Bates, Daisy May (1859–1951), welfare worker for Aborigines, anthropologist, and eccentric, was born 21 October 1859 in Roscrea, Co. Tipperay, third among six children of James Dwyer , catholic tradesman and blacksmith, and Bridget Dwyer (née Hunt). Her twin brother, Francis, died shortly after birth. The family was comparatively well off, as James Hunt ran a wool mill and had business connections in Wales. However, in 1864 his wife died and he remarried shortly afterwards and emigrated to Australia, leaving his children behind. He died on the voyage over. Daisy was brought up by her maternal grandmother in Ballychrine, near Roscrea, on a fair-sized estate of seventy-seven acres. She was educated at the Sacred Heart convent in Roscrea and on leaving school went to work as a governess in Dublin, and possibly in Wales. In 1883 she left Dublin, alone, for Australia aboard the Almora, and on landing in north Queensland began to embroider her life story. The account she settled on, which is repeated in most reference books and biographies to date, involves her being born into an Anglo-Irish family in 1863, adopted by Sir Francis Outram, and sent to a Belgian finishing school; it admits the death of her mother but leaves her father alive. Her refinement and education lent credence to her story. Of the sources cited below, Blackburne (1997) and Monkhouse & Arrigan (1999) are accurate on her life in Ireland.
She found work as a governess on Fanny Down cattle station in north Queensland. There she met and married (13 March 1884) a stockman, Edwin Henry Murrant, who may have been the legendary ‘Breaker’ Morant, famous as the best horse-breaker in the county. The couple separated shortly after their marriage and on 17 February 1885 Daisy married bigamously in Nowra, New South Wales, a cattle-rancher, Jack Bates. Her son Arnold was born in 1886. The family spent some years herding cattle in western Queensland, but they seem not to have been particularly happy and in 1894 Daisy left alone for England, where she spent the next five years. Her account of her life in London is as vague and misleading as that of her origins, but she certainly worked for a brief period for W. T. Stead on the Review of Reviews and acquired some practice in journalism. In 1899 she returned to Australia to investigate abuses against Aborigines, which she had read of in The Times. She spent eight months in a mission run by the Trappist monks at Beagle Bay in North Australia and concluded that the native population was not being actively ill-treated, but that much could be improved.
In 1901 she was briefly reunited with her husband in Roebuck Plains, an isolated cattle-station east of Broome, Western Australia, but the pair were incompatible. Jack Bates died in 1902 and Bates left her son, from whom she was estranged for the rest of her life, in order to return to the Aborigines. Two years later her work was formally recognised when the Western Australia government gave her a grant to carry out a detailed study of the Bibbulmum tribe who resided on the Maamba reservation in the south-west. Bates spent four years among them, contributing a paper in 1905 to the Victoria Geographical Journal in which she presented the first comparative study of Aboriginal marriage customs in different parts of Australia. In 1910 she was appointed to the British anthropological expedition, led by the Cambridge anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, to study the Aborigines of the north-west. Her relations with Radcliffe-Brown were poor – he compared her mind to a well stocked but untidy sewing basket – and she later claimed that he ignored her advice. Bates lived virtually uninterruptedly in her tent, ministering to and recording the customs of the Mirning tribe on the Nullabor Plain in Eucla, until 1918, when she fell ill and had to be moved to Adelaide. The following year she left for Ooldea, a small town north-west of Adelaide which acted as a waterhole on the trans-Australian railway. Here she set up camp for the next sixteen years, concerning herself with the welfare of surrounding Aborigine tribes, whom she helped support by journalistic work and by selling off property. They apparently gave her the name ‘Kabbarli’ (grandmother).
She was appointed a JP for the Ooldea district in 1920, and in that year gave a personal tour of the Aborigine sites to the prince of Wales. In 1934 she was appointed a CBE. The following year she returned to Adelaide to write her autobiography, some of which was published as The passing of the Aborigines (1938). The government gave her a small stipend to help her prepare her papers for deposit at the commonwealth national library in Canberra. She chose to carry out this work in a tent at Pyap on the River Murray, and in 1940 ninety-nine boxes of papers were sent to the library. After a further four years living in the railway siding of Wynbring, east of Ooldea, Bates's age of 86 in 1945 finally made surviving in such austere conditions impossible. She retired to an old people's home in Prospect, near Adelaide, where she died on 18 April 1951.
Bates achieved iconic status during her lifetime, and after her death was the subject of numerous biographies and inspired an opera, ‘The young Kabbarli’, by Lady Casey with music by Margaret Sutherland. However, her reputation remains problematic; her distortions of her personal life have cast doubt on her anthropological writings, which were already viewed by Aborigine scholars as patronising. Some of Bates's assertions, concerning for instance cannibalism, are far-fetched and unsubstantiated; her core thesis (first articulated in 1912), that Aborigines were doomed to perish, has been refuted by an increase in their numbers. Her evident eccentricity, manifested by her wearing full Edwardian dress even in her tent in the outback, where temperatures regularly reached 120° Fahrenheit, has also affected the way in which her writings are viewed. She is not considered a serious authority; however, she has been commended for her empirical method and for her example of living with her subjects without imposing her own views on them. Most of her voluminous writings are now in the National Library of Australia at Canberra.