Daisy Bates (author)

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Daisy May Bates, CBE[1] (born Margaret May O'Dwyer; 16 October 1859 – 18 April 1951) was an Irish-Australian journalist, welfare worker and self-taught anthropologist who conducted fieldwork amongst several Indigenous nations in western and southern Australia. Bates was a lifelong student of Australian Aboriginal culture and society and was the first anthropologist to carry out a detailed study of Australian Aboriginal culture.

Daisy Bates
Bates in 1936
Daisy May O'Dwyer

(1859-10-16)16 October 1859
Roscrea, Tipperary, Ireland
Died18 April 1951(1951-04-18) (aged 91)
Resting placeNorth Road Cemetery, Nailsworth, South Australia
Spouse(s)Harry Harbord 'Breaker' Morant, possible bigamous marriage to John (Jack) Bates and definite bigamous marriage to Ernest C. Baglehole
ChildrenArnold Hamilton Bates
Daisy M. Bates on a railway station platform, Australia, 1934

Some of the Ngaanyatjarra and Ngaatjatjarra people referred to Bates by the courtesy name Kabbarli "grandmother."[2][verification needed] In the 1970's in Yalata, she was referred to as mamu, meaning ghost or devil, and as "that poor old lady at Ooldea".[3]: 109 

Early life


It was not until long after her death that facts about her early life emerged,[4] and even recent biographers disagree in their accounts of her life and work.[5]

Daisy was born in 1859, in Tipperary, Ireland when it was under British rule. [6] She had six siblings, including a twin brother named 'Francis'. Francis and another sibling, Joe, died young (with Francis dying two weeks after being born)[4]: 27 

When Daisy was four, her mother, Bridget (née Hunt), died of tuberculosis on 20 February 1864.[4]: 28  Her widowed father, James Edward O'Dwyer, hired Mary Dillon to look after his six children. Seven months later they were married and attempted to emigrate to the United States, James however died en route, also in 1864.[4]: 28–29 

After her father and stepmother left for the USA, Daisy and her siblings were split up between relatives. Daisy and three of her younger siblings were sent to live with her grandmother, Catherine Hunt, called 'Granny Hunt' by Daisy.[4]: 29  After Granny Hunt died in 1868, Daisy returned to live with her stepmother, Mary, who had managed to return to Ireland and take over as householder. Daisy (now nine years old) and her eldest sister, Kathleen, were sent to the Free National School for Catholic Girls in Dublin. Daisy stayed there until she was nineteen, likely working as a pupil-teacher.[4]: 31 

After leaving school, Daisy was employed as a family governess in London.[4]: 53 [7]: 26 [a] Not much is known of her time in London, except that she first met Ernest Baglehole there, who was the son of a wealthy ship and factory owner. Daisy was rejected as a bride for Ernest, who had already been arranged to marry a 'Miss Jessie Rose', the daughter of an engineer and descendant of the Rose Clan. Daisy seems to have then been dismissed from her position. Likely humiliated and desiring to start anew, Daisy planned to emigrate to Australia.[4]: 53–54 

Emigration and life in Australia: 1882 to 1894


On the 22 November 1882, Daisy boarded the RMS Almora, en route to Townsville in Queensland, Australia.[4]: 54 [7]: 29  Daisy, being twenty-three at the time, lied about her age to be given a government-assisted concessional fare. This was part of a immigration scheme, reserved for "...Catholic girls of 'good character' aged between fifteen and twenty-one."[4]: 20 

After arriving in Townsville on 15 January 1883, Daisy's whereabouts for the next year is unclear.[4]: 58–61 [7]: 30  It is known that Daisy was in Charters Towers for some period of time before November 1883, as a coroner's inquest report into the death/suicide of a man named Arnold Knight Colquhoun includes a suicide note that was intended for her.[4]: 64 & 284 

By the beginning of 1884, Daisy had found employment as a governess on Fanning Downs Cattle Station, 40km outside of Charters Towers.[4]: 68 [7]: 30  Breaker Morant (aka, Harry Morant or Edwin Murrant) was also employed here, but as a 'horse-boy'.[4]: 71  On 13 March 1884, they married one another in Charters Towers.[4]: 72  The marriage was not legal; In Queensland, a man had to be at least twenty-one years old to get married and Morant was only nineteen (Morant had said he was twenty-one).[4]: 73 [8][9] About a month later, Daisy learned that Morant had paid for neither the Reverend nor the jeweller, and that he had stolen several pigs and a saddle.[4]: 74 [7]: 30 [10] Morant spent only a week in jail for the thefts (the case was dismissed) and shortly afterwards Daisy and Morant separated.[4]: 75 [7]: 30  They never officially divorced, likely due to the cost, divorces only being granted under specific circumstances, and the divorce laws being sexist (favouring men).[4]: 75  Daisy then moved and kept their marriage a secret.

By the end of the year Daisy had found employment as a governess and maid on a small property in Nowra, NSW.[4]: 76  It was here she met Jack Bates on Christmas Eve, he was the eldest son of her employer and a drover.[4]: 79  He proposed a few days later, and they were married on the 17 February 1885.[4]: 84  She again lied that she was only twenty-one years old.[citation needed] Due to his occupation, Jack would spend weeks to months away at a time, having to move cattle over great distances.[citation needed]

Bates also married Ernest Baglehole that year on 10 June 1885, at St Stephen's Anglican Church, Newtown, Sydney.[4]: 87, 90 [11] Again, claiming to be twenty-one years old.[4]: 90  Daisy had received a letter from him three days after her wedding to Jack Bates (who had at that point had already left for work), it is not known how Ernest managed to find Daisy.[4]: 85–86  Not much is known of their relationship; Daisy later burned their letters, wedding photos and her diaries, nor is any record of his death known.[4]: 85, 91–92  It is known that he was already married, had two children, and had arrived in Australia working as fourth-mate aboard the merchant vessel Zealandia.[4]: 85, 90 

Daisy's only child, Arnold Hamilton Bates, was born on 26 August 1886 in Bathurst, New South Wales. While officially being the son of Daisy and Jack Bates, some biographers speculate that Arnold's biological father was Ernest Baglehole, not Bates.[11] The polygamous nature of Bates's marriages was kept secret during her lifetime.

Bates said that she became engaged to Philip Gipps (the son of a former governor) but he died before they could marry; no records support this assertion. Biographer Bob Reece calls this story 'nonsense', as Gipps died in February 1884,[b] before Dwyer married Morant.[13]

Return to England: 1894 to 1899


In February 1894, Bates returned to England, enrolling her son Arnold in a Catholic boarding school and telling Jack that she would return to Australia only when he had a home established for her. She arrived penniless in England, but found a job working for journalist and social campaigner W. T. Stead. Despite her sceptical views, she worked as an assistant editor on the psychic quarterly Borderlands. She developed an active intellectual life among London's well-connected and bohemian literary and political milieu.

After she left Stead's employment in 1896, it is unclear how she supported herself until 1899. That year she set sail for Western Australia after Jack wrote to say that he was looking for a property there.[14]

In addition, she had been intrigued by a letter published that year in The Times about the cruelty of West Australian settlers to the Aboriginal Australians. As Bates was preparing to return to Australia, she wrote to The Times offering to investigate the accusations, and report the results to them. Her offer was accepted, and she sailed back to Australia in August 1899.[citation needed]

Involvement with Australian Aboriginal people


Bates became interested in the Aboriginal Australians for their own cultures. In the foreword of her book, written by Alan Moorehead, he said, "As far as I can make out she never tried to teach the Australians Aborigines anything or convert them to any faith. She preferred them to stay as they were and live out the last of their days in peace." Moorehead also wrote, "She was not an anthropologist but she knew them better than anyone else who ever lived; and she made them interesting not only to herself but to us as well."[15]

In all, Bates devoted 40 years of her life to studying Aboriginal life, history, culture, rites, beliefs and customs. She researched and wrote on the subject while living in a tent in small settlements from Western Australia to the edges of the Nullarbor Plain, including at Ooldea in South Australia. She was noted for her strict lifelong adherence to Edwardian fashion, including wearing boots, gloves and a veil while in the bush.

Bates set up camps to feed, clothe and nurse the transient Aboriginal people, drawing on her own income to meet the needs of the aged. 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.

Given the strains that the Aborigines suffered from European encroachment on their lands and culture, Bates was convinced that they were a dying race. She believed that her mission was to record as much as she could about them before they disappeared.[16] In a 1921 article in the Sunday Times (Perth), Bates advocated a "woman patrol" to prevent the movement of Aborigines from the Central Australian Reserve into settled areas, to prevent conflict and interracial unions.[17] She later responded to criticism of her effort to keep the people separated, by civil-rights leader William Harris, Aborigine. He said that part-Aboriginal, mixed-race people could be of value to Australian society. But Bates wrote, "As to the half-castes, however early they may be taken and trained, with very few exceptions, the only good half-caste is a dead one."[18]

Western Australia


On her return voyage she met Father Dean Martelli, a Roman Catholic priest who had worked with Aborigines and who gave her an insight into the conditions they faced. She found a boarding school and home for her son in Perth, and invested some of her money in property as a security for her old age. She proceeded to buy note books and other 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. She developed a lifelong interest in the lives and welfare of Aboriginal people in Western and South Australia.

Based at the Beagle Bay Mission near Broome, Bates at the age of thirty-six began what became 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 compiled a dictionary of several local dialects. It contained some two thousand words and sentences; she also included notes on legends and myths. In April 1902 Bates, accompanied by her son and her husband, set out on a droving trip from Broome to Perth. It provided good material for her articles. 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. There she studied and worked for the remote Aboriginal tribes. They were suffering high mortality because of the incursions of European settlement and the introduction of new infectious diseases, to which they had no immunity. In addition, their societies were disrupted by having to adapt to modern technology and western culture.

In 1904, the Registrar General of Western Australia, Malcolm Fraser,[19] appointed her to research Aboriginal customs, languages and dialects. She worked nearly seven years on this project, compiling and organizing the data. Many of her papers were read at Geographical and Royal Society meetings.

Bates and a group of Aboriginal women, circa 1911

In 1910–11 she accompanied anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, later a full professor, and writer and biologist E. L. Grant Watson on a Cambridge ethnological expedition to study into Western Australian marriage customs. She was appointed a "Travelling Protector" of the Aborigines, with a special commission to conduct inquiries into all native conditions and problems, such as employment on stations, guardianship, and the morality of Aboriginal and half-caste women in towns and mining camps.

Bates was said later to come into conflict with Radcliffe-Brown after sending him her manuscript report of the expedition. Much to her chagrin, he did not return it for many years. When he did, he had annotated it extensively with critical remarks. At a symposium, Bates accused Radcliffe-Brown of plagiarising her work.[20] She was scheduled to speak after Radcliffe-Brown had presented his paper, but when she rose, she only complimented him on his presentation of her work, and resumed her seat.[citation needed]



After 1912, her application to become the Northern Territory's Protector of Aborigines was rejected on the basis of gender.[citation needed] Bates continued her work independently, financing it by selling her cattle station.[citation needed]

The same year she became the first woman to be appointed as Honorary Protector of Aborigines at Eucla. She spent sixteen years there.

Bates stayed at Eucla until 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 her work by selling her property. To supplement her income, she wrote numerous articles for newspapers and magazines, and submitted papers to learned societies. Through journalist and author Ernestine Hill, Bates's work was introduced to the general public. Much of the publicity tended to focus on her sensational stories of cannibalism among the Aborigines.[21][better source needed]

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. Bates was more interested in the fact that the honour helped getting her work published.[citation needed]

South Australia


She left Ooldea and went to Adelaide. With the help of Ernestine Hill, Bates published a series of articles for leading Australian newspapers, titled My Natives and I.[22] At the age of seventy-one, she still walked every day to her office at The 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 preparing her planned manuscript. But with no other income, she found it too expensive to remain in Adelaide. 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[23] which asserted that there were practices of cannibalism and infanticide. This generated considerable publicity about her book.[24]

Final years: 1941 to 1951


In 1941 Bates returned to her tent life at Wynbring Siding, east of Ooldea. She lived there on and off until 1945, when she returned to Adelaide because of her health.

In 1948 she tried, through the Australian Army, to contact her son Arnold Bates, who had served in France during World War I. Later, in 1949, she contacted the Army again, through the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL), in an effort to reach him.[25] Arnold was living in New Zealand but refused to have anything to do with his mother.

Bates died on 18 April 1951, aged 91. She was buried at Adelaide's North Road Cemetery.

Recognition and memberships


Digital database


There is a collaborative Internet project by the National Library of Australia and the University of Melbourne to digitise and transcribe many word lists compiled by Bates in the 1900s. The project is co-ordinated by Nick Thieberger, to digitise all the microfilmed images from Section XII of the Bates papers.[27] It can provide a valuable resource for those researching especially Western Australian languages, and some of those in the Northern Territory and South Australia.[28]


Marjorie Gwynne's 1941 painting of Bates shows her sitting at a desk sorting through correspondence.[29] The portrait now hangs in the Art Gallery of South Australia.[30] Sidney Nolan's 1950 painting Daisy Bates at Ooldea shows Bates standing in a barren outback landscape. It was acquired by the National Gallery of Australia.[31] An episode in her life was the basis for Margaret Sutherland's chamber opera The Young Kabbarli (1964). Choreographer Margaret Barr represented Bates in two dance dramas, Colonial portraits (1957),[32] and Portrait of a Lady with the CBE (1971).[33] In 1972, ABC TV screened Daisy Bates, a series of four 30 minute episodes, written by James Tulip, produced by Robert Allnutt, with art by Guy Gray Smith; choreography and reading by Margaret Barr, danced by Christine Cullen; music composed by Diana Blom, sung by Lauris Elms.[34] Her involvement with the Aboriginal people is the basis for the 1983 lithograph The Ghost of Kabbarli by Susan Dorothea White.


  1. ^ Blackburn gives Daisy's age as being eighteen. More recent work by de Vries has found that Daisy was in fact a year older.
  2. ^ Philip George Gipps died after being thrown from his horse 19 February 1884.[12] No mention of him being related to Governor George Gipps.


  1. ^ Australian Women Biographical entry
  2. ^ Glass, A. and D. Hackett, (2003) Ngaanyatjarra and Ngaatjatjarra to English Dictionary, Alice Springs, IAD Press. ISBN 1-86465-053-2, p39
  3. ^ Horton, David (1994). The encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, society and culture - Volume 1. Canberra: Aboriginal studies press, Australian institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies. ISBN 0855752491. Retrieved 16 December 2023.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa de Vries, Susanna (2008). Desert Queen: The Many Lives and Loves of Daisy Bates. Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 9780732282431.
  5. ^ Jones, Philip (5 March 2008). "Native Entitlement". The Australian. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  6. ^ Land, Clare. "Bates, Daisy May". The Australian Women's Register. Retrieved 15 December 2023.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Blackburn, Julia (1995). Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman's Life Among the Aborigines. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. ISBN 0-679-42001-0.
  8. ^ Reece, Bob (2007a). Daisy Bates: Grand Dame of the Desert. Canberra: National Library of Australia. pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-0-64-227654-4. OCLC 212893816.
  9. ^ West, Joe; Roper, Roger (2016). Breaker Morant: The Final Roundup. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing. p. 54. ISBN 978-1-44-565965-7. OCLC 976033815.
  10. ^ Maloney, Shane (June 2007). "Daisy Bates & Harry 'Breaker' Morant". The Monthly. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  11. ^ a b West, Joe; Roper, Roger (2016). Breaker Morant: The Final Roundup. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-44-565965-7. OCLC 976033815.
  12. ^ "District News". The Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser. New South Wales, Australia. 29 February 1884. p. 2. Retrieved 24 August 2023 – via National Library of Australia.
  13. ^ Reece (2007a), p. 21.
  14. ^ Reece, Bob (2007b). "'You would have loved her for her lore': the letters of Daisy Bates". Australian Aboriginal Studies (1): 51–70. ISSN 0729-4352. Retrieved 19 June 2018 – via The Free Library.
  15. ^ Bates, Daisy (1966). The Passing of the Aborigines: A Lifetime Spent Among the Natives of Australia. With a Foreword by Alan Moorehead and an Introduction by Arthur Mee. Murray.
  16. ^ "The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates : Epilogue". ebooks.adelaide.edu.au. Archived from the original on 19 January 2019. Retrieved 19 January 2019.
  17. ^ Bates, Daisy (12 June 1921). "New Aboriginal Reserve". Sunday Times. (Perth, WA : 1902 - 1954): via National Library of Australia. p. 8.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  18. ^ Reece (2007a), pp. 89–90.
  19. ^ Lomas, Brian D. (2015). Queen of Deception. Amazon. ISBN 978-0-646-94238-4.
  20. ^ Ian Hogbin (1988). Australian Dictionary of Biography: 'Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald (1881–1955). National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Retrieved 24 August 2023.
  21. ^ "Our Cannibals". The Sydney Morning Herald. No. 28, 724. New South Wales, Australia. 27 January 1930. p. 2. Retrieved 24 August 2023 – via National Library of Australia.
  22. ^ "My Natives and I". The Nowra Leader. New South Wales, Australia. 27 August 1937. p. 2. Retrieved 19 October 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  23. ^ Bates, Daisy (1938), The Passing of the Aborigines : A Lifetime Spent Among the Natives of Australia (1st ed.), Murray, ISBN 978-0-7195-0071-8
  24. ^ "Latest in the Book Shops". Weekly Times. No. 3720. Victoria, Australia. 14 January 1939. p. 34. Retrieved 19 October 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  25. ^ "Aborigines Friend Daisy Bates Seeks Her Son". The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1950). 4 July 1949. p. 7. Retrieved 27 January 2020.
  26. ^ "Mrs. Daisy M. Bates, F.R.A.S." Western Mail. Vol. XXIII, no. 1, 158. Western Australia. 7 March 1908. p. 15. Retrieved 1 January 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  27. ^ "Technical details". Digital Daisy Bates. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  28. ^ "Map". Digital Daisy Bates. Retrieved 26 January 2020.
  29. ^ "Remembered by a painting she liked". Trove: National Library of Australia.
  30. ^ "Marjorie Gwynne works". Art Gallery of South Australia. Retrieved 19 January 2023.
  31. ^ Nolan, Sidney | Daisy Bates at Ooldea, National Gallery of Australia. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
  32. ^ R.R. (12 September 1964). "Program of Four Ballets". The Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney, New South Wales. p. 8. Retrieved 1 May 2019 – via Newspapers.com.
  33. ^ Pask, Edward (1982). Ballet in Australia: the Second Act, 1940-1980. OUP. pp. 71–73. ISBN 9780195542943. Retrieved 2 May 2019.
  34. ^ Anderson, Don (29 April 1972). "Daisy Bates, superstar". The Bulletin. 94 (4802): 41. Retrieved 30 August 2019.

Works cited

Further reading


  Works by or about Daisy Bates at Wikisource