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February 18, 2014

The lucky country, Part 3/4

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Thanks to Alan Moorehead I now know about a great Australian woman; Daisy May Bates (1859 - 1951). Moorehead in his 1966 classic The Fatal Impact talked about her life and her writings with a great admiration.

Bates, an Irish Australian journalist, devoted 40 years of her life living among and writing, with respect and understanding, about Australia’s natives. Among them she was simply 'Kabbarli' - - 'grandmother'.

“It was left to the indomitable figure of Daisy Bates to write the epitaph of the (wild) aborigines in Australia,” says Moorehead, “Her career in many ways reminds one of her near contemporary, Mary Kingsley, the blue-stocking who when out to West Africa and who raised a plea for the Negro in his native state, as ‘a free unsmashed man – not a white-washed slave or and enemy’.”

“She travelled for years in the most distance parts of Western Australia, bought and managed a property there, and lived the incredibly tough and lonely life of a bushman in the eighteen-nineties,” he added, “The more she saw of the aborigines the more she was moved and touched by them, and in the end she gave up everything to serve them.”

She learned to speak their many dialects, she came to know their habits, their legends and their tribal rites. She ate their food and nursed them when they were sick, and she went to live alone with the remnants of the tribes in that loneliest and most forbidding region of the whole continent, the Nullabor Plain on the Great Australian Bight. “I lived,” she said, “their life, not mine.”

Her involvement with the Aboriginal Australians was not as a missionary, doctor or teacher. "As far as I can make out she never tried to teach the Australians Aborigines anything or convert them to any faith. She preferred them to stay as they were and live out the last of their days in peace," Moorehead said, "She was not an anthropologist but she knew them better than anyone else who ever lived; and she made them interesting not only to herself but to us as well."

Daisy Bates fought against the policy of having native people assimilated into white Australian society and resisted the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women by white men. She was convinced that the Australian Aborigines were a dying race and that her mission was to record as much as she could about them before they disappeared.

Her accounts, among the first attempts at a serious study of Aboriginal culture, were published in the Journal of Agriculture and later by anthropological and geographical societies in Australia and overseas. In 1904, the Registrar General's Department of Western Australia appointed her to research Aboriginal customs, languages and dialects, a task which took nearly six years to compile and arrange the data. Many of her papers were read at Geographical and Royal Society meetings.

To maintain her income she wrote numerous articles and papers for newspapers, magazines and learned societies. She produced a series of articles titled My Natives and I. Her work was then introduced to a wide audience, although much of the publicity tended to focus on her sensational stories of cannibalism.

The rabbit-proof fences were built to keep rabbits from migrating and the stolen children of Aborigines from returning home. She was said to have carried pistols even in her old age and to have been quite prepared to use them to threaten police when she caught them mistreating 'her' Aborigines.

Aged seventy-one, the Commonwealth Government paid her a stipend of $4 a week to assist her in putting all her papers and notes in order and prepare her manuscript. But with no other income it was impossible for her to remain in the city of Adelaide so she moved to the village settlement of Pyap on the Murray River where she pitched her tent and set up her typewriter.

In 1938, she published The Passing of the Aborigines which caused controversy due to its claims of cannibalism. She died on April 18, 1951, aged 91.

Today, more than 60 years after her death, the problem of landlessness is still one of the most immediate and significant issues facing Australia’s Aborigines; settlers created vast farms and states by driving off those who had traditionally lived on that land, some of those descendants continue to live in an impoverished landless limbo. Without land to cultivate, the only alternative is to drift to the slums of the big cities. 

The struggle for ‘native title’ has been and still is, as in Canada, a major issue. In 1972 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders established their famous ‘Tent Embassy’, a tin shack at Capitol Hill in Canberra, as a highly effective strategy to publicize their claim land rights.

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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