The Great White Queen of the Never-Never

The Edwardian anthropologist Daisy Bates thought the Aboriginal people of Australia were a dying race. Her views were less than enlightened, but by a strange twist of history, her research is now being used as evidence on their behalf

She was known as the "White Queen of the Never-Never", the Australian Outback. Yet Daisy Bates, the Irish-born amateur anthropologist who spent decades living among Aboriginal tribes, was convinced that the people she studied were headed for extinction.

Always immaculately turned out in stiff Edwardian suits and petticoats, despite the searing desert heat, Bates also claimed that cannibalism was rife among the Aborigines. She had a horror of inter-racial breeding, and asserted in a newspaper article in 1921 that "with some exceptions, the only good half-caste is a dead half-caste".

As a result of those opinions, Bates – viewed as a saintly figure, and a heroine of the British Empire – gradually fell from grace. When she died in 1951, she was still a staple feature of the Australian school curriculum. By the 1970s, when indigenous groups became politically assertive, she was seen as an embarrassing eccentric.

Now, though, her reputation is undergoing an unexpected rehabilitation, thanks to the role played by her capacious records in helping to establish "native title" claims. And two new books about her, the first for 35 years, are stirring a renaissance of interest in the woman once called "Mother Teresa of the desert" – but who, it transpires, was a serial bigamist.

Bates was born Margaret Dwyer, the daughter of a Catholic bootmaker from County Tipperary, but reinvented herself as an aristocratic English lady on arriving in Australia in 1884.

By all accounts devastatingly attractive, she married three men within 15 months, one of them "Breaker" Morant, a bush poet and expert horseman who later became an Australian folk hero. She had a son, Arnold, with her second husband, Dick Bates.

But family life – even with a succession of partners – was not sufficient for Bates, who set out to become an anthropologist at a time when it was an exclusively male occupation. In 1899, aged 40, she headed for Western Australia, claiming to have a commission from The Times to investigate the treatment of Aborigines. While this was a fiction, she persuaded the Western Australian government to pay her a pittance to collect information about indigenous language, culture and customs.

The tribal people of the Kimberley area, in far north-western Australia, held Bates in awe, believing her to be one of their reincarnated ancestors with superhuman spiritual and healing powers. She was even allowed to witness men's secret ceremonies and initiation rites, as a result of which she became an honourary initiated man.

She travelled around the state by horse and camel buggy, and eventually focused her attention on the Nyoongar, the traditional landowners in the south-west. Then in 1912 she moved to South Australia, pitching a tent at Ooldea, on the edge of the remote and arid Nullarbor Plain, next to the route of the transcontinental railway, which was then in the process of being built.

For the next 16 years Bates lived in that spot, with only a typewriter for company, surrounded by the complete works of Dickens and photographs of the British Royal Family. Famously vain, she used a skipping rope to retain her trim figure and sent her laundry by train to Adelaide.

Susanna de Vries, author of The Many Lives of Daisy Bates, says: "She was always immaculate, in a snowy white blouse, with every hair in place." White gloves and parasol completed the image.

Although the train brought mail and clean clothes, Bates thought the railway a disaster because it facilitated contact between white men and Aboriginal women living in previously inaccessible areas. In fact, according to Bob Reece, a historian at Murdoch University in Perth, she moved to Ooldea for that very reason: "to prevent white railway workers from having sex with Aboriginal women and girls".

While she had witnessed the ravages of venereal disease introduced into black communities, she was primarily concerned about another outcome of such unions: mixed-race babies. Dr Reece, the author of Daisy Bates: Grand Dame of the Desert, says: "She was very keen to prevent further race mixing. She thought miscegenation a horrible thing, and was a social Darwinist. She believed Aborigines weren't as evolved as Europeans and thought it highly undesirable to mix Aborigines with white people, because their children were bound to be inferior. Aboriginal women and girls who had half-caste babies, she expelled them from her camp."

Bates, it is believed, even alerted government officials to the whereabouts of mixed-race children, who were subsequently separated from their families – later becoming known as members of the Stolen Generations.

But she also showed great kindness to indigenous people who did not transgress her rules, giving them food, water and first aid, particularly during droughts. Again, though, her motives were mixed. As she wrote in her 1938 book, The Passing of the Aborigines, she wanted to "smooth the pillow of a dying race". She did not expect the race to survive more than a few decades.

That view was not unusual at the time; in fact, it was one reason for the officially sanctioned practice of forcibly removing children. Bates's book became an international bestseller and she came to be regarded as a world authority on Aborigines, whom she called "my natives", as well as a Florence Nightingale figure. In 1934 she was made a CBE for her welfare work.

According to Dr Reece, Bates thought Aboriginal people were "the real Communists ... because they didn't have any private property or form of government". He says: "She believed their social life was anarchic, because they had no kings or priests or hierarchy."

More controversial was her belief, propagated around the world, that black women killed and ate their babies. Dr Reece says that while cannibalism may have taken place in Aboriginal society, it was in a limited and ritualised context. Bates claimed it was widespread; indeed, she theorised that, having stripped the land of its plant and animal life, the people of Central Australia found themselves obliged to eat each other to survive.

Bates expounded these views in newspaper articles, which were her only source of income by then. Some of her biographers suggest that, while they were genuinely held, she exaggerated them in order to make a living. In recent times, they were seized on by Pauline Hanson, the right-wing firebrand Australian politician, who cited them in a ghost- written book.

Despite Bates's solitary existence, she remained a pathological social climber and was a prolific writer of letters to influential figures. "She loved nothing better than dining at Government House when she was in Adelaide," says Ms de Vrees. "She fooled everyone into thinking she was a lady."

The biggest irony surrounding Bates, though, is the way she is posthumously helping a race she regarded as doomed to reassert its traditional way of life. While in Western Australia, she collected so much data on Aboriginal language, lifestyle and genealogy that her writings comprised a stack of papers several feet high. That information is now being used by indigenous groups seeking to establish their claims to traditional ownership of the land, and their right to hunt, fish and look after sacred tribal sites there.

Bates's records contributed to a landmark native title win by the Nyoongar in 2006 over the city of Perth and its surrounds – more than 6,000 square km. Dr Reece says that, in such cases, her evidence is "like the Bible".

In order to be granted native title, Aborigines have to prove a continuing and unbroken link with the land they owned until British settlement. Glen Kelly, head of the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, says: "Claims only succeed if you can show that what's recorded in history concurs with the evidence that people are giving today.

"People are being put on the witness stand who can't read, let alone have bothered to read Daisy Bates. So you can pretty much guarantee that their evidence is first-hand, or handed down, and it concurs very strongly with the ideas about society, language and mores that were put forward by Daisy Bates and other historians."

Mr Kelly adds: "Courts won't believe blackfella evidence; it has to be backed by whitefella evidence. Daisy Bates knew the old people who were alive right at the beginning of white settlement, so she provides that direct link to the early period."

Mr Kelly himself is a link between past and present. Some years ago, he interviewed some of the old people who remembered Bates from their childhood. "People regarded her as a little bit on the fruity side," he says. "They said it would be 40C plus, and she would be out there in the desert in her long black Victorian dresses."

He added: "She would roll up, and the old people would say 'here comes old Daisy again', and they would shake their heads with a bit of a chuckle. She was not unkind, but with this business of smoothing the pillow of a dying race she was in her own mind engaging in something akin to palliative care."

Bates continues to perplex and intrigue Australians. In the 1970s Katherine Hepburn was set to play her in a film directed by Sir Robert Helpmann. It was never made, but there was a documentary a few years ago, called Kabbarli, or Grandmother. That was the name that Aborigines gave Bates. Her life also inspired an opera, The Young Kabbarli, composed by Margaret Sutherland in 1964.

Asked to sum the enigmatic Daisy Bates up, Dr Reece says: "She was Australia's greatest woman eccentric, and its first female anthropologist, a self-taught woman of science. She was also a terrible snob. She kept her distance from Aborigines and also from the white settlers, whom she called 'low whites'."

He added: "She was a woman of great courage and physical strength. Ultimately her achievements were overshadowed by her retrograde views. But among Aborigines she had this powerful status. She was Queen of the blacks."

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