Daisy May Bates was born Margaret May O’Dwyer, on 16 October 1859 at Roscrea, County Tipperary, Ireland. At the age of twenty-four she travelled on the Almora to Australia.
She stayed at the home of the Bishop of North Queensland and later with several family friends who had migrated previously. Because of this she later said ‘Australia was just like home’.
She found employment as a governess on Fanning Downs Station and on 13 March 1884 married Edwin Henry Murrant, better known as Breaker Morant, at Charters Towers, The union lasted only a short time. Dwyer reputedly threw Morant out because he failed to pay for the wedding and stole some livestock. The marriage was not legal as Morant was underage (he said he was twenty-one, but was only nineteen). Eventually he enlisted in the Second Contingent of the South Australian Mounted Rifles. He sailed for South Africa and the Boer War on 26 January 1900.
Shortly after, Daisy moved to New South Wales, and married John Bates, a bushman and drover, on 17 February 1885. Their only child, Arnold Hamilton Bates, was born in Bathurst on 26 August 1886.
In February 1894 Daisy Bates returned to England, leaving her son and husband. She told Bates she would only come back when he had a home established for her. She arrived in England without any money at all. Eventually she found a job and worked as a journalist for newspapers and magazines. It was not until 1899 that she heard from her husband again, letting her know that he was looking for a property in Western Australia.
Before returning to Australia Daisy obtained, or had saved, enough money to buy a large pastoral property and stock it with cattle. She never revealed where or how she got the money. At about this time a letter was published in The Times about the cruelty of West Australian settlers to Aborigines. As Daisy was returning to Australia she wrote to The Times offering to make full investigations and report the results to them. Her offer was accepted and Daisy Bates returned to Australia in August 1899.
On her return voyage to Perth she met Dean Martelli, a Catholic priest, from whom she gained an insight about the conditions experienced by the Australian Aborigines. Daisy found a school and home for her son in Perth, invested some of her hard earned money in property, as a security for her old age, bought note books and supplies and left for the North West to gather information on Aborigines and white settlement.
It was at the Beagle Bay Mission near Broome that Daisy Bates, now thirty-six, took up her life’s work. Her accounts, the first attempt at serious journalism, 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 dictionary of several dialects and some two thousand words and sentences, including notes on legends and myths. In April 1902 Daisy, her son and husband set out on a droving trip from Broome to Perth. In some ways the trip was a success, it gave her enough material to write and talk about but after six months in the saddle and travelling four thousand kilometres she finally separated from her husband.
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 May 1904 she was appointed by the West Australian government to record the customs, languages and dialects of the Aborigines at the Maaba reserve in Cannington. To do this she lived in a tent among them. It took nearly six years to compile and arrange the data. Many of her papers were read at Geographical and Royal Society meetings.
In 1910 Daisy Bates took part in an all-male Anthropological expedition under the leadership of Professor A.R. 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. Later Radcliffe-Brown published some of Daisy Bates’ findings as his own discoveries.
In 1912 she became the first woman ever to be appointed Honorary Protector of Aborigines at Eucla. During her sixteen months at Eucla Daisy Bates changed from a “scientist and ethnologist” to a true friend of the Aborigines, wanting no more than to live among them and look after them. She was no missionary but wanted to observe and record their lifestyle, sharing their hopes, achievements, sorrows and tragedies. Daisy 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 her desert Aborigines, she gave lectures in Adelaide which aroused the interests of several women’s organizations.
In September 1919 Daisy Bates settled down to full time welfare work at Ooldea in South Australia and was a few months later appointed a Justice of the Peace for South Australia, being the only woman to hold such a commission in two Australian States at the same time. At Ooldea Daisy Bates pitched her tent which became her home for the next sixteen years. During that time she waged a “one woman war” to keep the Aborigines from the railway line and its “civilisation”. She never tried to change, teach or convert them. She believed them to be a dying race and wanted them to stay as they were.
She was not the only one, nor the first one to believe that this would happen. As early as 1901 one northern newspaper reported that “Whatever effect white civilization has on the aboriginal, certainly it is a fact, that the race is rapidly deteriorating, and before many decades are come and gone, the aboriginal with all their superstitious ideas and customs, will have passed into oblivion.”
During these years she made many enemies, among the whites and some Aborigines, with her cannibal stories, but also many friends who realised that she was the only person competent enough to deal with the Aborigines. Woman’s World referred to her as ‘The Great White Queen of the Never Never”. Later Daisy Bates wrote that during her time at Ooldea ‘no more half-cast children were born, nor was any half-cast ever begotten in any of my camps’.
During all the years at Ooldea she never received government rations for the Aborigines. She paid for them from the sale of her property. To make ends meet, Daisy Bates wrote numerous articles and papers – between bouts of pneumonia, sandy blight and malnutrition – for newspapers, magazines and learned societies. However it was another woman, Ernestine Hill, journalist and author, who introduced her to the general public. With newspaper headlines like Cannibalism on the East-West, White Grandmother of Ooldea and Black Baby Saved from Being Eaten, it was bound to attract attention. She, and her work, became now widely known, and not just to Government or University Departments.
Finally in August 1933 the Commonwealth Government invited her to Canberra for advice on Aboriginal affairs. This was followed a year later with The Order of Commander of the British Empire in the New Year’s Honours. More important to Daisy Bates though was the opportunity to put her work in print. She now left Ooldea and with the help of Ernestine Hill produced a series of articles for the leading Australian newspapers which she called ‘My Natives and I’.
At the age of seventy-one she walked every day to her office at the Advertiser building in Adelaide to work on her articles. Later the Commonwealth Government paid her £2 a week to put all her papers and notes in order and prepare her manuscript. Without any other income it was impossible for her to stay in Adelaide and Daisy Bates moved to the Village Settlement of Pyap on the River Murray where she once more pitched her tent and worked her typewriter in the peace and freedom of the bush.
She moved back to Adelaide in 1938 when her book ‘The Passing of the Aborigines’ was launched. The book portrayed the view that Aborigines were a dying race. To her the Aborigine’s beginnings were obscure, but there would be nothing obscure about its ending…..two centuries of white rule had seen to that: extinction! However in 1941 she went back to her tent life at Wynbring Siding, east of Ooldea where she remained on and off until ill health forced her back to Adelaide.
After having exhausted her own money, from the sale of properties and publications for the needs of her beloved Aborigines, the Commonwealth government provided her with a small grant in recognition of her work.
Daisy M. Bates spent her last few years in Adelaide and died on 19 April 1951. Daisy Bates was buried at North Road Cemetery