The Passing of the Aborigines, Daisy Bates

From the time she arrived in Western Australia in 1899, Daisy Bates wrote and lectured about the Aboriginal peoples she lived amongst and whose languages and customs it became her life’s work to record. The Passing of the Aborigines came about when in the 1930s Ernestine Hill persuaded Bates, and spent some time working with her, to get her papers into a form acceptable to a publisher. If I have my facts right, this work was initially serialised in newspapers as My Natives and I in 1936.

Hill’s work was completely unacknowledged, and the edition I have, a 2009 reprint, continues that tradition by failing to list any earlier edition or publishing history, or even the sources of the individual stories. I can only imagine that Bates’ work is now out of copyright. Trove (the website of the National Library of Australia) has the initial publisher as Murray, London, 1938 (up till now I had thought 1944) followed a year later by Putnam, New York.

Trove also shows there is another work by Bates, not published until 1985 (Bates died in 1951) The Native Tribes of Western Australia edited by Isobel White*. Bates early on adopted the name Kabbarli, meaning grandmother, which name was apparently recognised by the Aborigines of all the many language groups with which she worked. Using ‘Kabbarli’ as a search term on Trove brings up 2,920 Australian newspaper articles, giving some idea of how widely her journalism was syndicated. She was also well known overseas, but I don’t know how to demonstrate that.

The Passing of the Aborigines is a collection of stories written by a dedicated, adventurous, literate and thoroughly old-fashioned woman, describing her life with Aboriginal people, from Broome in 1899 where she lived and worked in a Trappist monastery, to nearby Roebuck Plains where Jack Bates managed a cattle station; droving cattle south to the head of the Ashburton R. (near present-day Newman) where she had her own property; touring the Pilbara by buggy; living in a tent on the reservation for the remnants of the local Noongar (she says Bibbulmun); touring the Murchison goldfields north of Perth with AR Radcliff-Brown; living on the islands in Shark Bay where seriously ill Aborigines were brought to die; years touring all of Noongar south-west WA; getting an unpaid position as ‘Protector’ at Eucla, maybe the most remote township in the world, jammed under the cliffs, between the Southern Ocean and a thousand kilometres of desert; travelling by camel buggy for 2 weeks to briefly enjoy the limelight with the Science Congress in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, coinciding with the outbreak of WWI; before returning to the Nullabor, still unpaid, this time on the SA side, to a number of camps west of Ceduna, before finally, in 1919, ending up at Ooldea, a watering stop on the trans-Australia rail line (map), and the southern hub of continent-wide Indigenous trade routes, where she stayed 16 years, until she was well into her seventies.

Nothing more than one of the many depresions in the never-ending sandhills that run waveringly from the Bight for nearly a thousand miles, Ooldea Water is one of Nature’s miracles in barren Central Australia. No white man coming to this place would ever guess that that dreary hollow with the sand blowing across it was an unfailing fountain, yet a mere scratch and the magic waters welled in sight. Even in the cruellest droughts, it had never failed. Here the tribes gathered in their hundreds for initiation and other ceremonies.

In the building of the transcontinental line, the water of Ooldea passed out of its own people’s hand for ever. Pipelines and pumping plants reduced it at the rate of 10,000 gallons a day for locomotives. The natives were forbidden the soak …

Within a few years railways engineers had drilled through the clay bottom of the water table and rendered it all saline.

This a beautifully written book which contains a wealth of stories and information nowhere else available. Its big problem is that it contains ideas which present day Aboriginal people repudiate. Firstly, the idea behind the name itself; secondly, the encroachment of the ‘circumcised’ (Western Desert Group) tribes of the centre into the country of the ‘uncircumcised’ groups in south west WA and out along the Bight; and thirdly the widespread practice of cannibalism and particularly of the eating of infants. (With the caveat I was unable to google any discussion of this book, by Indigenous writers or white.** )

Bates frequently mentions the “last Aborigine” of a particular region or tribe. It is clear that, as the 1905 Aborigines Act under which she was employed in Western Australia, anticipates, she believed that Indigenous people with white blood would be absorbed into the white community. My searches brought up the following quote: 

They did not anticipate a need to manage an emergent, fertile, and anomic half-caste populace, too black for the mainstream white community to accept as equals, but too white to be regarded as Aborigines (D. Tomlison, thesis, 2008)

I’ve read nothing else about circumcised and uncircumcised, but Bates believed that the circumcised – in effect the Western Desert Group – represented a later wave of arrivals from the north and east. Bates believed that right up to white settlement, the Noongar (of south-west WA) were being pushed westwards. Certainly it seems the groups east of the Noongar, around Kalgoorlie and along the Bight have been largely overtaken by Western Desert peoples.

 I’m not going to talk about cannibalism, and neither is anyone else probably.

Bates as an Australian ‘explorer’ and scientist (anthropologist) should be more widely recognised. The Passing of the Aborigines is a fascinating work by a fascinating person and an important and largely unrecognised record in our national history.


Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines: A Lifetime spent among the Natives of Australia, first pub. 1938, Benediction Classics, Oxford, 2009

*The bulk of MS 365 is the manuscript of Daisy Bates’ work “The native tribes of Western Australia”, written during her period of service with the Western Australian Government from 1904 to 1912. It comprises 99 “folios” split between Sections I to XIII. Each page has been item-numbered within the “folios”. Many of the drafts have been annotated by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, a British social anthropologist (53 boxes, 2 fol. boxes). Trove (here)

** Anita Heiss doesn’t mention Bates in Dhuuluu-Yala. JJ Healy in Literature and the Aborigine in Australia contrasts Bates’ despair and practicality with English writer Grant Watson’s fear and mysticism (after the two travelled together with AR Radcliffe-Brown in 1910). See my post on Heiss and Healy (here)

Further to my discussion with Sue (Whispering Gums) after my previous post, I noticed in Wikipedia this reference to the ongoing use of her materials: The collaborative work of digitising and transcribing many word lists created by Bates in the 1900s at Daisy Bates Online provides a valuable resource for those researching especially Western Australian languages, and some of the Northern Territory and South Australia [Western Desert Group]. The project is co-ordinated by Nick Thieburger, who works in collaboration with the NLA “to have all the microfilmed images from Section XII of the Bates papers digitised”, and the project is ongoing.

Two typical newspaper stories about Bates:

In “The Desert Farewell” Bates is leaving her camp at Ooldea, forever she thinks, to work on this book in Adelaide, and here, 6 years later, “Abos. Await ‘Kabbarli’, she returns, to live out her years destitute in a tent in the desert.


30 thoughts on “The Passing of the Aborigines, Daisy Bates

  1. I’m sure I read a book about Daisy Bates which was lightly or completely fictionalised, yet I forget the author and the actual title. What an interesting book, as long as it’s read along with the caveats you mention from more enlightened times.


    • I searched Desert Queen on your blog but nothing came up, don’t know what else it might be. Passing is an excellent book, except for its title, and I’m a bit disappointed with the way I described it. It’s full of interesting stories about people she met, Black and White, descriptions of desert flora and fauna, Aboriginal legends, how traditional Aboriginal society works, her own spartan living conditions and more, all written in a lively and literate style.


      • I’ve remembered, it was Daisy Bates in the Desert by Julia Blackburn, read pre blog but I suspect in the 1997 to 2007 index I’m slowly making of my reading journals.


      • Thanks. I’ve been looking it up – a biography based on the words of a liar. Hmmm. And written as though Bates’ real life began only when she got to Ooldea. In fact by then she was a well known anthropologist, speaker and writer. Still, I suppose I’ll read it if it jumps out in front of me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Going through old papers – trying to make room in my filing cabinet for all the papers I “store” on the office floor – I found a 2007 review of another Daisy Bates biog. Daisy Bates: Grand Dame of the Desert by Bob Reece. Prof Reece thinks she lied about her past but “had no reason to lie about her research”.


    • I’m sure it was an excellent comment too! The sealing off and despoilation of the water at Ooldea is a metaphor for our treatment of Aborigines (and of Australia), but what is most shocking about this book is that so many Indigenous communities had fallen into despair as early as 1900.


      • I think it happened because I opened up the link to your post yesterday when I saw it in my email, and left it open overnight till I felt ok to do some more reading.


      • You seem to be reasonably active still. I’m sure you had posts ready, but I hadn’t really expected you to go on commenting. Don’t strain your eyes! as our mums would say.


    • Yes, that’s happened to me a few times over the years Lisa – I’ve had a post open for hours or a day or so and then written a comment and had it Whoosh away. Weirdly, sometimes when I’ve gone back in the browser, after getting the failed to send (or whatever the message is), the comment is still there and, the page having been refreshed by my going back, the comment will then post. But, sometimes this doesn’t happen. Why? I hate it when things seem random. Anyhow, I now try to remember to refresh before writing my comment but I don’t always!


  2. I always have an “ehhhhh” moment when I learn about a white person (for some reason, it tends to be a woman) exploring a group of people so completely like her own that the majority of her work tends to be comparisons between her own upbringing and the traditions of the tribe. Thus, the focus sort of wavers back and forth between Western society and the tribe instead of being strictly about the tribe. I felt this way about Return to Laughter, a book I reviewed in 2018. Oh, and there’s this book title from Margaret Mead: Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. Yeesh.


    • Bates writes almost entirely about her observations – and what we have here is journalism/memoir rather than a strict account of her work. She comments somewhere that the primitive Catholicism and mysticism of the rural Irish among whom she was brought up better enabled her to understand the beliefs of the Aborigines. She says very little about sex except to deplore men selling their wives into prostitution which she says was quite common. While her ostensible task was to observe and record, she felt her real calling was to ease the passing of the last survivors of a race which she felt had effectively already died.


      • This sounds more complicated and involved that most schools of anthropology would get into, especially the folks who believe you should not interact with the subject you’re studying.


      • Bates was entirely self-taught but was widely recognised by anthropologists for her observational work. Her defects were a lack of organisation – her notes, on any scrap of paper, were stored willy-nilly in an upturned rainwater tank – and a related ability to synthesise and publish. I doubt she ever read much theory.


  3. I love that you are so passionate about Daisy Bates Bill. Singlehandedly you may return her to the modern consciousness. Regardless, as we’d discussed and you mention here, her work is recognised by and valuable to some! It would be fair for her to receive better recognition than she has to date.


    • Parochial as I am I would like her recognised as a valuable Western Australian. Unfortunately we are well past the centenary of her living and working here. And I would like her to be taken up by feminists – a lot of the lack of recognition stems from her being dismissed as an amateur by guys in the academic establishment. Women in the field at that time were often treated as specimen collectors by men in universities who did the ‘real work’, ie. published and took the credit.


      • She was recognised as an anthropologist and invited to attend the Congress of Science in Adleaide, Melbourne and Sydney in 1914 but that was the highpoint, any possibility of a (paying) career was derailed by the War. In 1919, for a short while, she was given the token position of matron of a returned soldiers hostel, then she returned to Ooldea.


  4. […] Bill’s review of Daisy Bates’ The passing of the Aborigines is the first for this book in our challenge. Bill has made quite a study of Bates, so his review is well worth reading if you don’t know a lot about her, or have only heard the negative stories. Bill tackles some of the modern Indigenous criticisms of the book – including the implication in its very title – but concludes: […]


  5. For those who might be interested, I’m currently editing a book called Into the Loneliness, by Eleanor Hogan, a kind of joint biography of Daisy Bates and Ernestine Hill, to be published by NewSouth Publishing.


  6. […] 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. […]


    • Thanks for that link. I see they’ve photographed it rather than use OCR, which of course requires editing. I think there are still hard copy editions around, the one I have was published in 2009.

      Liked by 1 person

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