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Bates, Daisy May (1863–1951)

by R. V. S. Wright

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Daisy May Bates (1863-1951), by Moore's Studio, 1936

Daisy May Bates (1863-1951), by Moore's Studio, 1936

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6799

Daisy May Bates (1863-1951), welfare worker among Aboriginals and anthropologist, was born on 16 October 1863 in Tipperary, Ireland, daughter of James Edward O'Dwyer, gentleman, and his wife Marguarette, née Hunt. Her mother died in Daisy's infancy and she had an unstable childhood. On the death of her maternal grandmother she was put, aged about 8, in the care of Sir Francis Outram's family in London.

Suspected of having contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, she migrated to Australia in 1884 and lived briefly at Townsville, Queensland, as a guest of Bishop G. H. Stanton. On 13 March 1884, at Charters Towers, Daisy May O'Dwyer married Edwin Henry Murrant. It is almost certain that this was Harry Harbord Morant. Shortly afterwards, he and Daisy separated. Late that year she was employed as a governess at Berry, New South Wales. On 17 February 1885 at Nowra she married Jack Bates, a cattleman. When he resumed droving she travelled to Sydney where, on 10 June 1885, she married Ernest Baglehole. Within months she was back with Bates; they had a son Arnold in 1886. She showed only a distant attachment to husband and son, leaving both in Australia when she returned to England in 1894 for what turned out to be a stay of five years. In London she worked on the Review of Reviews, learning the craft of journalism which was to become a crucial source of income when she lived with the Aboriginals.

Daisy Bates returned to Australia in 1899. Interested in an allegation in The Times about atrocities against Aboriginals in north-west Australia, she went to the Trappist mission at Beagle Bay, north of Broome. Here she had her first long contact with Aboriginals while working at this decaying settlement and its market gardens.

The north-west also saw the start of her inquiries among the local Aboriginals when in 1901 she temporarily rejoined her husband on the cattle-station at Roebuck Plains, where tribes from the Broome district were camped. Her curiosity about the camp's disputes and scandals led her to investigate their roots in kinship. She started to collect vocabularies and saw sacred and secret ritual life. These eccentric interests further estranged her from her husband, and she finally left him after a harrowing ride over-landing cattle from Broome to Perth in 1902.

Daisy Bates had already shown such anthropological promise that in 1904 she was appointed by the Western Australian government to research the tribes of the State. Next year this task was temporarily narrowed to a study of the Bibbulmun tribe of the Maamba reserve in the south-west, where she conducted her first concentrated period of field-work. She recorded wide-ranging data on language, myth, religion and kinship.

In an important 1905 paper on marriage laws she showed the equivalences of the four-section system for northern tribes and those to the south. By 1910 she had completed a substantial manuscript on the Aboriginals. Its publication was fatally delayed by the arrival from Britain of an expedition, led by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, to study the social anthropology of Aboriginals of the north-west. Because of her experience Daisy Bates was appointed a member of this expedition but she turned herself to welfare, moved by the miseries of the sick and elderly Aboriginals enforcedly exiled on the islands of Bernier (the males) and Dorré (the females). Her anthropological knowledge showed her that to physical distress were added the mental agonies of unnatural juxtapositions of tribe and kin. She claimed that it was there that the Aboriginals gave to her the affectionate name 'Kabbarli', meaning grandmotherly person.

In 1912 she established the first of the harsh, isolated camps for which she became renowned. She camped at Eucla amongst the remnants of the Mirning tribe on the southern fringe of the Nullarbor Plain. She was invited to attend meetings in eastern capitals in 1914 of the anthropological section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. To attend, she arranged a crossing of 250 miles (402 km) over the southern Nullarbor Plain in a small cart pulled by camels.

She returned in 1915 to the Mirning's area, but this time to the eastern margin near Yalata. In 1918, during a brief stay in Adelaide, she failed to extract from the South Australian government a protectorship and money for medical work. Nevertheless, she set off for a stay of sixteen years at Ooldea, a permanent water-hole on the trans-Australian railway around which Aboriginals had gathered. Here the travelling public could see her remarkable welfare work. In 1920 she was appointed a justice of the peace. Three visits by royalty brought her fame and she was appointed C.B.E. in 1934.

At Ooldea in 1932 Daisy Bates had been befriended by the writer Ernestine Hill, who aided her return to Adelaide in 1935 and the writing of her autobiography, 'My Natives and I', serialized in several newspapers. Those episodes dealing with the latter part of her life were edited into The Passing of the Aborigines (London, 1938). To prepare her papers for the national collection the Australian government had, in 1936, given her a stipend. The sum was insufficient for normal living so she chose to do the work in a tent at Pyap on the River Murray. This episode successfully ended in 1940 with the transfer of ninety-nine boxes of papers to the Commonwealth National Library.

Still with some government stipend, she was living in 1941 in the railway siding of Wynbring, east of Ooldea. Her letters show that old age and failing health were at last making such an austere life untenable. By 1945 she was back in Adelaide, where a secretary who worked with her briefly found her 'an imperialist, an awful snob … a grand old lady'. She died in an old people's home at Prospect on 18 April 1951, leaving an estate valued for probate at £66.

Though applauded for the self-sacrifice of her welfare work, Daisy Bates had no illusion about her own motives, which she privately identified with those that had previously impelled her to enjoy such sports as hockey, tennis and fox-hunting.

She wrote some 270 newspaper articles about Aboriginal life, valuably sensitive accounts of cultures customarily presented in the press as unintelligibly bizarre. However, her repeated, emphatic assertions concerning Aboriginal cannibalism aroused much controversy. She strongly opposed miscegenation; her belief that Aboriginal full-bloods would become extinct unless segregated from Europeans was proved wrong by the population statistics of the years following the Passing. Nevertheless her widely read defeatist views helped prod governments into action in medicine and child care.

Radcliffe-Brown had likened her mind to a well-stocked but very untidy sewing-basket. Her anthropology found little favour with anthropologists and her papers lay dormant for three decades, though latterly they have received some scholarly attention. The usefulness of the collection as a resource of anthropological information lies in the strong empirical thread in her research, coupled with a precocious manifestation of the anthropological method of living with one's subject. She had been careful 'never to intrude my own intelligence upon' the Aboriginals. Her place in Australian folklore has been formalized by the opera, The Young Kabbarli, written by Lady Casey to music by Margaret Sutherland. Her achievements remain the subject of sustained controversy.

Select Bibliography

  • E. L. G. . Watson, But to What Purpose (Lond, 1946)
  • J. Greenway, Bibliography of the Australian Aborigines and the Native Peoples of Torres Strait and Tasmania (Syd, 1963)
  • E. Salter, Daisy Bates (Syd, 1971)
  • R. V. S. Wright (ed), Archaeology of the Gallus Site, Koonalda Cave (Canb, 1971)
  • E. Hill, Kabbarli (Syd, 1973)
  • R. Needham, Remarks and Inventions (Lond, 1974)
  • Victorian Geology Journal, 23-24 (1905-06), p 36
  • Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Report of Meeting, 14 (1914)
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, Man, June 1975
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 14 May, 6, 27 Aug 1921
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 20 Apr 1951, p 8
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Aug 1959
  • Sydney Mail, 16 Sept 1972
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 22 Oct 1972
  • P. Biskup, Native Administration and Welfare in Western Australia, 1897-1954 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1965)
  • Daisy Bates papers (National Library of Australia).

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Citation details

R. V. S. Wright, 'Bates, Daisy May (1863–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bates-daisy-may-83/text8643, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Daisy May Bates (1863-1951), by Moore's Studio, 1936

Daisy May Bates (1863-1951), by Moore's Studio, 1936

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6799