Tag Archives: John Batman

The John Batman Memorial

It is obscene to have a memorial to a genocidal colonial. I wouldn’t want to honour a person who committed genocide, but the City of Melbourne, along with many Australians, isn’t that concerned. The John Batman memorial at Queen Victoria Market should be removed because: it honours a genocidal colonial, engages in  historical negationism, has little historic value, less aesthetic value and is not in its original context.

John Batman Memorial (thanks to Linda Ely for the photo)

For years the City of Melbourne had the opportunity to be on the right side of history with the John Batman Memorial. The current plan is considering the memorial in the redevelopment of the market rather than removing it. To allow change for redevelopment rather than an ethical decision shows a lack of any moral character. For if the John Batman Memorial is removed, it will be done, not out of any introspection or empathy or reflection on history, but as a business decision in the redevelopment of the market’s car park. The current market redevelopment is officially called a ‘renewal’, and the memorial to the racist criminal is still there. Similarly, the statue of John Batman that once stood in National Mutual Plaza on Collins St was removed in 2016 for reasons of redevelopment rather than as an ethical decision.

Putting profits before ethics is part of a pattern of behaviour for the site; for profit is the only thing that is sacred in Australia. For before it was a market, it was the site of the city’s first cemetery.

John Batman was buried in an unmarked grave, an accident of history that is appropriate for a person who committed genocide. The memorial was erected over forty years after Batman’s death. When the cemetery was moved, Batman’s body was disinterred along with the rest from the old Melbourne cemetery and reburied in Fawkner cemetery, named after his contemporary rival in land theft, William Fawkner. The cairn moved with the cemetery but was never considered as a marker for Batman’s grave. In 1922 it was moved back to the city to the north bank of the Yarra at Swan Street Bridge. It was moved again to its current site when the City of Melbourne wanted to develop  the north bank of Yarra.  

The bluestone obelisk is the work of J. W. Brown, a stonemason working in Carlton, and is about as attractive as your average gravestone. Not surprisingly the memorial has not transitioned from memorial to monument to marker: people don’t say that they will meet at the Batman memorial. It has not even been allowed to decay naturally and fade into insignificance. It is maintained at public expense, including the taxes paid by the descendants of Batman’s victims, which is like asking victims of the Cambodian killing fields to pay to maintain a memorial to a member of the Khmer Rouge.

If anyone thinks that the memorial could be rectified with the addition of an explanative plaque should consider the one that is already there:  

“The City of Melbourne acknowledges that the historical events and perceptions referred to by this memorial are inaccurate. An apology is made to Indigenous people and to the traditional owners of this land for the wrong beliefs of the past and the personal upset caused.” 

Detail of the John Batman Memorial (thanks to Geoff Irvin for the photo)

The difference in font size and the quality between the broken (badly weathered or vandalised) black print and the memorials gilded letters is obvious. The vague weasel words “inaccurate” rather than what it is, genocide denialism, is referring to “then unoccupied,” (although the date of Batman’s birth is out by a year). There is no mention of genocide and no apology for the theft of land. The politics of the claim of unoccupied, “terra nullius” was historical negation even then, of a sort that would later be Holocaust denial. And Holocaust denial statements are not “inaccurate” they are wrong.

While statues celebrating racists have been removed this year, toppled or officially taken down, in many countries including Belgium, Columbia, Canada, NZ, South Africa, UK and US, no statues or memorial have been removed in Australia. (Although there was a guerrilla action to rewrite and replace plaques in Perth.) Australian politicians (ALP or LNP, whatever your preference) are too conservative to honestly look at the genocidal racist history of Australia. Many of these same politicians are more concerned with finding ways to stop the Black Lives Matter protests than implementing the findings of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody.


Statue Wars 2020

The statues are falling so fast. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement statues to racists, slavers and corrupt cops have been removed around the world. It reminds me of the end of the Soviet Union. Statues are being painted, vandalised, removed or pulled down around the world. In the USA it is Christopher Columbus and Confederate generals, in Belgium Leopold II, in England Edward Colston… the list goes on.

Sir John Tweed, Captain Cook, 1914

However, in Australia, no statue has been removed. Not that there aren’t plenty of memorials to racist colonials around. In October 1991 Gary Foley and Robbie Thorpe put the statue of John Batman in Melbourne on trial (developers have since removed that statue so the area could be redeveloped). In 2017 I wrote about the Statue Wars, in 2019 I wrote about the campaign to remove the statue of William Wentworth from Sydney University. Still, I never expected that there would be so much interest in public sculpture.

Public art has always been part of a culture war. So it is not surprising that public art continues to be a cultural battlefield. Before the twentieth century, the purpose of public art was to support the authorities. Defacement was an official practice in the Roman Empire before it came into common, popular use, faces were officially removed from monuments when they fell out of Imperial favour.

I’m reminded of the destruction of the Vendôme column, a monument to Napoleon, that was pulled down in 1871 during the Paris Commune. And that the French Realist artist, Gustave Courbet maintained, in his defence, that he had only called for it to be dismantled and displayed for educational value.

The statue wars have been going on in Australia for a long time, a symbolic battlefield for displaying Australia’s cultural divides. And conservatives are not above vandalising and removing statues and other public sculptures. In the 1980s, people saw the internationalism abstract public art as a cultural battlefield. Consider the year-long controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault which was known at the time by the racist phrase: “the Yellow Peril”. And there are also Australia’s most vandalised sculptures: Yagan and Liz and Phil by the Lake

Now the cultural battle has switched to the removal of figurative public art representing and glorifying colonialism and other racism. A change in attitude towards public monuments is sweeping the world. A change of symbols of the collective consciousness is an indication of a shift in consciousness. The fall of statues is both a symbolic and real change in the way that public space is seen.

It raises many questions for me. Why should the public space be some triumphal version of colonial history excused with the dubious claim that it is educational? Why do past generations get to dictate what the future will look like by erecting statues? And when will Australia start to change? Is conservative Australia is too powerful, and too deeply in denial, to allow even a symbolic gesture?


Statues Wars 2017

The statue wars of 2017 sprang to prominence in the USA although the debate had been going for some time. Around the world people have been asking what to do with these monuments to evil men, from Cecil Rhodes in South Africa to General Robert E. Lee in America to John Batman in Melbourne. The debate about these statues has often been furious, ill-informed and poorly reasoned; so more of a war than a debate. However, if I have learnt one thing from it is that the greatest educative value that a statue can have is when it is being torn down.

Stanley Hammond, John  Batman Memorial, 1978 (3)

Stanley Hammond, John Batman Memorial, 1978

I doubt that statues on pedestals are the right thing to erect but then people have been making that observation for over a century. Back then the craze was for putting up these same statues and it was called ‘statuemania’ because it was obvious that the many statues being erected were insane, not just because of the quantity but given the direction of civil society, reason and art. The only purpose in putting something on a pedestal is to worship it. The great man theory of history is not taken seriously by historians any more but some conservative groups still think that a statue will do something worthwhile.

Many people in the debate were confusing, deliberately or idiotically, the monuments with the history that they were commemorating. If tearing down statues is some kind of ‘Stalinist revisionism’ (as a reason-retarded Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed) attempting to rewrite history then what were the US troops doing with that statue to Saddam Hussain in Bagdad? In Melbourne this year the controversial statue of John Batman was taken down by a property developer to redevelop the site; I doubt that motives were revisionist or that the statue will ever be permanently installed anywhere.

Do the sculptors who made these care about the fate of their statues? Not beyond the final payment; if I have learnt one thing about the kind of people who make these statues is that they are professionals.

Should these statues be preserved for the sake of their artistry? Ha ha… you were making a joke?

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Moving on the next question is: what to do with these empty plinths that the statues leave behind? Consider London’s Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square or, for a local example, Plinth Projects in Edinburgh Gardens.

Outside the St Kilda Town Hall there is this ‘monument’. Just as you thought it must be meaningful with the man, the airplane and the classical temple turns into crazy snake fun. Made of cast bronze, the sculpture and its large plinth is ironic in its content, materials and form. Local artist Richard Stringer’s Monument for a public building, 1994, turn the form of the monument into self-referential postmodernism.

Richard Stringer, Monument for a Public Building,

Richard Stringer, Monument for a Public Building, 1994, St Kilda Town Hall


Batman & Fawkner

Standing in the forecourt of 447 Collins Street in Melbourne are two bronze sculptures honouring the founders of the English settlement of Melbourne, Batman and Fawkner. Although they are a matching pair of sculptures, were made by two different sculptors: Stanley Hammond and Michael Mezaros.

Stanley Hammond, John Batman, bronze 1978

Melbourne sculptor, Michael Mezaros created the bronze sculpture of John Pascoe Fawkner in 1978. Menzaros has made several other figurative public sculptures: a war memorial in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, “Spirit of the Skier” (1994) and a life-size equestrian sculpture “Mountain Cattleman” (1996) at Mt. Buller, Victoria. There was another sculpture by Mezaros at the Telstra building, on the corner of Lonsdale and Exhibition streets, but it has been removed with the remolding of the foyer.

In 1990 Michael Mezaros had completely changed his style with the creation of Rainbow, in the foyer of 565 Bourke Street, Melbourne. This 7m formalist abstract work fits perfectly into the modern foyer of the office building even though it is now surrounded by tables and chairs from a café.  Brass squares of sunlight and drops of stainless steel rain.

Michael Mezaros, John Pascoe Fawkner, bronze, 1978

Stanley Hammond, MBE (1913-2000) created the sculpture of John Batman, also in 1978. The sculpture refers to Batman’s diary note about the site of central Melbourne: “This will be the place for a village”. During his long life Stanley Hammond worked on the stone sculptures of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and other war memorials in Geelong, Broken Hill and Mont St. Quentin, France. See Heritage Victoria’s “Deep Lead Pioneers Memorial, Western Highway” for more biographical details about Stanley Hammond.

Who now cares about Batman and Fawkner? Their entrepreneurial spirit must have a few supporters in Melbourne’s business district, where their statues are located, however there is little else to recommend their characters. The statue of Batman tried for war crimes by aboriginal activists. The uninspiring bronze statues would have looked old fashioned even when they were new. The time lag evident in these two history sculptures from 1978 demonstrates that the collective conscious in Melbourne was, in the late 70s, introspective, isolationist and conservative.


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