A deeply flawed friend of Aboriginal people

August 1, 2008

Desert Queen: The Many Lives and Loves of Daisy Bates

By Susana de Vries

HarperCollins, 2008

294 pages, $33 (pb)

Daisy Baites: Grand Dame of the Desert

By Bob Reece

National Library of Australia, 2007

205 pages, $24.95 (pb)

Daisy Bates was an unconventional member of the Karrakatta Club, the exclusive club for the women of Perth's elite.

In 1907, she brought along Fanny Balbuk-Yooreel, an Aboriginal woman, as a luncheon guest and then further shocked Perth's finest by introducing her guest as their landlady, since she was the original owner of the land on which the club stood.

Daisy Bates was once a household name and studied in every school in Australia for her work with the desert Aborigines of the Western Australian-South Australian border region. Susanna de Vries and Bob Reece have each revisited the life and work of Bates in their recent books, Desert Queen: The Many Lives and Loves of Daisy Bates and Daisy Baites: Grand Dame of the Desert.

Born Margaret Dwyer in 1859 to a poor Catholic family in Tipperary, the Irish girl was orphaned and sought a new life in Australia in 1893.

Armed with a fictitious pedigree as a child of the Anglo-Irish land-owning Protestant aristocracy, Dwyer married and abandoned three husbands (including Harry "Breaker" Morant) in two years in her failed quest to hitch up to a wealthy grazier.

After the disintegration of all her hopes, Dwyer (now Daisy Bates) found a new aspiration through her interest in Aboriginal Australians.

Under the tutelage of Catholic missionaries, and then contracted by the WA government in 1904, Bates became a self-taught female pioneer of social anthropology, studying Aboriginal language, customs and legends. She established a rapport unmatched by most contemporary male anthropologists and was also among the few to be horrified by the appalling health status of Aborigines and the sexual bartering of Aboriginal women for alcohol, tobacco and sugar.

Bates was appointed "honorary protector" of Aborigines in 1912, setting up camp on the Great Australian Bight near Aboriginal tribes at Eucla and Fowler's Bay (1913-1918) and at Ooldea Siding on the transcontinental railway where, for 16 years from 1919-35, she befriended, studied and assisted former nomadic Aborigines, many of them Pitjantjatjara who were driven off their land by pastoralists' seizure of water sources during a severe drought.

From these years came Bates' iconic image and reputation for eccentricity with her tent living, her Edwardian ankle-length skirts and high-necked blouses worn in searing desert heat, her pet lizard and the abandonment of the trappings of European civilisation except for her set of Dickens novels.

Bates was field-researcher and aid worker, supporting her subjects with food, clothing and rudimentary nursing care from her meagre income. She did her best to ease the suffering from, and to plead with government authorities to end, the ravages of venereal and other European diseases to which the Aborigines had no resistance. She also sought to combat alcohol addiction and sexual exploitation, "at a time", says Reece, "when few white Australians seemed to care whether [Aborigines] lived or died".

Bates' failing health and eyesight, and competition from better-resourced Christian missions, however, spelled the end of her reign as the "Great White Queen of the Never-Never Land" (a title bestowed on her by a journalist). After a sad descent into dementia, Bates died 1951.

If this was the sum of Bates' work, there would be universal acclaim from all those opposed to racism for her dedication in pursuit of what was at the time the minority cause of the welfare and culture of Australia's Aborigines.

Bates' reputation, however, has been partially discredited by her views on "Aboriginal extinction", "Aboriginal cannibalism" and Aborigines of part-descent ("half-castes" in the perjorative term of the times).

Bates shared the "received wisdom" of the time that Australia's Aborigines were dying out from European diseases and were doomed to inevitable extinction because of their failure to cope with European civilisation. Applying salve to the septic sores of syphilitics was an example of Bates "smoothing the dying pillow", the self-serving theory much in favour with usurpers of Aboriginal land.

Bates' sorrowful observation of rapid Aboriginal demographic decline reinforced these views but, as Reece points out, her strong social-darwinist convictions predisposed Bates to this piece of racist nonsense.

Another popular but erroneous attitude shared by Bates was her abhorrence of "half-castes" and "miscegenation" — "the only good half-caste is a dead half-caste" she wrote in Perth's Sunday Times in 1921.

Bates compounded this prejudice by supporting the removal of young Aboriginal girls to government-run homes and missions to avoid their "forced prostitution". As De Vries comments, this policy was misguided because these stolen children were often exploited as cheap child labour, had their wages taken by the government, were preyed on for sex by employers and faced abuse and cruelty in their new environment while grieving for their mothers.

Only later, claims De Vries, did Bates modify her opinion by hiding "half-caste" girls in her tent at Ooldea when police or government welfare officers came to take them away.

Bates was also firmly committed to the theory of Aboriginal infant cannibalism and she claimed that the practice of Aboriginal mothers killing and eating their babies for food was widespread. Empirical evidence was scant and disputed by academics, who at most conceded that the practice may have existed in ritualised and highly restricted form, if at all. Bates' cannibalism claims were readily aired in the corporate media for which she wrote (her almost sole source of income was freelance journalism), justified with the twisted logic that her income from these articles enabled her to buy food for Aborigines.

Her views on "Aboriginal cannibalism", however, were more than a reluctant compromise. Bates' 1938 book, The Passing of the Aborigines, continued her allegations of cannibalism despite her no longer being so financially pressed as to need to pander to sensationalist media appetites.

These discredited beliefs of Bates sit uneasily with her reputation as a friend of Aboriginal people. Neither, despite her genuine compassion for Aborigines, were Bates' policy solutions likely to be effective.

These never rose above aid and Bates did not promote land rights, as did more radical political activists of the time, to address Aboriginal social conditions. She scorned proposals for a self-governing "native state" in Central Australia because of their, in her eyes, "most absurd" assumption that Aborigines were capable of governing themselves.

What Aborigines needed, believed this dedicated Empire loyalist and monarchist (she received a CBE in 1933) was an "English gentleman" to be put in charge, as was, she claimed against all evidence, so successful in "India, Africa and elsewhere [where] their rule was always beneficent, for only they can understand and control the native races".

Bates' compassionate paternalism and political conservatism (she was a social climber, a British imperialist, an anti-feminist, an anti-unionist and an anti-socialist) were at odds with Aboriginal self-determination.

De Vries and Reece assess Bates' legacy with different emphases. De Vries' biography reflects the empathy De Vries clearly has for her subject, especially because of the discrimination Bates faced as a woman scientist.

However, this approach is sometimes at the expense of objective criticism. De Vries goes so far as to propose the all-too-convenient thesis that it was the gradual onset of vascular dementia which was responsible for Bates' aberrant thoughts such as her obsessions with "Aboriginal cannibalism", her prejudice against "half-castes" and her royalty-worship.

If this were true, it would mean that there was either an epidemic of vascular dementia affecting millions of other Australians at that time or that the disease has remarkable powers of ideological selectivity.

Reece is more critical of Bates' less admirable qualities and is far less reticent about displaying Bates' right-wing politics.

Both authors, however, agree on Bates' merits — at a time when few others were interested, Bates was a tireless ethnographer of Australian desert Aborigines whose work (particularly The Native Tribes of Western Australia) has helped Aboriginal people in WA regain some limited control over their land through native title claims by proving a continuing presence in a claim area.

The progressive use to which Bates' work has been put is ironic for someone as averse to land rights as Bates. She represents the deficiencies of white rule, no matter how compassionate, of black Australia.

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