Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Daisy Bates (Australia)
Daisy May (O'Dwyer) Bates (1863-1951) was an Irish-Australian journalist, welfare worker and lifelong student of Australian Aboriginal culture and society. She was known among the native people as 'Kabbarli' (grandmother). She also gained notoriety in Australia for her brief marriage to Breaker Morant.
Bates was born Daisy May O'Dwyer in Tipperary, Ireland probably in 1860. Her mother died when she was young, and her hard-drinking father ran off with another woman and died en route to the United States, so Daisy was raised and educated in an orphanage near Dublin.
In 1884 at the age of twenty-one she migrated to Australia on the Almora. Some accounts (presumably based on Daisy's own claims) say that she left Ireland for 'health reasons', but Daisy's biographer Julia Blackburn discovered that, after getting her first job as a governess in Dublin at age 18, there was a scandal, presumably sexual in nature, which resulted in the young man of the house taking his own life. Daisy was forced to leave Ireland and, keen to cover up her sordid past, she re-invented her history, setting a pattern for the rest of her life. It was not until long after her death that the true facts of her early life emerged.
Daisy settled first at Townsville, Queensland, staying first at the home of the Bishop of North Queensland and later with family friends who had migrated earlier. She subsequently found employment as a governess on Fanning Downs Station.
Records show that she married poet and horseman Breaker Morant (Harry Morant aka Edwin Murrant) on March 13 1884; the union lasted only a short time and Daisy reputedly threw Morant out because he failed to pay for the wedding and stole some livestock. Significantly, they were never divorced. Morant's biographer Nick Bleszynski suggests that Daisy played a more important role in Morant's life than has been previously thought, and that it was she who convinced him to change his name from Edwin Murrant to Harry Harbord Morant.
Soon after her failed marriage to Morant, Daisy moved to New South Wales, immersing herself in social life; she became engaged to Philip Gipps, but he died before they could marry. She then met John Bates and they married on 17 February 1885; like Morant, he was a breaker of wild horses, bushman and drover. The bigamous nature of their marriage was kept secret during Daisy's lifetime.
Their only child, Arthur Hamilton Bates was born in Bathurst, New South Wales on 26 August 1886. The marriage was not a happy one, so Daisy travelled widely, including Tasmania, and often visited inland towns or stations. Although she was at first quite well-off financially, she lost most of the money given to her husband and the remainder during the depression and the disastrous bank crashes of 1892.
In February 1894 Daisy returned to England, telling Bates that she would only return when he had a home established for her. She arrived in England penniless but eventually she found a job as a journalist. It was not until 1899 that she heard from her husband again, who wrote saying that he was looking for a property in Western Australia.
At about this time a letter was published in the The Times about the cruelty of West Australian settlers to Aborigines. As Daisy was preparing to return to Australia, she wrote to The Times offering to make full investigations and report the results to them. Her offer was accepted and she salied back to Australia in August 1899.
On her return voyage she met Dean Martelli, a Catholic priest who had worked with Aborigines and who gave her an insight into the conditions they faced. She found a school and home for her son in Perth, invested some of her money in property as a security for her old age, bought note books and supplies and left for the state's remote north-west to gather information on Aborigines and the effects of white settlement.
She wrote articles about conditions around Port Hedland and other areas for geographical society journals, local newspapers and The Times. This experience kindled her life-long interest in the lives and welfare of Aboriginal people in Western and South Australia.
Based at the Beagle Bay Mission near Broome, Bates, now thirty-six, began her life's work. Her accounts, among the first attempts at a serious study of Aboriginal culture, were published in the Journal of Agriculture and later by anthropological and geographical societies in Australia and overseas.
While at the mission she also compiled a local dictionary of several dialects, comprising some two thousand words and sentences, as well as notes on legends and myths. In April 1902 Daisy, accompanied by her son and her husband, set out on a droving trip from Broome to Perth. It provided good material for her articles but after spending six months in the saddle and travelling four thousand kilometres, Bates knew that her marriage was over.
Following her final separation from Bates in 1902, she spent most of the rest of her life in outback Western and South Australia, studying and working for the remote Aboriginal tribes, who were being decimated by the incursions of European settlement and the introduction of modern technology, western culture and exotic diseases.
In 1904, the Registrar General's Department of Western Australia appointed her to research Aboriginal customs, languages and dialects, a task which took nearly six years to compile and arrange the data. Many of her papers were read at Geographical and Royal Society meetings
In 1910-1911 she served as the only woman on a British outback expedition led by Professor Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. She was appointed a 'Travelling Protector' with a special commission to conduct inquiries into all native conditions and problems, such as employment on stations, guardianship and the morality of native and half-caste women in towns and mining camps.
Bates later came into conflict with Radcliffe-Brown because she sent him her manuscript report of the expedition. Much to Daisy's chagrin, it was not returned for many years and when it came back it was heavily annotated with Radcliffe-Brown's critical remarks. The conflict culminated in a famous incident at a symposium, where Daisy virtually accused Radcliffe-Brown of plagiarising her work -- Daisy was scheduled to speak after Radcliffe-Brown had presented his paper, but when she rose it was only to sarcastically compliment him on his thorough presentation of her work, after which she resumed her seat.
In all, Daisy devoted more than 35 years of her life to studying Aboriginal life, history, culture, rites, beliefs and customs. Living in a tent in small settlements from Western Australia to the edges of the Nullarbor Plain, notably at Ooldea in South Australia, she researched and wrote millions of words on the subject. She was also famed for her strict lifelong adherence to Edwardian fashion, including boots, gloves and a veil.
She also worked tirelessly for Aboriginal welfare, setting up camps to feed, clothe and nurse the transient population, drawing on her own income to meet the needs of the aged. She fought against the policy of having native people assimilated into white Australian society and resisted the sexual expoitation of Aboriginal women by white men. She was said to have worn pistols even in her old age and to have been quite prepared to use them to threaten police when she caught them mistreating 'her' Aborigines.
After 1912, when her application to become the Northern Territory's Protector of Aborigines was rejected on basis of her gender, Bates continued her work on her own, financing it by selling her cattle station.
The same year she became the first woman ever to be appointed Honorary Protector of Aborigines at Eucla. During the sixteen months she spent there, Bates changed from an semi-professional scientist and ethnologist to a staunch friend and protector of the Aborigines, deciding to live among them and look after them, and to observe and record their lives and lifestyle. In spite of her fascination with their way fo life, Daisy was convinced that the Australian Aborigines were a dying race and that her mission was to record as much as she could about them before they disappeared.
Bates stayed at Eucla till 1914 when she travelled to Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney to attend the Science Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Science. Before returning to the desert, she gave lectures in Adelaide which aroused the interests of several women's organisations.
During her years at Ooldea she financed the supplies she bought for the Aborigines from the sale of her property. To maintain her income she wrote numerous articles and papers for newspapers, magazines and learned societies. Through journalist and author Ernestine Hill, Daisy's work was introduced to the general public, although much of the publicity tended to focus on her sensational stories of cannibalism.
In August 1933 the Commonwealth Government invited Bates to Canberra to advise on Aboriginal affairs. The next year she was created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by King George V. More important to Daisy was the opportunity to put her work in print. She now left Ooldea and went to Adelaide where, with the help of Ernestine Hill, she produced a series of articles for leading Australian newspapers, titled My Natives and I .
Aged seventy-one, she still walked every day to her office at the Adelaide Advertiser building. Later the Commonwealth Government paid her a stipend of $4 a week to assist her in putting all her papers and notes in order and prepare her manuscript. But with no other income it was impossible for her to remain in Adelaide so she moved to the village settlement of Pyap on the Murray River where she pitched her tent and set up her typewriter.
In 1938, she published The Passing of the Aborigines which caused controversy due to its claims of cannibalism and infanticide amongst clans such as the Nyool-Nyool , Bibbulmun , Baduwonga , Kaalurwonga and Baadu . In 1941 she went back to her tent life at Wynbring Siding, east of Ooldea, and she remained there on and off until ill health forced her back to Adelaide in 1945.
Daisy Bates died on 18 April 1951. She is buried at Adelaide's North Road Cemetery. Her' life was the basis for the Margaret Sutherland opera The Young Kabbarli .
- A short biography
- "Seven Sisters" - includes a collection of quotes by and about Daisy Bates
- A list of the papers of Daisy Bates held by University of Adelaide Library
- Guide to the papers of Daisy Bates (including the rare maps) - held and partially digitised by the National Library of Australia
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