motto). The isolated memorial in the lawn cemetery is the most recent of memorials to Batman. It was constructed in 1922, about the same time as many of the Confederate monuments in the USA. A time of international uncertainty, where monuments were designed to cement traditional views in the civic infrastructure.

As few cars were around and the weather was pleasant, I decided to bicycle back on a different route. It was then that I became lost in the vast cemetery, and some panic set in. Why was I putting in this energy to trace the surface archeology of Australian colonialism? Speaking ill of the dead in a place created to commemorate them. Eventually, I found another exit from the graveyard. Like the cemetery map, the network of institutional racism needs to be recognised from the colonial origins to the present. As the Batman memorial at Queen Victoria Market says circumspice, Latin meaning “You must look around”.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

4 responses to “Memorials to a murderer

  • jilloy

    noting John Batman Gardens Sandringham (time for a name change)

  • ianmilliss

    It should be noted that John Reed’s grandfather was one of Batman’s financial backers so the the status of the Heide group as not modernists but rather settler colonial mythmakers is based on more than just their imagery, it was actually financed by the worst sort of colonial exploitation. Does Heide have any signage indicating this questionable origin?
    Sunday Reed was a Baillieu with a fortune based on real estate speculation, a related sort of exploitation.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thank you. I did not know that. It is always important in art to follow the money, as well as, the myth-making. And in this case, the Heide group had both. Explains a lot about their form of modernism which lacked any revolutionary character.

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