Bates, Daisy May (1859–1951)

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Bates, Daisy May (1859–1951)

First anthropologist to carry out a detailed study of Australian Aboriginal culture. Born Daisy May O'Dwyer on October 16, 1859, at Ballychrine, County Tipperary, Ireland (for years, she had given her birth date as 1863); died on April 18, 1951, at Prospect, near Adelaide, South Australia; only daughter of Marguarette (Hunt) and James Edward O'Dwyer; educated privately; married Edwin Henry Murrant (said to have been "Breaker" Morant), on March 13, 1884, at Charters Towers (no record of a divorce exists); married Jack Bates (a cattle rancher), on February 17, 1885; children: one child, Arnold (b. 1886).

First settlement founded in Australia at Sidney Cove (1788); Bates arrived in Australia (January 1883); carried out first study of Aboriginal conditions (1899); Commonwealth of Australia founded (1901); appointed "traveling protector" of Aborigines in Western Australia (1910); established residence at Ooldea (1919). Selected publications: The Passing of the Aborigines (1938); numerous articles in Australian and British newspapers.

Aborigines, the native peoples of Australia, are today widely recognized as constituting one of the oldest and most culturally complex societies on earth. Present understanding of their customs, traditions, kinship structures and religious practices is the result of many detailed anthropological studies. These studies have their origin at the beginning of the 20th century in the work of a few dedicated individuals who set themselves the task of comprehending Aboriginal society. Foremost among these early pioneers was a quite remarkable woman, Daisy May Bates.

Bates was born on October 16, 1859, in the heart of rural Ireland at Ballychrine, County Tipperary. Her father James was a prominent local landowner whose estates enabled him to live a comfortable life as a country gentleman. Nothing of substance has been recorded about his character except that he seems to have taken little interest in his duties as a husband and father. When his wife Marguarette died giving birth to Daisy, James promptly sent his only daughter to live with her maternal grandmother.

This arrangement lasted until 1871 when, following the death of her grandmother, Daisy was sent to live in the household of Sir Francis Outram in London, England. Outram, an old family friend, was a civil servant who had recently retired from service in India. Generously, he assumed full responsibility for Daisy's education and provided her with private tutors. This assured that she received a solid, if not particularly extensive, grounding in a range of basic mathematical, linguistic, and artistic skills. More important, perhaps, Sir Francis liked to travel and was often accompanied by Daisy on his extensive trips throughout Europe. Thus, from an early age, she was exposed to a wide variety of cultures and ways of life.

When Bates was 23, she was diagnosed as suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis. In order to safeguard the health of her lungs, she was advised to leave England, with its unpredictable climate, and spend some time in a location where the weather was drier and warmer. Displaying a remarkable spirit of adventure, Bates chose to make the long sea voyage to Australia where she arrived, in January 1883, at Townsville, in the state of Queensland. There, she was given accommodation by a friend of Sir Francis, the Reverend George Stanton.

Stanton, appointed the first Anglican bishop of North Queensland in 1878, was widely recognized for his broad intellectual interests (he read extensively in science and philosophy as well as theology) and was a well-known pacifist. As bishop, Stanton had made a point of traveling widely throughout the Australian outback, and this experience had enabled him to reach an intimate understanding of the needs and conditions of the native Aboriginal population. It was thanks to his influence that Bates first became interested in the Aboriginal people of Australia.

Bates was a governess on "Fanny Downs" station when she married Edwin Henry Murrant on March 13, 1884, at Charters Towers, Queensland. In their 1979 book In Search of Breaker Morant, Margaret Carnegie and Frank Shields claim that her husband was Harry Harbord "Breaker" Morant. Morant, who had a reputation as a breaker of horses, would be condemned to death in a show trial over guerrilla warfare during the Boer Wars in Africa.

Their marriage soon ended when Murrant was arrested on a charge of larceny, but no record of a divorce exists. For one thing, there would not have been time. In February 1885, Daisy married a cattle rancher named Jack Bates at Nowra, New South Wales; in the following year, the couple had a son whom they named Arnold. Daisy and her son spent the next few years following Jack as he herded cattle throughout Western Queensland. Little is known about this period in Daisy's life or about her relationship with her husband and child. It may be assumed, however, that their days together were not particularly happy; several years later, in 1894, she left Jack and returned alone to England. Her son was left in the care of her husband's family.

On arrival in London, Daisy Bates was fortunate to secure a job with a literary periodical, the Review of Reviews. For the next five years, she managed to sustain a precarious existence as an apprentice journalist. Although Bates wrote nothing of note during this period, her experience provided investigative and research skills which later proved valuable in her richly detailed anthropological accounts of Aboriginal life.

In 1899, disturbing rumors began to circulate among the British public concerning the living conditions of the Aboriginal population of northern and western Australia. At this time, practically nothing was known in England about the social and economic circumstances of the Aborigines. Bates, whom it appears had already made up her mind to return to Australia, took this opportunity to approach the London Times offering to investigate these rumors with the view to publishing her findings in the newspaper.

When Bates arrived in Australia, she traveled over 800 miles to a remote mission run by Trappist monks at Beagle Bay (in the very north of the country). For the next eight months, she carried out extensive investigations into the status of Aborigines in the surrounding area which were subsequently documented in a series of articles in the Times. Bates concluded that the native population was not being actively ill-treated either by government authorities or local European settlers. Nevertheless, she recommended that a great deal could and should be done to improve their living standards.

Early in 1901, Bates rejoined her husband and son at Roebuck Plains, an isolated cattle station situated east of Broome, Western Australia. It is not clear whether she wished to effect a reconciliation. If so, she was not successful. In the short time that they were together, Daisy only grew more estranged from her family. This was partly due to what they perceived as her increasingly eccentric behavior. For example, they found her manner of dress odd. Bates later described her costume as comprising habitually of "a neat white blouse, stiff collar and ribbon tie, a dark skirt and coat." While such attire would not be unusual in normal contexts, it must be recalled that Bates was living in the Australian outback where temperatures regularly reached 120 degrees fahrenheit.

Living in the most arid bush, surrounded by the most primitive people, [Daisy May Bates] found a revelation, a version of the true nature of things, that was far clearer to her than the normal life we know.

—Alan Moorehead

A more frequent cause of comment, however, was her growing absorption in the language and traditions of Aboriginal society. At a time when the great majority of white Australians had no interest in native culture, Bates embarked on the first systematic study of Aboriginal kinship affiliations and customs. She managed to gain the confidence of many Aborigines and their tribal elders and was accorded the rare privilege of being allowed to attend their most important ceremonies and rituals (many of which Aboriginal women were not allowed to attend). Bates was helped in these researches by her natural facility for languages; she later claimed in her autobiography that she eventually came to understand no fewer than 120 different Aboriginal dialects.

After Jack died in 1902, Daisy spent a short period with her son Arnold, herding cattle and tending to the details of her husband's estate. Soon afterwards, however, for reasons that remain obscure, she decided to separate once again from her 16-year-old son. Apart from a few brief meetings later in life, mother and son were estranged.

Two years later, in 1904, her work among the Aborigines was formally recognized by the government of Western Australia. Bates was granted funds to carry out a detailed study of the Bibbulmun tribe who resided on the Maamba reserve in the southwest corner of the state. For the next four years, Bates studied and recorded the language, religious practices, kinship structures and tribal myths of the Bibbulmun. In 1905, she contributed an important paper to the Victoria Geographical Journal in which she presented the first comparative study of the marriage customs between the Aborigines in Western Australia and those in other parts of the country.

Just as important as the substance of her research on the Aborigines was the manner in which she conducted her investigations. Bates anticipated modern anthropological practice by sharing the living conditions of the individuals who formed the object of her study. Indeed, for many years, the only home she knew was a tiny six-foot tent often located in the most harsh and inhospitable environment.

Bates' stature as one of the leading living authorities on Aboriginal society received further confirmation in 1910. In that year, the first full-scale scientific expedition arrived from England to carry out a detailed study of the Aboriginal population in the hinterland of Western Australia. Thanks to her reputation, Bates was invited by the leader of this expedition, the distinguished Cambridge anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, to join the team in an advisory capacity. When the state authorities were informed of this arrangement, they formalized Bates' position by appointing her their "travelling protector." In effect, Bates was given a special commission to report on the social and economic situation among the Aborigines. She

would later claim that Brown ignored her advice and confiscated her working manuscript; her allegations served to win generous support from Georgina King .

Bates' principal concern became the condition of elderly and sick natives. (She had a lifelong belief that the young and the healthy were quite capable of fending for themselves.) She was particularly appalled at the physical circumstances which were leading to high mortality rates at two isolation hospitals on the islands of Bernier and Dorré, both located off the coast of Western Australia. These two hospitals (for male and female Aborigines respectively) had been established by the state government in 1904. As Bates pointed out in her subsequent report, the major cause of misery for the inmates lay in the fact that no attempt had been made to respect their tribal and kin affiliations. The unnatural juxtaposition, in the hospitals, of natives from different tribes and kin groups was extremely distressing for individuals whose existences had been intimately structured around such affiliations from birth. It was at this time that, in recognition for her work on their behalf, the Aborigines bestowed on Bates a special mark of their affection. From then on, wherever she went, Daisy was known among the natives as the Kabbarli (a name with a deep emotional resonance meaning "grandmother").

In 1912, Bates submitted what was perhaps her most important report to the Western Australia government. Despite her genuine concern for the plight of the Aboriginal peoples, Bates was convinced that what she called this "last remnant of palaeolithic man" was "physically uncivilisable" and was "inevitably doomed to perish." In these circumstances, she saw it as the moral duty of the authorities to "make their passing easier." This was to be achieved, she believed, by the establishment of reservations in remote parts of the country where the native peoples could be protected from the worst ravages of civilization and would be subject to the "highest and best traditions" of British rule. These recommendations were subsequently accepted in part by the state government who established a series of "Aboriginal Protection Boards" whose duties and functions broadly followed Bates' recommendations.

Her work has generated enormous controversy over the years. There are those who feel, despite her self-sacrifice and good intentions, that she took a pessimistic and patronizing view of the Aborigines and held up development of effective welfare programs. "Against that view can be set the tremendous affection for her among the tribes," noted an editor in the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature.

Shortly after she submitted this report, Bates established a new residence at Eucla, near the border with Southern Australia, among the Mirning tribe. It was there, in 1914, that the state government of South Australia asked Bates to take on the same duties as she had previously fulfilled in Western Australia and act as "protector" for its Aboriginal population. Although she accepted her new role, Bates was aware that the South Australia government would be unable to provide her with any funds for her work. Undaunted, she decided to sell what remained of her property (a small piece of land near Perth, Western Australia, on which she had hoped to build a retirement home) in order to supply the Mirning with food, clothing, and medical supplies. When eventually this money ran out, Bates turned to her journalistic skills and provided, for a modest fee, a variety of British and Australian newspapers with, what she termed, "my scientific gleanings of general interest."

Early in 1918, Bates became seriously ill and moved to Adelaide (the capital of South Australia). When she recovered, the authorities asked her to take charge of a convalescent home which had recently been established to aid soldiers wounded in the First World War. Bates applied herself to this new task with her usual enthusiasm. Yet, as she later wrote in her autobiography, she felt unnaturally constrained and out of place in the confines of the modern city. She yearned to return to the outback, and, at the end of 1919, Bates resigned her post and once again set out to live among her beloved Aborigines.

She traveled to Ooldea, a small town situated northwest of Adelaide on the trans-Australia railroad, where she was to remain in poverty for the next 16 years. This settlement had been encouraged by the railroad authorities in large part thanks to its abundant local water supply. Ooldea was, however, also an Aboriginal religious site where the native peoples of the region had traditionally performed their most important initiation ceremonies. By the time Bates arrived, the railroad had largely displaced the Aborigines from the pursuit of their customary ancestral practices. Nevertheless, not only did considerable numbers of natives continue to inhabit the surrounding area but they did so in the most appalling social and economic conditions. Bates immediately set to work to do what she could to alleviate this distress.

Because passenger trains often stopped at Ooldea to take on water, increasing numbers of the general public began to be aware of her work. As a result, she established a small, albeit well-deserved, reputation as a defender of Aboriginal rights. In 1920, she was appointed a justice of the peace for the Ooldea district (one of only two women at the time appointed to such a position). Later the same year, when the Prince of Wales (the heir to the British throne) was conducting a cross-country tour of Australia, he insisted that Bates take him on a personal inspection of local Aboriginal sites. The prince's visit was in fact only the first of three such calls by members of the British Royal family in the succeeding years. As a reward for all her efforts, Bates was honored in 1934 by being created a Commander of the British Empire, an event which she acknowledged as "the full reward of my life's services."

In 1935, she returned to Adelaide where she began to serialize her life story in a local newspaper. These columns (originally published under the title "My Natives and I") were collected together three years later with the help of Ernestine Hill and formed the basis of Bates' autobiography, The Passing of the Aborigines. The following year, 1936, Bates was awarded a small stipend by the federal Australian government in order that she might prepare her personal papers for deposit at the Commonwealth National Library in Canberra. She was nearing 80 and in failing health. Remarkably, she refused all offers by friends to spend her remaining years in the comfort and security of their homes. Instead, she preferred to complete her work in the type of environment that she had known and loved all her life, in a tiny tent at Pyap by the banks of the Murray River.

By 1945, the austerity of these conditions became too much even for Bates; she was forced to retire, for the last time, to the town of Prospect near Adelaide where she entered an old people's home. Even then, she continued to maintain an active correspondence with anthropologists around the world and to sustain her deep interest in a wide range of Aboriginal problems. It was at this home in Prospect that Daisy May Bates passed away on April 18, 1951.


Bates, D M. The Passing of the Aborigines. London: Murray, 1941.

Hill, Ernestine. Kabbarli: A Personal Memoir of Daisy Bates. Sydney: University Press, 1973.

Needham, R. Remarks and Inventions. London: Murray, 1974.

Radi, Heather, ed. 200 Australian Women: A Redress Anthology. Broadway, NSW: Women's Redress Press, 1988.

Royal Anthropological Institute. Man. June 1975.

Salter, E. Daisy Bates. Sydney: Temple Press, 1971.

suggested reading:

Abbie, A.A. The Original Australians. London: Frederick Miller, 1969.

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

Greenwood, G. Australia: A Social and Political History. Sydney: Angus and Roberts, 1955.

Salter, Elizabeth. Daisy Bates: The Great White Queen of the Never Never. 1971.

related media:

An opera The Young Kabbarli written by Lady Maie Casey (music by Margaret Sutherland ) was performed in 1972.

The Sydney Dance Company staged Barry Moreland's dance-drama, Daisy Bates, in 1982.

Dave Baxter , Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

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Bates, Daisy May (1859–1951)

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