Daisy Bates

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Daisy Bates was probably the best-known Australian woman of the first half of the C20th, that is, her name was, but very little was known about her – just that she was an old woman who wore C19th dresses and lived in a tent in the Aboriginal community at Ooldea, a rail siding way, way out in the Nullarbor, in western South Australia.

There was a rail siding at Ooldea for the same reason as there were Aborigines – there was a permanent soak, the only fresh water for a very great distance, which the railways commandeered for their steam locomotives.

With this post I will reprise Bates’ biography from my thesis (Lisa, who has already read it, is given leave to stop here). And with my next I will review the collection of articles which, with the unacknowledged assistance of Ernestine Hill, was published as The Passing of the Aborigines (1944). My principal source is Elizabeth Salter’s Daisy Bates (1971).

I own and have read the de Vries ‘biography’ but it is a journalistic nonsense hanging off the revelation of Daisy’s marriage to Breaker Morant. If I met her, I would ask de Vries one question: If Bates had the poor start you make out, then how did she later have the money to buy the lease of a cattle station? The money can only have been the remnants of her inheritance from her father. However, I don’t deny that, throughout her life, Daisy told a great many falsehoods about her antecedents.


Daisy May O’Dwyer (1859-1951) was of the minor Irish (protestant) gentry. Her mother died early (in 1862) and Daisy was mainly brought up by relatives, in particular her Grandmother Hunt, and it was on her grandmother’s property in rural Roscrea where she was mostly in the care of her illiterate and superstitious (and Catholic) nanny that she mixed freely with the rural poor who, in the years after the Great Famine were still living lives not only of intense physical poverty but also of great spiritual richness, that, years later, she said enabled her to emphasize with and share the lives of Australian Aborigines.

She eventually, somehow, received a good education, not staying long at any school but guided by her father in her reading, particularly Dickens, and later touring Europe with the family of Sir Francis Outram, learning grammar, languages and manners with their governess. In 1883 her father died, leaving her a small inheritance, and she, like a great many of her countrymen, chose to emigrate, in her case to Australia, to another friend of her father’s, Bishop Stanton in Townsville, Queensland.

Some time in her first year in Australia she took a position as governess on a station near Charters Towers, where she probably married Edward Henry Murrant (the famous Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant). She may also, the following year, have married Ernest Baglehole a well-born seaman whom she had met on the voyage out, and further, by her own account was also in the same year to have married Phillip Gibbs, who inconveniently died. In any case she subsequently – and probably bigamously – married Jack Bates, a drover, in 1885 and by him, a year later, had a son, Arnold. And that was the end of intimacy, ‘“I had rather a hard time of it with the baby,” she is reported as saying, “and Jack, the best of men, never came near me after that.”’

She and Bates persevered for a number of years, thinking, or hoping, that he would use her money to establish a cattle property suitable to her station, but Bates, an archetypal ‘lone hand’, was, perhaps not surprisingly, happier to be away droving. Daisy would sometimes go with him, travelling throughout the backblocks of eastern Australia and learning the bush skills that stood her in such good stead in later life. But, by 1894 she had had enough. She placed Arnold in a Catholic boarding school and set sail for London.

There, near destitute due to the property crash and bank failures of 1892, Daisy was doubly lucky to be taken up by the philanthropist W.T. Stead, for he not only found her a place in a home for penurious gentlewomen, but gave her a job on his journal Review of Reviews and so introduced her to journalism which was to provide much of her income for the rest of her life. She stayed at the Review for two years, starting off by dusting the library and learning to type and ending as assistant to the (lady) editor of Borderland, a journal of spiritualism. Although the circles she moved in included both spiritualism and women’s emancipation she was impressed by neither.

In 1897 she took another library position in Norfolk where she mixed with the county set and, apparently accepted as a widow, and with introductions from one of her innumerable upper class cousins, she attended weekend house parties, “hunting and shooting” during the day and dancing at night. At least two men she stayed with, Richard Attwater of Ratfin Hall and Carrick O’Bryen Hoare, were sufficiently taken with her to propose marriage, but in 1899 her bank offered to refund her a shilling in the pound (ie. one twentieth of her nominal deposits), Jack wrote to say he and Arnold were in Western Australia looking for a property in the newly opened up North West and Daisy sailed for Perth. Two years later, the property finally purchased, Daisy named it Glen Carrick, in remembrance no doubt of all she had given up.

Although she later claimed to be a correspondent for The Times, the more likely story is that she contacted The Times and offered to write them an account of clashes in WA between settlers and aborigines, which she finally did in 1904. Daisy was certainly interested enough to obtain an introduction to a scientist in London knowledgeable about WA and, through him, an introduction to the elderly Catholic priest and champion of the Aborigines, Dean Martelli who was returning to Perth on the same ship.

In Perth she moved in the upper levels of society, she gave lectures at, and was accepted into the Karrakatta Club, was invited by club members, Perth’s principal matrons, into their homes, attended Government House, and was persuaded by the Premier, John Forrest, of the necessity of recording the languages and customs of the aborigines before they died out.

Meanwhile, Jack’s mentor, Sam McKay of Roy Hill Station in the Pilbara, had found Jack 180,000 acres of leasehold, good cattle country which he would help finance. Daisy sailed north to Cossack (present day Karratha) to meet Jack and made with him a remarkable journey inland by buggy through rugged country to the new ‘Glen Carrick’, at Ethel Creek, near Jigalong, Martu country, then back across the plains to the coast at Carnarvon (a round trip of at least 1,000 kms (map)), writing up her observations for the Journal of Agriculture, including detailed accounts of the local Aborigines.

Her next journey was even more remarkable. Martelli had introduced her to Bishop Gibney who was famous for his struggles on behalf of the Aborigines, and she persuaded Gibney to take him with her to a Trappist mission at Beagle Bay near Broome, 8,000 acres which was meant to be a model farm for the local Aborigine community. Daisy stayed 3 months, helping the Bishop bring the farm up to scratch for renewal of the lease, and her writings of their progress were taken up not only by Australian but by London newspapers.

With no stock and no house on Glen Carrick, Bates took a position as manger on a station, Roebuck Plains, near Broome where Daisy joined him and was able to indulge her new – and lifelong – enthusiasm, documenting and, more importantly, being accepted by, the Aborigines, and becoming an honorary correspondent of the Anthropological Institutions of England and Australia. After a season at Roebuck Plains, the Bates decided to take advantage of high cattle prices in the south by buying and droving 770 head of cattle, to Perth, resting en route at Glen Carrick and leaving enough cattle there to form the basis of their own herd. The West Australian described it as “one of the most arduous trips that any lady has undertaken and … what must be a record in the endurance of the “weaker” sex.” Unfortunately, the 200 head intended for Glen Carrick were lost, and the Bates effectively separated, more or less for good.

For the next couple of years Daisy worked as a journalist, travelling throughout Western Australia. Importantly, in 1904 she wrote to The Times (London) defending pastoralists against charges of exploiting the blacks, cementing her acceptance by officialdom as an authority on all things Aboriginal and in May that year she was appointed by the Registrar General to record the customs and dialects of the Aboriginal population “before they died out”. For a year, she worked from an office compiling reports collected by officials throughout Western Australia, then, taking advantage of some remaining Noongar being encamped at Cannington, a swampy area a few miles south of Perth, she was, reluctantly, permitted by the authorities to camp with them, which she did, in a tent ‘fourteen feet in diameter’, for the next six years (here). During this period, she wrote and rewrote her grammars, corresponded indefatigably with anthropologists interstate and overseas, and published popular articles in the local papers, all the while struggling with the government for ongoing support.

In 1910, almost ready to publish her formal study, she was persuaded to join a major expedition by Oxford and Cambridge Universities, under the leadership of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (later Australia’s first professor of Anthropology at Sydney University) and, inevitably, her ‘amateur’ work was subsumed into his and the opportunity for publication was lost.

In 1912, she applied for the position of Protector of the Aborigines for the Northern Territory, for which she was unsuccessful ‘as the risks involved would be too great for a woman’. Instead, and somewhat inconsistently, she was offered the, unpaid, position of honorary protector for the district of Eucla in South Australia. In November she put her property up for sale and moved to a station near Eucla, initially staying with friends, then camping once more, on the edge of the town, venturing out into the desert for days at a time with Aboriginal companions, on horseback and by camel-drawn buggy, exploring and hunting wild dogs. Already well known throughout the country due to her both own and other journalists’ reports of her activities, she now became famous, and then a ‘legend’. That is, the ‘idea’ of Daisy Bates developed a life of its own.

After the war (WWI) she moved to Ooldea, a fettlers’ camp and water stop for steam trains on the newly completed Trans Australia railway, where she was to stay for the next 16 years, all her money gone, an object of curiosity to passengers, with no hope of official support, but still, determinedly, writing up her observations.

Ernestine Hill, who sought her out in 1932, wrote:

Living unafraid in the great loneliness, chanting in those corroborees it is death for a woman to see, she had become a legend, to her own kind… To the natives, she is an age-old, sexless being who knows his secrets and guesses his thoughts – Dhoogoor of the dream-time. (Hill 1937, p.252)

Following Hill’s visit, and her widely syndicated articles, Daisy began, slowly, to benefit from her renown, she was asked to Canberra to advise the government (her suggestion of a huge reservation for the remaining Blacks with a white administrator from Britain, “an Anglican and a gentleman”, was not taken up), she was awarded a CBE, and some of her papers were sold to state and national libraries. Although she refused all requests to collaborate with ‘real’ anthropologists, in 1934 Hill persuaded Daisy to work with her on the series of articles eventually published as The Passing of the Aborigines.

For four years Daisy worked to prepare her papers, 94 folios in all, for the national library, for the pittance of £2 a week, living in a tent north of Adelaide, and then, 80 years old, half blind with sandy blight, and with the nominal title of Consultant for Native Affairs, she returned to camp life near Ooldea. In 1945 she was admitted to Port Augusta hospital suffering from malnutrition. She struggled for a few more years in Adelaide and Streaky Bay to obtain funding for further publications but in 1948 she was admitted to a convalescent home, and on 18th April 1951 aged 91 or 92 she died.

Miles Franklin and her Sybyllas and Eve Langley’s Steve represent the ‘pure’ form of the Independent Woman, but Daisy Bates with her love affairs, her unsatisfactory marriage, her tremendous feats of endurance in the Bush and, above all, her fierce resolve to forge her own path, represents not only the ‘real’ Independent Woman but surely also one of the finest examples of the Australian Legend, man or woman.

 

References and other reading:
Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines, first pub. 1944
Elizabeth Salter, Daisy Bates,  Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1971
Sussanah de Vries, Desert Queen, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2008
Ernestine Hill, The Great Australian Loneliness, Robertson & Mullens, Melbourne, 1945
Ventured North by Train and Truck (here)
Fanny Balbuk Yooreel (here)
The Breaker, Kit Denton (here)
The Independent Woman in Australian Literature (here)

11 thoughts on “Daisy Bates

  1. Indeed. The problem now is that her legacy is tainted by a different view of contemporary anthropology and Indigenous issues in general. Like George Robinson, well-meaning but flawed, and these days blamed more for the flaws than admired for the good intentions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I admire her good intentions and I admire her bushmanship which is rarely acknowledged. Above all I admire her independence. Also, she accumulated a vast amount of source material about Western Desert and Noongar languages and customs and it is difficult to see who is making use of it, though the pamphlet Fanny Bulbuck Yoreel which I reviewed previously was based almost entirely on her work.

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  2. Thanks for this excellent overview of her life Bill. She’s such a fascinating woman, and more maligned now than is reasonable. It’s so easy to judge from our current position of superior knowledge, isn’t it. I think we do need to pay more credit to good intentions than sometimes happens.

    I like your conclusion that she is the real deal as far as independent women go.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. 94 folios: sheesh. That’s simply amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed “meeting” Daisy here: thanks for sharing this excerpt from your thesis and gaining her a few more fans!

    Like

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