Daisy Mae Bates

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Daisy Mae Bates

Daisy Mae Bates (1861-1951) was a social worker among the Australian aborigines. One of the first Europeans to win their confidence, she compiled a unique collection of material about them.

Daisy Bates was born Daisy O'Dwyer Hunt at Ballychrine, Tipperary, Ireland. Following the death of her mother, she was raised in the family of Sir Francis Outram, a retired officer of the Indian Civil Service. In 1884 she emigrated to Australia for health reasons, and at Bathurst, New South Wales, she met and married John Bates. She returned to Britain in 1894 and took up journalism but in 1899 emigrated to Western Australia, partly in connection with a pastoral lease in which she was interested and partly on behalf of the Times to investigate charges of white cruelty to the aborigines.

Bates's reports suggested that the aborigines were incompetently and unwisely managed but refuted the idea that they were being treated cruelly. Having discharged her commission, Bates remained in Western Australia and for 35 years lived as a solitary European among the aborigines. Her work was officially recognized by the Western Australia government, which commissioned her to study particular tribes and made her the state's traveling Protector of Aborigines.

The death of her husband and the acquisition of property in the north of Western Australia did not distract her from the service to which she had now clearly resolved to devote her life and for which, in 1933, she was made a commander of the British Empire. The aborigines accepted her as their friend and referred to her as Kabbarli, or grandmother. She was admitted to some of their initiation ceremonies, from which their own women were excluded on pain of death, and made copious notes on all she observed, which formed the basis of a book she published in 1938. She was still working among the aborigines at the age of 80, but in 1945 ill health compelled her to retire to Adelaide. She died on April 18, 1951.

Bates not only studied the aborigines but also helped to feed them, nurse them, and settle disputes between them. She took care to respect their tribal rules and customs and was critical of missionaries who attempted to undermine their beliefs and convert them to those of a totally alien world. She regarded the aborigines as a race doomed to eventual extinction but was concerned that the process should be as painless as possible. In this regard she concluded that what was needed was not "anthropological study of social laws" but "administration of British rule founded on our highest and best traditions."

Further Reading

There is little written about Daisy Bates. The best source of information is her own account of her life, The Passing of the Aborigines: A Lifetime Spent among the Natives of Australia (1938; 2d ed. 1966). Winifred Holmes, Seven Adventurous Women (1953), has a lengthy discussion of her.

Additional Sources

Bates, Daisy, The long shadow of Little Rock: a memoir, Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1987.

Blackburn, Julia, Daisy Bates in the desert, New York: Pantheon Books, 1994. □