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The Tipperary anthropologist nicknamed 'grandmother' by Indigenous Australians

Today considered quite a controversial figure in anthropology, Daisy May Bates dedicated her life’s work to observing the native people of Australia.

Ella Hassett

This is the third instalment of NWCI’s “Sharing Stories of Women in History.” Daisy May Bates C.B.E (1859 – 1951) Anthropologist, welfare worker

DAISY MAY BATES, a welfare worker and self-taught anthropologist, became renowned in Australia for her work with Aboriginal people in West and South Australia. It was a career that spanned many decades and earned her a C.B.E, although today she is considered quite a controversial figure in anthropology.

Bates was born Margaret Dwyer near Roscrea, Tipperary on the 16th of October 1859 to parents James Dwyer and Margaret Hunt. Little is known of her early life, aside from the fact that her mother died while she was quite young.

Bates eventually set sail for Australia in the early 1880s aboard the Almora. She worked as a governess upon arrival and married Edwin Murrant (known as ‘Breaker’ Murrant) on the 13th of March 1884. The couple separated soon after. Even though Bates and Murrant were never officially divorced, she bigamously married a drover named Jack Bates on the 17th of February 1885. She and Bates had a son named Arnold in 1886, but her relationship with both was tense. It has been suggested that contact between the small family of three was almost non-existent after 1902, when the couple went their separate ways.

Bates read about cruelty towards Aboriginal people by Western settlers

In 1894, Bates went to England in a move that would be pivotal in her future career as a writer. She worked as a journalist with the Review of Reviews in London, until in 1899 an article was published in The Times about cruelty towards Aboriginal people by Western settlers in Kimberley, Western Australia. Bates took this claim on as a personal challenge to be investigated and returned to Australia that same year.

This began a 40 year relationship with the native people of Australia, starting with three months observation at the Trappist Mission at Beagle Bay. From here, the Western Australian government funded her to collect ethnographic and linguistic data pertaining to the Bibbulmun people. By 1910, she had collected a significant amount of data and was asked to join an expedition led by the British anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, but their relationship was turbulent with Bates accusing him of plagiarising her work.

In 1912, the incoming government terminated her Bibbulmun research funding, but she continued undeterred, setting herself up in a tent outside the Aboriginal settlement at Eucla, Western Australia from 1912 to 1914. It is said that here she was given the name ‘Kabbarli’ by the Aboriginal people, an affectionate term meaning grandmother.

“The sole spectator of a vanishing race”

Bates’ role among the Aboriginal community appeared to be one mainly of observation, without any religious or medical motivation. She is said to have been passionate about their welfare and helped to feed and clothe people whenever it was required. She spent her days with them, observing and documenting their cultural practices, as she was of the belief that she was, in her own words, “the sole spectator of a vanishing race”.

Bates eventually moved onto Ooldea in South Australia where she again lived in an isolated tent from 1918 to 1934 interacting with the Aboriginal people and learning their ways.

It was in 1934 that Bates received the highest honour of her career, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, known as a C.B.E, in recognition of her work with the Aboriginal people. Bates considered herself a “representative of his Majesty the King” and carried out all of her research and fieldwork for the empire. In 1932, she befriended the journalist Ernestine Hill, who helped her with her autobiography, which was serialised in The Adelaide Times newspaper before being published as a book in 1938.

The book, The Passing of the Aborigene, was heavily criticised as romanticised and near mythological in its content, and it reflected Bates’ ardent stance against interracial unions, as well as her reference to cannibalism within some Aboriginal communities. Others viewed her work as of anthropological importance, cultural information that may otherwise have been lost. For example, she understood 188 Aboriginal dialects, and published these in a dictionary.

A remarkable woman 

From 1936 to 1941, she was paid a weekly allowance by the government to prepare her manuscripts for the National Library of Australia in Canberra. She visited Canberra and formally presented her manuscripts and papers, reportedly numbering 99 boxes, in 1941. From here she lived at Wynbring, near Ooldea in South Australia in a tent, continuing to record and research, until ill-health forced her to return to Adelaide in 1945. She remained there until the 18th of April 1951 when she died at the age of 92.

Whether Daisy Bates is viewed in a negative or a positive light, it must be agreed that she was remarkable. She travelled a vast distance from Tipperary to Australia and dedicated the majority of her life to studying a beautiful and unique culture by spending time among its people. She was certainly unusual, wearing the same Victorian style outfits her whole life. In 1951 it was said that Bates was “somewhat of an oddity… somewhat eccentric… her’s was a dauntless spirit”.

Ella Hassett is a part time library assistant in Trinity College, Dublin, with an MPhil in Public History and Cultural Heritage, who devotes much of her time researching remarkable women in Irish history.

This post first appeared on the National Women’s Council of Ireland website and is reproduced here with permission. 

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