Push to change names linked to Australia's violent colonial past

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As Australia commemorates the anniversary of the 1967 referendum, many advocates believe it's the right time to acknowledge the role of some white settlers in Australia's history.

Wealthy grazier John Batman is remembered as one of the "founding fathers" of Melbourne.

He famously declared the site of the modern day city to be "the place for a village," suggesting it be called "Batmania".

He also signed a so-called "treaty" with Aboriginal elders in 1835, believed to be the only such agreement of its kind in Australia.

In exchange for items like knives, flour and blankets, Batman's treaty gave him access to around 60,000 acres of land.

John Batman - Credit Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria
Australian colonist John Batman. (Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria)
John Batman - Credit Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria

But the treaty was soon annulled, with colonial powers saying Batman did not have the authority to make it.

"Rename Batman" organiser Emily De Rango said Batman essentially duped Aboriginal people into an unfair trade they didn't understand.

She said there were also historical records of Batman as a bounty hunter of Aboriginal people in Tasmania.

"Batman was one of the people to found Melbourne as a colonial city, which makes him important in a way," Ms De Rango told SBS World News.

"But he's also somebody who was responsible for the murder of, and dispossession of Indigenous peoples."

Batman's name is a constant presence in Melbourne, with an electorate, streets, parks and other landmarks named after him.

But that might be about to change.

Melbourne's Merri Creek one of the sites where Batman is believed to have signed his treaty SBS
Melbourne's Merri Creek one of the sites where Batman is believed to have signed his treaty. (SBS News)
SBS News

One local council, Darebin, is changing the name of Batman Park in the northern suburb of Northcote and they want the Batman electorate to be renamed as well.

"This is just one small step in the broader reconciliation journey that all levels of government need to get on board with," Darebin Mayor Kim Le Cerf said.

And Batman isn't the only colonialist to come under fire.

Victorian MP Russell Broadbent has been leading a push to change the name of his McMillan electorate in Gippsland.

The electorate honours the memory of Scottish settler Angus McMillan.

But McMillan had also been labelled "the Butcher of Gippsland" and blamed for the massacre of dozens of Aboriginal people in the 1830s.

Mr Broadbent wrote to the Australian Electoral Commission asking for the name to be changed when a redistribution takes place early next year.

Rename Batman Organiser Emily De Rango SBS
Rename Batman Organiser Emily De Rango. (SBS News)
SBS News

Former New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie's legacy is also being questioned.

Author and Journalist Paul Daley said Governor Macquarie's name is everywhere in Sydney, but while historians have been kind to Macquarie, the man left a dark legacy.

He said Governor Macquarie had been accused of giving the order for his soldiers to kill 14 men, women and children at Appin, on the outskirts of Sydney.

"He was actually responsible for ordering the massacre in 1816 in Appin," Mr Daley told SBS News.

"After which he also ordered the theft of children to be taken to his native children's home in Parramatta."

Ms De Rango said while changing a name was a symbolic gesture, it could have real outcomes.

"As a non-Indigenous Australian I think that it is really important that we genuinely recognise the full scope of our history," she said.

Darebin Mayor Kim Le Cerf SBS
Darebin Mayor Kim Le Cerf. (SBS News)
SBS News

"Symbols matter. What we name something says a lot about what we value."

But some residents of the Batman electorate disagree.

An online poll for a local paper last year found just 20 per cent of readers supported the name change, and some residents who spoke to SBS News said renaming places was a low priority.

"I don't think it matters to everyday Australians," Batman resident Terry Martin told SBS News.

"It's just a name, you know."

Darebin Council has worked with Wurundjeri people to find an appropriate replacement name for Batman Park.

The preferred name, Gumbri, comes from the last Aboriginal girl to be born at the Corranderk mission in Healesville, an hour out of Melbourne.

She later lived in the Batman electorate.

Gumbri's grandson, Wurundjeri elder Colin Hunter Junior, said his grandmother would have been "chuffed".

"I think that she would be quite proud of the honour," Mr Hunter told SBS News.

"She would have been in this park many a time."

Mr Hunter said renaming the park, and the electorate, was an important step for healing.

"Until you can accept the truth and acknowledge the past, how can you move forward in reconciliation?" he said.

"You can't."

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