The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates


On the fringe of the vast island continent of Australia live a few millions of white people; in the vast desert regions far from the coast live a few thousands of black people, the remnant of the first inhabitants of Australia.

The race on the fringe of the continent has been there about a hundred years, and stands for Civilization; the race in the interior has been there no man knows how long, and stands for Barbarism. Between them a woman has lived in a little white tent for more than twenty years, watching over these people for the sake of the Flag, a woman alone, the solitary spectator of a vanishing race. She is Daisy Bates, one of the least known and one of the most romantic figures in the British Empire.

She has left these poor people whom she counts as her children and has come back to civilization for a little while to write this story of her life among the Aborigines on the rim of the great Nullarbor Plain. She has given her life and her heart to this dying race, the first people of our southern Dominion. She has done it for the love of humanity and for England. She has neither sought fame nor found it. She has made no money by her long life’s work. Through all these years she has been alone, cut off from the world, with only these strange, backward, hopeless people to give her a little human society now and then. There is in her life something of the spirit of service that moved Florence Nightingale, and something of the spirit of sacrifice that filled the heart of Father Damien. She would not put it so, for she has loved her life and made a joy of her labour, but it is right that tribute should be paid to Mrs. Daisy Bates.

She was the daughter of an Irish family, and came over to London in those far-away days when journalism was a noble business and Fleet Street was excited by the doings of a young man named Stead. Daisy Bates joined his staff. She was a keen observer, a woman with scientific knowledge and a gift for languages, and she began her working life in the glow of that great spirit who stirred and entertained all London in his day. He lies in the bed of the Atlantic with the ruins of the Titanic about him, while the Irish lady on his staff sits in her tent on the banks of the Murray River, looking back on those few years at the hub of the world and her long years alone in the Australian wilderness.

She went out to her Aborigines in the first years of this century. She found them decreasing in numbers with the coming of the white man, their root-foods ploughed up, the tracks to their water-holes disappearing. She wrote a history of them which still remains in manuscript. When the century was ten years old she went out to two islands on a Commission to study the hospital treatment of these poor people, and while there she set up a post office so that the patients could communicate with their families on the mainland. One of the first services she rendered to them was to conduct a mail with notched sticks, conveying messages to their friends. She had forty patients on her hands and pulled every one through. She kept them tranquil and cheerful in their bush shelters, sat by their sick beds listening to their tribal stories, joined with them in praying to their totems when they wanted rain. They had never known anyone like her. They named her Kabbarli, grandmother.

It happened that her husband died, and Mrs. Bates, left with a cattle station and thousands of cattle, decided to dispose of her property and to interest herself in these people. She decided that the only way to help this dying race was to live with them, and she travelled wherever she heard of natives gathering. She made herself known to all these wandering tribes. Five times she pitched her camp along the edge of the Plain which none of these Aborigines had dared to cross till Edward John Eyre crossed it in 1840; and her fifth camp was in the sand-hills of Ooldea, which she reached when the Great War was raging in Europe. There she stayed, living a mile from the transcontinental railway in a tent and a shed made of boughs, ringed round by a high breakwind. Here she passed from her prime to old age, walking a mile every day when she was over seventy years old to get water, and carry it back to her tent, where she would spare it for the birds though the thermometer was 112.

Sitting at her tent she would receive these wandering tribes, little regiments of them coming one day from nowhere to nowhere, another day in search of revenge for some blow struck at them by another tribe ahead. She would greet the little ragged processions (ragged or naked as the case might be) as the one friend they had in the great world beyond their reach. They would come to her with the confidence of a child in its mother, yet like creatures from another world than ours. I shall never forget her writing to me that a woman she had had for tea at her tent had eaten her own child. Dramatic and terrible as such a thing is to us, it was no new experience for Daisy Bates, for cannibalism has never died out among these wandering tribes. They will kill and eat from revenge, or from primeval motives beyond our understanding.

More than once the last member of one of these tribes has died in the arms of Daisy Bates. “Where am I going?” asked one of these pathetic dying people, and we may wonder if anything could be better than Kabbarli’s answer: “My Father is where you are going.” All fear was gone. “Your Father, Kabbarli? Then I shall be safe,” and the poor tired Jeera fell asleep, her warm hand growing cold as Kabbarli held it.

Between her mind and theirs was the gulf that only many generations can bridge-she with a deep love of humanity, a mind filled with dreams, and her heart stirred with a passion for England; they with the primeval emotions of mankind, to whom the railway train puffing steam is the great white snake, in whom the spirit of the cannibal is not yet dead. To her the most pathetic memories of her life are the sights and sounds of England, the primroses and the church bells, the green fields and the song of birds, the wild rose in the hedgerow, the little church at the end of a country lane, and the harvest field; but for a generation she has not seen these things, and will not now. She has chosen, instead, to be the last friend of the last remnant of this dying race. The last friendly hand, the last kindly word, that will come to them will be hers.

She knows them as they know themselves. She knows their languages, their rituals, their traditions, their capacities and their incapacities, as no white man or woman on the earth knows them. She can talk to them in 188 dialects. They have invited her to ceremonies which their own women may not attend, and have admitted her into their tribes and put their sacred totems in her keeping. She is a magical figure to them. She can quell a squabble with a word or a look. They come to her hungry and she feeds them. They come to her naked and she clothes them. They come to her sick and she heals them. She belongs to no church, no mission, no creed; she has been a woman alone befriending these poor people, ruling them not by law but by the simple directness of character, the power of a personality which has no room for selfishness and seeks no end but the happiness of others.

If we ask what it is that she has had in view through all these years it is the thought that England, with these people in the shelter of the Flag, owes something to them. Their race is bound to disappear-it is about 60,000 strong and does not grow like the proud Maori race of New Zealand. It has been her idea that their lives should be controlled and cared for with that fact in view. They should be left as free as possible, to pass from existence as happily as may be. She has wanted to save them from the worst effects of casual contact with the fringe of civilization. In their way they are pure and simple folk, and she has come to love them. She has a strong belief in British administration, and has always wanted a King’s Man to look after these people.

It is for this end that she has lived the life of a heroic woman, labouring in solitude in a climate often parching and only rarely bursting into beauty, seeking to succour a noisome race, melancholy in outlook and terrible in habits. For a little while she has left them. She left them for three enchanting weeks in 1933 when the Government invited her to Canberra to discuss the Aborigines. A surprising figure she must have been in the streets of the capital, this white-haired old lady from the uncivilized world, wearing the shirt blouse, the high collar and the long skirt of the early years of our century. For her there are no changing fashions. For a little while, again, she returned to civilization to set down this story, and, tiring of city streets, she has set up her tent once more on the banks of the great Murray River where years ago these people made their home. She has found their old haunts deserted, with not a native left.

Perhaps she may return to them; perhaps not; but still she dreams that the Empire will not fail this human renmant in its keeping. Still she is buoyed up by the belief that a man, the right man, a King’s Man, will some day be appointed by Australia to take charge of these children of a race which inhabited Australia before the white man heard of it, and are dying out not knowing how wonderful life is.

To us she is Daisy Bates, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the most remarkable woman in Australia. To them she is the magical Kabbarli, whose word is love and law, and whose life is swayed by the spirit of the Master whom she serves.

Arthur Mee.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51