Daisy Bates in 1908 - Her Year of Living Dangerously
Daisy Bates in her prime
Recently there have been two forays into the life and work of Daisy Bates – in a review of both for the Sydney Morning Herald, Angela Bennie concluded, “Perhaps the definitive Bates is yet to be written”. Indeed, most recent work has been somewhat sidetracked by her narcissistic problems with truth and her seemingly racist attitudes regarding half castes, cannibalism and the imminent demise of the Aboriginal race. Bob Reece to his credit acknowledges the importance of her work for Native Title cases although, even in Native Title law, remains a resource that has yet to be fully tapped.
In the Battye Library there is a personal file kept while she was working for the Native Welfare Board of W.A. from 1905 to 1910. Her job initially was to record a dictionary but she was adept at turning it into something much bigger. It is clear from the record that she relied on her contacts in the Perth elite, such as her mentor Malcolm Fraser, the Attorney General and her women friends at the exclusive Karrakatta Club. Every year, Fraser lobbied indefatigably for a continuance of her allowance of ₤150. But at some point, everyone who seeks patronage from the elite has to prove or reprove their ‘reliability’. In 1908 Daisy’s reliability came into question.(there's more)
She had almost finished her work by the end of 1907. Her grammar was being reviewed by R.L. Matthews in Victoria she was discussing how the work was to be published with the Government but there was something nagging away about whether she had everything. Most of her informants had come from around Perth or were in the employment of the gentry, and while their information was good, there were some holes. A Mr Jull from Mt Barker had told her that the descent system on the south coast was patrilineal. She hadn’t been to Albany but had heard of Tommy King (Wandinyil) who had been alive since the earliest settlement of the state and was renowned for his willingness to talk and trade.
Arriving in Albany 7 May 1908, she discovered that Wandinyil had died the year previously but Wabbinyet and Jakbum were camped out on the Perth Road and were willing informants. What she learnt from them destroyed her certainties, “I shall be compelled to rewrite six chapters” she wrote to the Acting Chief Protector. “Mrs Hassell has offered to pay for a trip out to Cape Riche.” By the end of the month, she is Esperance asking for more expenses “ I have constantly to supply my native informants with tobacco, tinned meats and sundries”. By the end of July, she had travelled 1900 miles and visited 28 townships through the south coast, the great southern and the southern wheatbelt forwarding invoices for rail tickets and expenses to the Acting Chief Protector.
Her travel diary makes exhausting reading as she literally chases down people from town to town - Collie to Darkan and back Collie and on to Brunswick Junction in 4 days cadging lifts in buggies or on borrowed horses where she could get a side saddle, just to catch up with one group. In this time she records the bulk of her Great Southern “dialects and pedigrees”. She is on a mission now, her eyes have been opened as she has come into contact with other groups in the south west and realized that she has only half the story, if that.
She is in Perth for a week and then she is off again to the Goldfields. Suddenly she has discovered that even within the Noongar (or Bibbulmun as she insisted on calling it) there were different habits and customs, shades of grey and nuance that her white and more colonized informants had elided over. Her trip through the goldfields would be taxing today. She visits 21 towns and travels 1700 miles in five weeks. At Menzies, she wrote “natives afraid of constables and hid, walked some miles next day with some boys and found native camp. Obtained pedigrees … all of them differing from statements of white residents”. She is beginning to risk her reliability.
On her way back to Perth she has a chance to “witness an initiation” at Burracoppin. The Assistant Protector telegrams her to return to Perth forthwith. She writes back, “In view of the proved unreliability of the statements received from white people the Murchison must be traversed…”. The question of reliability is being asked on all sides.
She is back in Perth by the 12th of September, after a trip to Rottnest to follow up with some of the prisoners she is on the train to Nannine and the Gascoyne by the 24th. It’s clear that she is not going to give the protector a chance to stop her. A week later, she is giving a lecture in Meekatharra (proceeds to the hospital) and she drives out to the ‘boolee boolee’ ground. She writes - “ ‘boolee boolee’, a special seed, whose harvesting occurs at this time, gathering of all natives from surrounding districts”. On the train back to Dongara she travels with “2 native murderers from Lawless and Menzies … and obtained p[edigrees]. and some d[ialects]. arrived Dongara midnight.” She is becoming a dangerous woman.
At Mingenew, she “found a Berkshire Valley woman who gave me Jindal and Manara woman’s ped. Had to work with her during her laundry work, walking from washtub to clothesline”. She has discarded virtually all her white informants as reliable sources of knowledge and has recognized the separate importance of women’s knowledge. It would take another 50 odd years for the rest of Australian anthropology to catch up as she blazed a trail for the likes of Olive Pink and Caroline Berndt.
A few days later, at Moora, she finds a ‘native camp’ where all but one of the residents is ‘half caste’. She writes, “Obtained pedigree of native as I consider the half caste information of no ethnographic value”. A viewpoint she was reiterating from Lorimer Fison , the co-author of the landmark book “Kamilaroi and Kurnai” (published in 1880), who had cautioned that “...they had to be ‘continually on the watch’ that ‘every last trace of whitemen's effect on Aboriginal society’ was ‘altogether cast out of calculation’… ”.
Her supposed distaste for half castes originated not from an unthinking prejudice but from her aspiring to follow the dictates of scientific research at the time. It would be later reinterpreted as prejudice on her behalf, because she was so obviously ‘unreliable’. As Elizabeth Povinelli points out, “given time, deeply held moral convictions …[reappear] as simple parochial beliefs, as good intentions gone awry.” Today, in native title cases arguments about the authenticity of “customary beliefs and practices” determine the issue of people’s entitlements due to the perseverance of this belief.
By the time she has finished this third trip she has travelled 5400 miles and recorded 34 dialects from the southern half of western Australia. The protector writes to her at the end of the year that “her employment is to be terminated”. Fraser again intervenes but the knives are out. She spends most of 1909 rewriting her work and trying to negotiate a publishing deal with antagonistic officials who adopt a hard line. No money will be forthcoming. In 1910, the State sees a way out. The noted and reliable anthropologist, Radcliffe Brown is coming to the state and she is to be loaned to him. More importantly, the drafts of her book are to be given to him for him to publish as he sees fit. She writes to the Undersecretary of the Premier’s Department “I regret … my long and arduous labours… have not met with more equitable consideration” and pleads that she could have the material that Brown doesn’t use for a popular book. Eventually she publishes this in her influential book “The Passing of the Aborigines”, but her original work is not published until 1985. The conflict with Radcliffe-Brown is discussed elsewhere and a source of some dissension. Prejudice surrounds Daisy and her works, I hope this article stimulates some discussion of her guts and determination. She is accused of woolly headed thinking more than once by her reviewers but her actions I suspect speak louder than words.
Povinelli, Elizabeth, "The Cunning of Recognition - Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism", Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2002
State Government Personal File, Daisy Bates C.SO. 1023, State Records Office, Battye Library, Perth.
Angela Bennie, book review, The Sydney Morning Herald; 1/3/08; no internet text; this text quoted from http://www.missionandjustice.org/daisy-queen-of-the-desert-australiaaboriginalhistory/ [last visited 9 May 2008]