• Batman signing the treaty with Kulin nation 1835. By John Wesley Burtt. La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H92.19 (State Library of Victoria)Source: State Library of Victoria
The electorate of Batman is finally set for a name change, potentially to Simon Wonga, but is this gesture purely symbolic; is it erasing history; or could it be symbolic of improved relationships in this region?
Luke Pearson

17 Feb 2017 - 4:33 PM  UPDATED 17 Feb 2017 - 4:37 PM

Calls to remove the many things named after people involved in murdering Aboriginal people are not new, same as the calls to remove the many racist sounding landmarks across Australia.

Mt Niggerhead, Gin's Leap, Poisoned Waterhole Creek, Murder Island, Chinaman's Knob, and many other names like these are scattered across the country and discussions around renaming or dual naming come up fairly regularly across the country. Some of the above have already been changed, and whenever they are it is often met with much harumph by those who argue that changing them would be to deny, erase, or rewrite our history. Most of us would have come across one or more people making this same argument for why we shouldn't change the date of Australia Day.

There is a difference between place names that acknowledge atrocities and place names that celebrate those who participated in them. Blacktown gets its name, quite simply, from it being a place where Aboriginal people were sent to live. Recent calls to change it were rejected by local community members who have since taken pride and ownership of  this history. Poisoned Waterhole Creek along with Massacre Island, near Narrandera, also have local Aboriginal supporters who want the names to be kept as an acknowledgement of the atrocities that took place. Place names like Mt Niggerhead, however, don't commemorate anything more than how popular and socially acceptable racism, and racist slurs, once were.

Places like Batman, an electorate in Melbourne, do not merely acknowledge this history, they are named in honour of such people; they celebrate their life and their 'achievements'. To have a place named after you is an honour, it says to the world that you were someone who deserves to be celebrated. Removing this esteemed honour that was bestowed upon John Batman doesn't erase history or his role in it, but it does realign how we look at his role in history.

Similarly, bestowing that honour upon Simon Wonga instead, speaks to a new chapter in Australian society that strives to embrace and celebrate the lives and contributions of Indigenous peoples. Wonga was one of the first Indigenous people to try and regain the land settlers had taken.

Not long ago schools taught about John Batman as someone who was 'uncommonly kind' towards Aboriginal people, largely because of his attempts to take over 250,000 hectares of land from the Kulin people in exchange for 68 kilograms of flour, four suits of clothes and a collection of axes, knifes and scissors in what is often referred to as 'the Batman treaty'. Some have argued that this demonstrates his respect for Aboriginal people and acknowledgement of their ownership of the land. I would imagine it shows little more than that he wanted that land and was willing to use any means to secure it for himself, including entering into a treaty that he had no authority to enter into.That said, his treaty was no more unlawful than the myth of terra nullius itself, it's just that his was acknowledged as unlawful at the time and not overturned two centuries later as terra nullius was.

His role in Tasmania's 'Black War' do not do much to support the idea of him being 'uncommonly kind' toward Aboriginal people either though. Not to say that he was necessarily all that exceptionally unkind compared to many others of his day either, it's just to say that he definitely did murder a lot of Aboriginal people. It is acknowledged by his own accounts that on one instance he and his group murdered a group of Aboriginal men, women and children, and then shot the survivors he took as prisoners who were too wounded to keep up.

Choosing not to celebrate and honour the name of John Batman doesn't erase history, and it certainly doesn't whitewash it either (I cannot stress enough how poor a choice of words that is for acknowledging Aboriginal perspectives on our shared history!). What it does do though is show that the people in this community perhaps aren't as keen to celebrate a murderer as they used to be. I'm not at all sure why that is such a controversial thing?

Changing place names, or changing the date of Australia Day, doesn't erase the history that they represent it just acknowledges the changing attitudes our country has to the brutal reality of our colonial past. The same colonial past that it is worth noting had no problem with renaming so many places, animals, and people that already had names to begin with. Hopefully, sometime soon, such changes may even go as far as to acknowledge the brutal reality of present colonialism too.

More importantly though, I don't just think dates or place names within Australia should change, I think Australia itself should change. I would like it to be a country that doesn't want to celebrate and honour the invasion of Australia and the subsequent wars, massacres, and ongoing dispossession and exploitation of Aboriginal people and lands. That doesn't mean I want us to forget that it happened, or remove it from the history books; I just don't think it should be so blindly celebrated.

That is the problem I have with superficially positive-seeming changes. They are symbolic, and symbols are fine if they symbolise actual things. Symbolic change on its own can actually be dangerous though if you do not make the necessary changes to give meaning to the symbol. Those little stick figures on toilet doors, for example, are important symbols, but if I go to open the door and find there isn't actually a toilet in there then I would be pretty frustrated. Symbols need to symbolise something real, or else they are misleading and potentially dangerous to those who believe the symbols are true.

The same frustration is there when a council flies an Aboriginal flag out the front but refuse to give acknowledgements of country, or actually do anything meaningful to support or empower their Aboriginal community. Or when a Federal government wants to recognise Aboriginal people in the Constitution while they also try to further water down the Native Title Act, refuses to add justice targets to their Closing the Gap reports, and doesn't want to give back the $600m in funding cuts they took for no good reason.

In Australia, we all too often confuse symbolism with doing the thing that the symbol represents. Walking across bridges, acknowledging country, not having racist slurs in place names, these are not victories, they are symbols. The job is not done when we put the symbol in place, the job only begins then. We are symbolising our intent to actually do the work to make meaningful changes.

So, while I do agree that not naming an electorate after someone who brutally murdered Aboriginal people is still a nice gesture, especially if it is what the local community have called for. I just hope that it is symbolic of listening to the local community on other important matters like land management, treaty, self determination, employment, funding for Indigenous run organisations and peak bodies, incarceration, health, housing, and education.

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