Review of 'Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman's Life Among the Aborigines'

Review of 'Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman's Life Among the Aborigines'

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It didn't take long for Daisy to replace her unsavory history with a past of her own making. She re-created in her imagination a childhood home, Blackburn writes, "a beautiful house" that was "built of big blocks of yellow stone with deep windows and doors wide enough for elephants and she places herself right at the top of the broad sweep of the main staircase. Standing there in her sky-blue dress she pulls in the sound of laughter, the smell of woodsmoke from the fireplace mixed with the sweet smell of tobacco from her father's pipe, the barking of dogs, a pool of sunlight on the floor."

Though Daisy painted an equally elegant world of wealth and society during her early years in Australia, the facts uncovered by Blackburn are that she arrived there in 1883, basically penniless, and worked as governess on a cattle station in North Queensland. Records show that in 1884 she was married by a Catholic priest to a stockman working at the same ranch. A month after the wedding he was thrown in jail for stealing pigs and a saddle. The couple separated after his release, and they never saw each other again.

Apparently Daisy didn't trouble herself with an official divorce. Eleven months later, in New South Wales, she married Jack Bates, this time declaring herself a Protestant and a spinster-a wise deception, since in Australia at the time bigamy was punishable by several years' imprisonment.

Two years later she gave birth to her only child, a boy for whom she felt as little affection as she by now felt for her second husband. In a birthday book of Bates', Blackburn discovered that the page marking the son's birthdate had simply been torn out. "Just as she invented things that never happened," writes Blackburn, "she could also destroy the evidence of things that did."

In 1894 Bates abruptly returned to England — giving a different reason for the trip to everyone who asked. "It was five years before she felt ready to return to Australia," writes Blackburn. When Bates did return she was deeply disappointed by her reunion with her son and husband. She abandoned both and persuaded a priest she had met on the boat to let her accompany him to his mission at Beagle Bay, a flat and desolate area of swamps and mud flats far to the north, where he worked with the Aborigines. It was there that she first met the people who would become her family, her people and her life.

Charming the right officials, she secured a government grant and established a rough camp on an Aboriginal reserve a few miles east of Perth. There Bates began a decades-long study of the language and customs of a people whose culture and land, she realized, were being destroyed by white settlers. "I thought," she wrote of her two years at the Maamba Reserve, "that once I had made enough notes then I would have an important book that would somehow save the people from annihilation and I would be their saviour." It was a dream she never let go.

Much of the book describes Bates' surreal life among the Aborigines, a life far from the fantasies of her fabricated upbringing. "Those ticks were revolting," she wrote about the blood-gorging insects infesting the area near one of her camps. "I once had a whole string of them black and shining around my waist, like a belt. I tried to get them off by scorching them with a stick taken from the fire but when that didn't work I had to wait until they were well-fed and ready to drop of their own accord."

She felt keen kinship with the Aborigines who appeared at her camps, "naked, smiling, glistening in the sunshine." She claims to have been initiated into the ceremonies of the men and to have been almost totally accepted. "They told me that in the Old Times I had been a man, a tribal elder . . ." Bates wrote. "I have seen them dancing, dying, making love, giving birth and I have never once been excluded from what was happening, never once made to feel like an outsider gazing into a forbidden territory."

When she set up a camp in a new location, the Aborigines would see the smoke from her fire and know that the strange white woman — in Edwardian dress with her pins and stays and high white collars — the one they called "Kabbarli, the Grandmother," was there. She would tend their wounds, share what little food she had, ask them the tales of their beginnings and write down all their words. There could be dozens camped around her for weeks. Then, one morning, she might wake and they'd be gone, sometimes leaving her without another human being to talk to for months.

Bates occasionally ventured back into the white world to present papers at government conferences, to argue for help for the Aborigines, once even to receive the Order of the Commander of the British Empire. "I am still not quite sure what powers of authority this gives me apart from being able to write CBE after my name," she noted at the time.


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