Daisy Bates, the Edwardian Irishwoman in the Australian outback
Journalist spent four decades living among Aborigines, writing hundreds of articles
Daisy Bates lived with Aboriginal communities for forty years, compiling dictionaries of regional dialects, mythology and legends.
Born in Tipperary in 1859 and dying in Australia in 1951, Daisy Bates’ life spanned almost a century of intense social change. Orphaned at a young age when her mother died of tuberculosis and her father died while emigrating to the US, Daisy (named Margaret Dwyer from birth) was raised by relatives.
By 1882, Margaret had changed her name to Daisy May and had left Ireland for Australia. The reason for her assuming a new identity was potentially an affair with a Dublin boy which led to his suicide, but biographers differ somewhat on this account - what’s certain is that Daisy May, like many emigrants, took advantage of the potential for reinvention offered by a change of scene.
Arriving in Queensland, Daisy took up a job as a governess and in 1884, married Edwin Henry Murrant, who would later claim fame as “Breaker” Morant - a drover, horseman, poet and, to some, an Australian folk hero. The union lasted less than a year, and was unknown until 1978. It’s thought that Daisy had some influence on the formation of “Breaker’” Morant’s persona. The two seemed well-matched in the art of reinvention.
In 1885, Daisy married again, without divorcing Morant, this time to a John Bates, a livestock drover in New South Wales. The union produced a son, Arnold Thomas Bates. John’s work took him from home for long periods of time, which may have allowed Daisy the opportunity to also marry an Ernest C Baglehole, one of her shipmates on her journey to Australia, and an apprentice ship’s officer, in Sydney in 1885.
Each new beginning seemed to serve as practice runs for Daisy’s next move, and in 1894, she placed her son in a boarding school and made her way to London, where she worked as a journalist for five years. Returning to Western Australia in 1899, she planned to research claims made in the press about the brutal treatment of the Aborigine people. This would be the beginning of her singular relationship with Australia’s native peoples, which would span the next 40 years.
Bates set up camp in small settlements around Nullarbor Plain and Oodlea, and began the process of recording the customs of the Aborigine people, writing some 270 articles about them during her time in their midst. She did not act as a missionary or humanitarian worker, but offered aid and medical treatment to the local populace, funded by her income from property she owned.
She was regarded with affection, and came to be known as kabbarli, or grandmother. She compiled dictionaries of regional dialects, mythology and legends, and was said to have been unafraid to confront local policemen with her pistols if they were mistreating the native people.
In 1904 and 1910, Bates was appointed by the Australian government to research Aboriginal customs and marriage practices. Her work with other anthropologists in the field cemented her antipathy towards official government policies on Aboriginal people, and her witnessing of the dire conditions in which they lived influenced her burgeoning sense that the Aboriginal people were doomed to extinction. Rivalry with fellow anthropologist A.R. Brown on the 1910 trip, paired with a hardening of the attitude of the Australian government, led to a termination of her employment in 1912.
None of this prevented her work and she remained stationed among the Aborigines, recording their lives, language and customs, dressed in an increasingly eccentric Edwardian fashion in the midst of the Australian outback. In 1932, the journalist Ernestine Hill brought her back to the public’s attention, creating a popular mythology around this unique woman which lasts until today.
Her legacy is not without controversy. Alongside her recording of Aboriginal culture, she published damaging and untrue reports of cannibalism in her 1938 work The Passing of the Aborigines.
Despite these controversies, Daisy Bates’ singular story continues to capture the imagination. Like many emigrants, she grasped opportunities for reinvention with both hands and carved out a niche for herself, claiming her place in Australian folk history.
This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Jessica Traynor, deputy museum director of Epic The Irish Emigration Museum (epicchq.com) in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.