She bedded Breaker Morant, she bent the truth, and she stole the attention of a nation. Daisy Bates’ story is one that needs to be retold.
As we have previously concluded, Australia is a curious country. One of the best things about it is that until the computer messed up our lives, a person could disappear here. A friend of mine often tells stories about his time working in a mine in the West Australia desert, surrounded by a rag-tag bunch of escapees from soured marriages, businesses gone bust or mid-level criminality. In the 1880s, Australia was also the place if you wanted to get away from things you’d rather forget. On a big island far, far away, people could reinvent themselves, live a different life, with a different name even. And because we have a penchant for the weird and wonderful in this country, we usually take these people into our hearts. As exhibits A and B I would like to introduce you today to Daisy Bates and Harry “Breaker” Morant. Yes, I know you think you know them. Well, frankly, think again. Did you realise, for instance, that Ms Bates and Mr Morant had been married? Granted, it didn’t last long, but still: man and wife, consummated and everything.
Let me explain.
According to the story that anthropologist Daisy Bates told about herself, she had had a genteel upbringing; born in a wealthy Protestant Irish family, raised by a loving grandmother after the death of her mother, then adopted by an aristocratic English family who took her on visits to Balmoral Castle to meet the royals. Then, because she had a spot of lung trouble, she travelled, first class, of course, to Australia, where she, out of the goodness of her heart, decided to become a governess. In reality, Daisy May O’Dwyer’s father was a Catholic from Tipperary, an alcoholic doctor who left his daughter in an orphanage when his wife, Daisy’s mother, died. She got an education of sorts, but there was no money and more than a whiff of sex scandal and even the rumour of VD, and this drove the girl to the other side of the world. There she did become a governess, but more for money than anything else. And it also lasted about five minutes. Because weeks after her ship moored and she had travelled to Fanning Downs Station, near Charters Towers in Far North Queensland, she met a man. That man was then called Edwin Harry Murrant. He had been born in a workhouse and was educated by Freemasons who “gave” him the pound note he needed for his passage to Australia. By the time Daisy arrived, he had been working as a horse-breaker and drover at the station for almost a year. They probably fell in lust, but he made an honest woman out of her on 13 March 1884, three weeks after her arrival. They doubtless had a great time, but a month later Murrant was on the move again. He had been caught buying a saddle and two horses with a dud cheque and stealing 32 pigs, so before they could lock him up he took another job, overlanding cattle down south.
Also on The Big Smoke
- When white Australians fought against the Maori for control of their land
- The small town in the middle of the universe: When Skylab crashed into Australia
- The bomb on the Qantas flight, and what happened next
Daisy was less than heartbroken. On 17 February 1885, under a year later, she married again, without taking the trouble of getting divorced first. The lucky bastard was Jack Bates, a cattleman, and we don’t think he knew his wife was a bigamist. Although he might have, because when Jack went droving in June that year, Daisy married again. His name was Ernest Baglehole, and they had met on the ship coming over. But that didn’t work out either, because when Jack came back from minding cows, he and Daisy got back together and in 1886 they had a son, Arnold. For a few years, they were a happy family, travelling through NSW and Tasmania, going where the cattle went. Then Australia got into drought and an economic depression and Daisy felt it was time to shoot through. She went to England, where she reinvented herself again. This time she told some newspaper editors in London that she was a journalist and could write stories for them about Australia. The Times was especially interested in rumours that the Aboriginal population was being mistreated in the country and Daisy told them that she could go over and tell the “truth”. If they paid her passage, of course.
So in 1899, after an absence of five years, Daisy Bates was back, this time as a correspondent for a prestigious London newspaper. For a few months she reunited with Jack and Arnold, but soon she decided she had more important things to do. She went to Broome to talk to Aboriginal people there, and after only a little while decided that she knew what was good for them. She put up a tent and for the next 45 years, she sat in different places in the desert, watching what she believed was a doomed race dying out. For a while, she was a travelling Aboriginal Protector, deciding on whose children would be taken, who could work where and who had to live on missions and reserves. Although she saw a lot of white violence perpetrated on Aboriginal people, she described the Queenslanders as “noble men and women, and nearly all of them…above reproach and more than kindly in their treatment of the aboriginal.” As most people of her generation, she thought that what Aboriginal people needed was “the governance and fatherhood of the Empire makers, men of the sterling British type.” Then their “weird rituals”, their “Black Masses of witchcraft and savagery”, would soon be sorted out. Bates also believed that Aboriginal people were cannibals and baby-killers, opinions that Pauline Hanson used in the 1990s to advocate against them.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Nudity, riots and rebellion: The “harpies” of the first female penal colonies
- Herbert Vere Evatt: The Australian who led the UN general assembly
- Australia’s refugee crisis and the woman in the red bikini who jumped the queue
On the flipside, Daisy Bates was one of the first anthropologists practicing “participant observation” long before this kind of fieldwork would become normal. She also listened and recorded, gathering information that otherwise would have been lost. But she was very much a woman of her time, and a bit of a hypocrite. In her highly successful newspaper column My Natives and I (mind the possessive adjective) the bigamist railed against Aboriginal marriage laws, for instance, decrying them as far too loose. And the woman who had left her own son nevertheless criticised children born from a mix of the races as “not good for anything”. Maybe that was why one of her contemporaries, English anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, said that her mind was like “a well-stocked but very untidy sewing-basket”. A lovely put-down, but it has to be said that this came after she had accused him of plagiarising her research.
Despite the fact that Daisy Bates is at best a doubtful character, we have embraced her with gusto. Most of her biographers unquestionably accepted the story she told about herself, and called her the Great White Queen of the Desert. Maybe we like this kind of eccentricity, even if it hurts the most vulnerable people around. Maybe we don’t care much about that. That is a conclusion that is also almost inevitable if you look at what happened to Daisy’s beau, the thief we left overlanding cattle a few minutes ago. Somewhere on that road, Edwin Murrant became Harry Morant, a man who told whoever wanted to listen that he was the illegitimate son of an English Admiral. But that was only one of his tall tales. In the years it took Daisy to travel around, go to Britain and come back, the newly minted Morant became a writer of bush ballads for the Bulletin. That is where he adopted the name “Breaker”. He also played polo, drank lots of booze and had a girlfriend or six. Then the Boer War broke out in 1899 and Breaker enlisted in the 2nd Contingent, South Australian Mounted Rifles. He served for two years, then went back to Britain, got engaged (what is it with this getting hitched all the time?) and when that went sour, went back to South Africa. This is when it started to go wrong.
Also on The Big Smoke
- William Lane: The racist colonial journalist who fostered anarchy in his distant utopia
- The Maltese boat people of 1916 that set our national tone
Now a member of the so-called Bush Veldt Carbineers, a collection of soldiers from the “colonies”, Morant went off the rails a little. When the Boers killed one of his superiors, he and a few others revenged him by shooting six Boer civilians who had already surrendered, later doing the same to a German missionary who had been a witness to that atrocity. When they were hauled in front of an inquiry, their defence was that they had only been following orders. According to the men (Morant and his colleague Peter Handock), Lord Kitchener, the British commander in the Transvaal, had told them to take no prisoners. So killing was allowed, and more to the point, this job was left to “the colonials”, because the British viewed them as “convict stock”, uncivilised and prone to violence anyway. As we all know, Breaker and Handcock were shot, reputedly after instructing their executioners to “shoot straight, you bastards!”.
What is interesting, is that, like in the case of Daisy Bates, the legend of Breaker Morant has very little to do with the actual person. First of all, whatever you think of the men’s defence, the fact remains they killed innocent people in cold blood. And the claim that they, as Australians, manfully stood up to the uncaring British is also, frankly, bull. Both Morant and Handcock were British themselves, and Australia didn’t even exist yet. Nevertheless, there are dozens of books and films that turn our friend Murrant into a hero. After Bruce Beresford’s film came out, the graves of Morant and Handcock became a place of pilgrimage for Australian tourists and in 1998 the Australian government spent money to refurbish their last resting place. In 2010 a petition to retrospectively pardon the men was even sent to the Queen (and quickly rejected by the UK’s Ministry of Defence). More than a hundred years after Morant and Handcock died, the discussion is still going on – in politics, in academia, in the public – about their status. Morant has become an emblem of the nation, somebody who signifies its identity, the way it wants to see itself. And as we know, there is little room for difficult questions in myth-making. Whether you kill people or see them as a doomed race, we really don’t care.
As long as your story sounds good.
For this story I have used the following sources:
Ann Standish: ‘Daisy Bates: dubious leadership’ in Standish, Seizing the Initiative: Australian women leaders in politics, workplaces and communities; eScholarship Research Centre, University of Melbourne, 2012
Susanna de Vries: Desert Queen – The many lives and loves of Daisy Bates; Sydney, HarperCollins, 2008
Nick Bleszynski: Shoot straight, you bastards!; Sydney, Random House, 2003