Daisy Bates

Daisy May Bates (1859-1951), journalist, was born on 14 October 1859 in County Tipperary, Ireland, into a Catholic family, as Dwyer or O'Dwyer. Though in her 80th year she admitted her correct age, she earlier stated her birth date as 1863 and invented genteel Anglo-Irish Anglican connections. She arrived as an assisted immigrant to Townsville, Queensland, in January 1883, and as governess on 'Fanny Downs' station married Edwin Murrant (better known as 'Breaker' Morant) on 13 March 1884 at Charters Towers. His arrest on a charge of larceny soon afterwards ended the marriage.

Daisy resumed her maiden name and status. When she married John Bates at Nowra, New South Wales, on 17 February 1885, she again described herself as governess. No record of a divorce exists; nor was divorce achievable within the interval between her marriages. A son was born in 1886 but her second marriage was only slightly more durable than the first. Her husband resumed droving and Daisy worked to support herself. In 1894 she sailed for England, leaving her son in the care of his father's family. She returned in 1899 to Perth, where she renewed contact with husband and son. She spent some time in the northwest of the State, she always maintained in the company of her husband looking for a suitable property. The reconciliation was short-lived.

She returned to Perth as a journalist. She joined the Karrakatta Club, letting it be known that she had worked as a journalist in London on the Review of Reviews, (her later correspondence refers also to having lived in Bournemouth) and that she was available for lectures. She wrote articles for the Western Australian Department of Agriculture on tropical agriculture, rabbit infestation and conditions around Port Hedland. She was a contributor to geographical society journals, local newspapers and The Times, London: the Western Australian government, she stated after an investigatory trip to the Peak Hill district, was doing 'more for its natives' than other States. Daisy discovered it was easier to place short pieces about 'the natives' than other articles.

She had an ear for Aboriginal languages, and in 1904 secured appointment in the Registrar-General's Department to compile vocabularies. She set about collecting by copying into her manuscript everything written about Western Australian Aborigines and by writing to police, settlers and missionaries for information. She camped on Maamba Aboriginal reserve for a year recording vocabulary, genealogies and legends, and making notes on artefacts, ceremonies, marriage and other customs. Her arrival there, before the deaths of several Bibbulmun who were born before the break-up of their community by white invasion, gave this material (along with the records she made earlier while in the northwest) an authenticity lacking in other parts of her manuscript. She travelled to other reserves, mainly in the southeast of the State, and in 1907-10 was in Perth writing up her material. She sent it to Andrew Lang in London, who substantially edited a section of about 100 pages.

As an expert on Aborigines she was invited to join the 1910 anthropological expedition led by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (known then as Brown); she took along her manuscript for editorial advice. Later she claimed he both mutilated the manuscript and ignored her repeated requests to return it. When her scattered papers were reassembled in 1936 this copy was among them; Brown had made some attempt at editing the unwieldy manuscript, with substantial excisions. On the expedition she soon fell out with him, each then working separately.

When the Western Australian government decided not to publish her manuscript, which Daisy valued at 1000 pounds, she was stranded without money or employment. Stories about natives had become the mainstay of her journalism; she established a camp at Eucla near the border with South Australia in Mirning country, and there added notes to her manuscript.

For several years her voluminous correspondence was directed to securing appointment as a salaried protector of Aborigines, and to finding outlets for her journalism. The Western Australian government allowed her the title of protector and supplied her with a medicine chest, but Daisy needed income. She promoted herself in her writing as dedicated to the natives; but apart from administering simple medicines occasionally, she neither wished nor was able to do more for them. She believed they would die out and she urged their total segregation until that eventuated. Her 'mission' was directed to preventing racial mixture: she persistently complained that she lacked the authority to keep Aboriginal women away from white camps, or to have their children forcibly removed to special institutions for 'half-castes'.

Her allegations against Brown served to win generous financial support from Georgina King, herself persuaded that Prof. Liversidge (and later Edgeworth David) 'stole' her research. Georgina financed Daisy's trip to Melbourne to attend the 1914 conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Daisy was stranded in Adelaide on her way back. She never returned to Eucla but went to Fowlers Bay, then established herself at Ooldea in South Australia on the southern edge of the Western Desert. She lived in dire poverty. During the war newspapers were not interested in what she was writing. By the 1920s she resorted increasingly to sensationalised accounts of cannibalism and infanticide and rather pathetic reportage of herself befriending the poor 'natives'.

She was then living in almost total isolation. Few Aborigines visited her camp and she despised and avoided the railway workers at Ooldea. She boasted of 'the thousands I have saved the Government in keeping down the halfcastes', but that was another lie. In the 1930s, befriended by Ernestine Hill and provided with secretarial assistance by the Commonwealth Government to sort her notes, she published The Passing of the Aborigines (1938). She moved her camp to Pyap on the Murray River but removed to Wynbring Siding, South Australia, from which she was removed by the police for her own protection in 1945, aged 86. She died in Adelaide on 18 April 1951.

Hers was a tragic life. She confided to Georgina King in 1925 that the old-fashioned clothes which she wore suited her - 'I am rather old- fashioned in myself' - and 'noone thinks I'm poor'.

Heather Radi

Daisy Bates The Native Tribes of Western Australia edited by Isobel White 1985.