Daisy Bates in the Desert by Julia Blackburn


It is hard work to read a biography of a liar, a person who works to create myths about themselves. My previous experience of this was with Calamity Jane, that denizen of the Wild West who is buried near Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, S.D. When I read a short academic take on her life, I found it was an unsatisfying effort to separate facts and myth with no charm. This author, by contrast, is great at the charm aspect, but still has the unpleasant task of recounting the life of a pathological liar.

Though I have read lots of Australian fiction and some non-fiction, I had never heard of Daisy Bates. Credible sources show she was born Daisy May O’Dwyer in the early 1860s in Ireland to a poor Catholic family and her parents died when she was young. Her own stories of her youth have her living a grand life in Ireland and having been pictured shaking the hand of Queen Victoria as a child. She apparently was trained to become a governess and obviously was a bright and well-spoken (if untruthful) student. Her move to Australia came perhaps in the early 1880s and by her charm and wit made her way into a circle of influential people. She became a governess and married another liar named Edwin Henry Murrant, later known as Breaker Morant.

Let me stop here to refresh our memories of Breaker Morant, best known to me as the name of an Australian film directed by Bruce Beresford about one of the first war crime prosecutions in British history in 1902. The title character was executed for killing unarmed civilians in the second Boer War.

That marriage ended without any official action by 1885 when she married Jack Bates. She and Jack Bates had a son, but were never much of a family. So now finally, I will skip to what she is known for in Australia:  in 1913 she began her sojourn in the desert in a tent near Ooldea in the Nullarbor in South Australia near the trans-Australian railway line. She fancied herself the carer of Aborigines and recorded vocabulary and social customs and accused others of taking her work without crediting her. After living for years in unimaginable conditions, she moved to Adelaide and wrote The Passing of the Aborigines, using all the scraps of paper where she recorded all she learned. It’s hard to credit her with having written a reasonable anthropological study, given her preference for story over facts. And then there are her references to the Aboriginal people as her children that she needed to care for.

Earlier I mentioned the charm of this undertaking. In the first section the author puts herself into the work and writes effectively and appealingly. The copy I read is bristling with sticky notes for passages that I would like to remember. In the second section of the book Blackburn has Daisy Bates writing in the first person, based on all the material available to her. The effect is disconcerting:  clearly a liar, but an articulate, interesting one. In one breath she is poetic about her experiences and in the next, she is distressingly distanced from reality.

Daisy Bates without question had amazing fortitude and lived for decades in a tent and cared about people despised by the mainstream white population of Australia.

Thanks to Dorothy who told me about this book and loaned to me.

Julia Blackburn, Daisy Bates in the Desert, Random House, 1994, 232 pages. Available in the public library.

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