Daisy Bates, the enigmatic Kabbarli of the desert

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An independent Edwardian Irishwoman who lived 40 years in the desert with Aboriginal people a century ago should be a modern day heroine in Australia and Ireland, but Daisy Bates’ reputation remains troubled almost 100 years on. The “Great White Queen of the Never-Never Lands” was a household name during the decades she spent in exile from European comforts at a remote railhead near the Western Australian and South Australian border, but her extreme views on race caused her reputation to plummet and only now is her vast ethnographic output getting the attention it deserves.

Bates (1859-1951) lived a vast life spanning a century of intense social change. She saw herself as a woman of science but her views on cannibalism, extinction and caste discredited her within the academic community. She lived a remarkable spartan existence in a hot desert tent for many decades. As the Irish Times said in October, “she grasped opportunities for reinvention with both hands and carved out a niche for herself, claiming her place in Australian folk history.” Bob Reece’s 2007 biography Daisy Bates: Grand Dame of the Desert remains the best text on her life and I’m indebted to his research for this article.

Bates’ 40 years in the desert is highly unusual but her backstory is also colourful. In 1936 as an old woman she told a tale to journalist Ernestine Hill of her upper-class Irish protestant background that was almost entirely false apart from the setting. She was born Margaret Dwyer in Roscrea, Co Tipperary in 1859 to alcoholic Catholic shopkeeper James Dwyer and wife Bridget. Bridget died when Margaret was four and she was raised with her siblings by maternal grandmother Catherine, of wealthier farming stock than the Dwyers. Catherine died four years later and Margaret was sent to Britain before returning to an uncle in Roscrea and educated by the nuns as an “orphan”.

After school she moved to England where she styled herself as Daisy May O’Dwyer. In 1882 aged 22, she moved to Australia in a well advertised Queensland government scheme of free passages for bonded farm labourers and domestic servants. She landed in Townsville and moved to a station near Charters Towers where she married horse boy Eddie Murrant in 1884 in an Anglican ceremony. “Breaker” Morant, as he later became famously known, was also an assisted immigrant and younger than Daisy. The courtship was swift but the marriage unravelled just as quickly. Eddie was arrested for theft of pigs and Daisy swiftly ditched him.

It was the start of an astonishing period of three marriages in 12 months – none of which were formally divorced, though her serial bigamy was not discovered in her lifetime. After leaving Eddie, Bates went to New South Wales where she worked as a governess at Berry. On 17 February 1885 she married cattleman Jack Bates in Nowra. But when he went droving she moved to Sydney where on 10 June she married Ernest Baglehole. Little is known of that relationship and within months she was back with Bates.

She gave birth to her only child Arnold Bates in August 1886 but showed little interest in her son or his father declaring she would never have sex with a man again, a promise she appears to have kept. For seven years she lived with pastoral families as a governess before setting sail alone to England in 1894 for what turned out a stay of five years. In London she worked on social campaigner WT Stead’s Review of Reviews, learning the craft of journalism which became a crucial source of income later in life.

She returned to Australia in 1899 to seek out Jack who was buying a pastoral property in north west Western Australia. Their reunion was unsuccessful but it was her first introduction to Aboriginal people who gave her a skin classification governing relationships. Daisy went to Perth where she was feted as a celebrity for her English experiences and her carefully cultivated exotic accent. She moved to an Aboriginal Mission in the Kimberley where she learned basic anthropological fieldwork. Back in Perth she heard about the rapidly disappearing Bibbelmun people of the south-west and set up camp with them, and organised a corroboree for royal visitors in 1901.

Daisy earned money with freelance newspaper assignments and in 1904 was employed by the WA government to collect Aboriginal vocabularies. Queensland “protector” Dr Walter Roth was hired to report on the condition of Aborigines in the west. Bates helped him but would not accompany him because the coastal route the government chose meant he would meet “the wrong kind of informants”. Instead she conducted a survey of the Bibbelmun language and read her first ethnological paper at Melbourne in 1905.

Like many of her era, she became convinced Aboriginal people would become extinct due to their inability to cope with “civilisation”. She strongly defended regulatory action which strengthened her position with the government though it compromised her academic integrity. By 1907 she was considered an “expert” and lectured on the “half caste” problem and keeping Aboriginal people from white influences.

She set off on an epic eight month journey to understand the social organisation of south west tribal groups and by 1909 her manuscript was a large treatise on every aspect of Indigenous life in the west. English social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown found Bates’ work when came to WA for research. Though he wanted to use her field notes they fell out because of her lack of interest in theory. They also quarrelled over the treatment of Aboriginal venereal victims with Radcliffe-Brown arguing for quarantine lock hospitals on islands off Carnarvon while Bates said they were better off in their homelands.

Back in Perth in 1912, Bates got the news that would set her life course. She was appointed WA’s unpaid and unsupported Protector of Aborigines at Eucla on the Great Australian Bight. She stayed at a sheep station but was drawn in to tend the sick and noted “how quickly the natives have annexed me”. In 1913 she left the station to live under canvas at Fowler’s Bay and spent her days tending to the aged and ill and collecting dialects and customs. In 1914 she travelled to Adelaide for a science congress and was feted by women’s groups and journalists. She gave testimony to a government inquiry on Aborigines and was opposed to bringing them in to missions or town fringe camps.

She sold her property she inherited from Jack and subsidised her income with articles for The Argus and The Australasian documenting her bush experiences. After a breakdown in 1919 she briefly worked as a matron in a soldiers’ convalescent home in Adelaide before moving to Ooldea Siding on the transcontinental railway 200km from Fowler’s Bay. She remained there until 1935. Ooldea had a permanent underground aquifer and was an important crossroads for Aboriginal people, the site of initiation ceremonies and trade networks. A dozen white fettlers also lived here and Bates helped the Aboriginal women stay away from the sexual appetites and diseases of the rail workers.

Bates lived a penurious existence with no government support but refused to take charity. She kept apart from the fettlers and insisted Aboriginal visitors call out “Kabbarli” (grandmother) before entering her tent. Inside the tent she kept “the necessaries plus my MSS. and letters and Dickens”. She requisitioned a 500-gallon water tank to store her manuscripts. There was no toilet in deference to the natives who regarded fixed sanitary conveniences as disgusting.

She survived harsh hot summers and cold desert winters and a long railway strike which prevented supplies for many months, entrenching her anti-union stance: “the strike makers are as secret and deadly…as the monsters of the Inquisition”. She survived sandy blight which rendered her blind for three weeks in 1920 requiring a hospital visit to Perth. She also survived an Aboriginal “rebellion” of 100 hungry natives by calmly making tea and promoting the qualities of the shrewish wife of the rebellion leader who everyone hated.

She wrote articles on infanticide and cannibalism which she claimed to have encountered at Dampier Peninsula’s Beagle Bay in 1900. She also wrote that in 1908 at Peak Hill in the Murchison region Aboriginal women killed and ate their newborns “sharing it with every woman in the group”. Experts at the time believed she was sincere but was misled by informants. Many thought she was sensationalising her reports to improve her newspaper copy. Her strong stubborn streak meant the more she was challenged by anthropologists, the more sweeping and exaggerated her claims became.

Her views on caste also attracted controversy. She banned half-caste babies from the Ooldea camp and criticised a WA plan for a Central Australian Reserve preferring a “women’s patrol” to stop tribal people from entering settled areas. Her view was “the Aboriginal people are unmoral (sic), the half-castes are immoral, and to breed our own coloured population…is an ugly reflection on all of us”. A mixed race delegation to WA premier Philip Collier denied Collier’s claim Bates was a saviour to the natives. “She is doing it for publicity so people may call her a courageous woman for living among the blacks. If she did not encourage them to cadge at Ooldea, they would fend for themselves”.

Undeterred, Bates collected and recorded the culture of the desert groups at Ooldea. She remained a Christian though her bible was her Dickens’ collection which she revered. She found similarities between the Irish and Aborigines “being light-hearted, quick to take offence and quick to forgive”. As custodians died, they entrusted ceremonial boards and totemic stones to her and rare weapons made in the old way. She survived 16 years in the desert thanks to her intellectual interests and her spiritual strength. She kept a keen interest in the birds and animals that frequented the camp and sent specimens to museums in London.

In 1932 journalist Ernestine Hill visited and told Bates’s extraordinary story to the world as “the Woman of Ooldea”. Hill noted the contrast of Bates’s upper class demeanour and her spartan desert existence. “A white woman voluntarily exiled from her own people for 20 years finds all her joy in writing the legends and the songs of the vanished tribes,” Hill wrote.

When the United Aborigines Mission opened a post at Ooldea in 1933, they provided rations and medicine and Daisy could not compete. “Its coming has brought my work of investigation to a dead end,” she wrote. She received a CBE in the 1934 New Year’s Honours and moved to an Adelaide hotel to write her experiences in the desert for the Advertiser. Then 76 and with failing eyesight and health, she needed Hill’s help to put her manuscript to paper while syndicated articles about “Kabbarli” helped pay the bills. The first of 21 articles called “My Natives and I” appeared in 1936 in Australian publications.

In 1938 her publisher suggested her manuscript be called The Passing of the Aborigines and she was delighted with the name. “I do sincerely hope that the fact of their passing will be understood and appreciated by Australians,” she replied. When it appeared in 1939 the reviews were mostly positive and the book became hugely influential in setting a patronising tone to Aboriginal people. British writer Arthur Mee wrote in the foreword she provided “succour (to) a noisome race, melancholy in outlook and terrible in habits”. Bates’ reputation as an expert was assured though her prediction of Aboriginal extinction came as their dramatic decline in numbers levelled out. As Reece wrote about her attitude to “half-castes”, she was unable to blame the white men responsible for the “menace of colour” and took out her anger and frustration on their progeny.

In the late 1930s the elderly Bates returned to camp life at Pyap near Loxton on the Murray. She gave talks at the local school and showed the children how to make damper. But with few Aborigines to attend to, she moved to Wynbring Siding 160km east of Ooldea in 1941 aged 82. She wanted “the love and respect of those poor cannibals of Central Australia”. These people, she said, learned “there were two kinds of white women, our flotsam and jetsam eastwards and ‘Kabbarli’…and that is my lovely reward”.

Wynbring was even more remote than Ooldea with few trains, daily temperatures in the mid 40s, no post and unreliable water. Visitors from Ooldea trickled into camp but she was unable to care for the sick being old and frail herself. Theft was also an issue. She despaired Aboriginal people would never return to their “old quiet ways” and the elders had lost their power. In 1945 she was admitted to Port Augusta hospital where staff tired of her Lady Muck attitude. She moved to Adelaide as “an eccentric institution” vain as ever about her appearance but whose shortsightedness made her a traffic hazard. She died on 18 April 1951 and her funeral was a quiet affair with less than 100 mourners. There was no one from Ooldea though she left her estate for their “relief of poverty and distress”.

As Reece concluded, time has not softened the impact of Daisy Bates’ distorted views on Aboriginal society and its future nor her rejection of Aboriginal part-descent. But there was no doubting her kindness to Aboriginal people and her ethnographic work has been crucial in WA native title claims as “an indefatigable recorder of what could be salvaged of the traditional culture”. Bates’ extraordinary story was one of singular courage and vision, however wrong-headed.

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