Bowen and Batman - who were they?

11/7//2019

There have been further demands to change traditional names, the latest being the bridges Bowen and Batman. Recently of course we had calls for the renaming of Franklin Square, named after Sir John Franklin.   Bowen Bridge in the south was named after Lt John Bowen RN, while the bridge in the north, Batman, was named after John Batman. Their contribution not only to this state, but especially with Batman, to the nation is enormous and they are worthy to have important venues named in their honour.  Neither men were perfect; no one is, including those who criticise them. Perhaps as Christ implores, they should cast out the beam in their own eye first.

The four lane Bowen Bridge crossing the Derwent River was opened in 1984 and was (as stated) named after Lt. John Bowen.  Bowen was twenty three years of age (incorrectly stated in many sources as eighteen) with 48 other settlers, (free, military and convict) who settled at Risdon Cove in September 1803. He was instructed to land at Risdon Cove on the order of Philip Gidley King, acting on the recommendation of explorers, John Hayes and George Bass. Thus Bowen established the first British settlement in Tasmania. For that alone, he should be remembered and recognised. It was an incredible important historic episode for Tasmania and for Australia.  He came with Martha Hayes Quinn who remained here after Bowen left our shores.  Martha had two daughters by him, with descendants living here today. Martha went on to marry twice after John had gone and had further children.

Importantly, the settlement at Risdon Cove was named “Hobart” as testified by correspondence between Bowen and King. The settlement at Sullivan’s Cove the following year, which of course became Hobart Town, was actually the second settlement of that name. Lord Hobart was the Secretary of War and Colonies.

The contentious aspect about the Risdon Cove is the confrontation between the natives and the settlers which occurred in May 1804.  An historian in a recently published book states that Bowen was there at the time, but in actual fact this is erroneous, as he was away exploring the Huon River. In charge of the settlement was marine Lieutenant William Moore.  The scene saw a large number of natives confronting the small number of settlers and shots were fired.  The few documented accounts we have indicate that possibly up to five natives were killed.  The figures have now escalated to one hundred.  A lot of this comes from the testimony of Edward White who gave evidence at the  March 1830 inquiry into the affair.  The big problem is, despite White saying he was there at the time, he was not, and thus his evidence cannot be accepted as accurate.

The arrival of Colonel David Collins to Risdon Cove in February 1804 was the start of the end of the Risdon Cove settlement. Even so, four settlers who died from Collin’s expedition are buried there. Dr C Pardoe, anthropologist, actually inspected the remains of one several years ago.  The skeleton was found by farmer Fred Sargent in 1917.

Bowen, who came from a distinguished naval family, left the island to fight the French during the Napoleonic Wars.  Much more can be said of this young man, his achievements, his frustrations and yes, his failures.  That he played an important role in this state’s history cannot be denied.

The Batman Bridge spanning the River Tamar was opened in 1966. It is named after John Batman, who probably is best remembered for the founding the city of Melbourne.  We should be proud as Tasmanians that we not only preceded Melbourne, but that city had its origins from one who lived here.

Batman was born in Parramatta, NSW, in 1803. Leaving NSW, he and his brother Henry arrived in Launceston in 1821 and his life here was full of achievement. He actually captured bushranger, Matthew Brady.  Batman did indeed take place in the Black Line in 1830 which was an attempt to round up the aborigines of Tasmania. Here we have the conflicting nature of Batman.  He did attack and kill a number of natives, including a woman and a child.  Yet in October 1830 he gave refuge to twelve natives who sought sanctuary from him after a ferocious inter-tribal fight. He lived on his property which he called Kingston, north east Tasmania where he co-habited with Elizabeth Callaghan. They had a number of children and were eventually married.  By 1835 he with friends, John Fawkner and John Helder Wedge, discussed plans to make discoveries on the mainland. Batman visited Port Phillip (where Melbourne now stands), returned and then set sail again on the vessel Rebecca which was built at Rosevears in the north. Once there he noted a suitable place for a village, the future Victorian capital. He was accompanied by a number of Sydney aborigines who he said (his journal – Mitchell Library) helped him with his dialogue with the local aborigines, he writing that they “perfectly understand each other”. The whole episode is a large story unto itself.

I would like to end on Batman what I have written in my book Parramatta – Tasmania historic connections about this man. “Certainly as John Bonwick early historian and author picture him, he was no hero, full of warts and all. Indeed, he was human.  He was a man, however, who rose from humble beginnings and obtained prominent heights in our history books.  It can be said that he grasped an opportunity and made the most of it.”

Changing names because certain people are out of favour with certain people is not a genuine reason to do so. If we are looking for perfect people to name things after, then we shall not find them.  Many prominent people of international renown, like Lincoln, Churchill, Kennedy, Ghandi, Mandela (etc., etc.) had their flaws and some serious ones, but we must recognise their positive contributions as we must with Bowen and Batman.

Reg. A. Watson is a Tasmanian historian and author of “John Bowen the Founder of Tasmania”.


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