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Bates, Daisy May (1863–1951)

Mrs. Daisy Bates, C.B.E. — "Kabbarli" (grandmother) to aborigines throughout Western Australia, South Australia, Central Australia, and the Northern Territory — died in her sleep in an Adelaide nursing home yesterday.

She was 92 and had devoted 40 years of her life to helping the aborigines. She lived amongst them in a tent, went walkabout with them, and wrote books about them.

She was their guide, counsellor, friend, and universal provider. She clothed them and fed them at her own expense.

Initiated into several tribes, she witnessed ceremonials taboo to aboriginal women. She spoke 188 aboriginal dialects.

Mrs. Bates met King George V and Queen Mary when they arrived in Perth on their way to open the first Commonwealth Parliament in 1901. She was presented to the Prince of Wales in the Nullarbor Plain in 1920 and to the Duke of Gloucester when he was Governor General.

Born Daisy O'Dwyer in Tipperary, Ireland, she came alone to Australia at the age of 20 because of a lung weakness. She married a drover, Jack Bates, and they had one son, born at Bathurst.

Mrs. Bates returned to London in 1894 and became a journalist. She returned to Australia in 1899 to investigate for The Times charges that the aborigines in Western Australia were being ill-treated. These charges, she found, were groundless.

A few years later the Western Australian Government commissioned her to write a history of the Bibbulman tribe. This took her two years during which time she lived with the tribe.

She then sold the pastoral properties left to her by her husband and travelled over the Nullarbor by camel buggy.

She spent the remainder of her life amongst the natives — chiefly at Ooldea Siding on the Trans-Continental Railway — except in 1918 and 1919 when ill-health brought her to Adelaide where she became matron of a returned soldiers' hospital.

In 1934 she received the Order of the Commander of the British Empire, and in the following year in Adelaide she wrote a book, The Passing of the Aborigines, and also completed for the South Australian Government reports on the customs and lives of the aboriginal tribes.

In her book, Daisy Bates wrote. "Trudging many miles, day and night, across the sandhills between camps, my methods were my own, grandmotherly cough mixtures, massaging with oil, nourishing foods, and much cheeriness.

"Never at any time in any Ooldea camp did I receive Government rations for distribution or public charity of any kind. I still possessed a freehold in Perth, a small residential estate overlooking the banks of the Swan River, upon which it was my intention to build a home for my declining years.

"So many times had I beguiled away the loneliness and hardship with architectural plans of that little home — a dream that was not to be, for here I found a need far greater than my own. I ordered the sale of my freehold in my first year at Ooldea, with most of the personal possessions that remained to me, including my side-saddle and bridle — last relics of a happy past."

Daisy Bates died a pauper. Everything she owned she sold to care for her friends.

She dressed in the clothes she had brought from England, and she walked the streets of Adelaide oblivious to the glances her Victorian ensembles attracted.

She will be buried at North Road Cemetery, Adelaide, this afternoon after a simple ceremony.

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Citation details

'Bates, Daisy May (1863–1951)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bates-daisy-may-83/text83, accessed 20 August 2017.

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