4[Salter, Elizabeth, 1971, Daisy Bates: “The Great White Queen of the Never-Never”, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, Chapter 8]


Discovering the Aborigines

“The people of the dream watched the people of the clock come out of the sea and strike their flagstaff firmly into the sand . . . the clock was not a toy but a way of life as the dreaming was a way of life.” —Mary Durack: The Rock and the Sand.

In the difficult weeks before departure, Daisy cast about for an interest to help her face the future. She found it in the drawing-rooms of Bournemouth.

She had gone to the resort to stay with yet another cousin and was introduced to those residents with connexions in West Australia. Of such there was a surprising number, and Daisy found that the conversation tended to drift towards pioneer relatives and their problems of behaviour in relation to the Aborigines. The accusation of exploitation, levelled against the white settlers of the North-west in 1892, had never been forgotten. The press kept it alive, publishing fresh scandals that appeared at intermittent intervals, usually in the form of letters from correspondents abroad.

Daisy, whose pioneering ambitions had been in no way affected by her sojourn in London, took up the cudgels in favour of the settlers. According to her own account she called on The Times and offered to investigate the situation. Since there is no correspondence to mark the occasion and as nothing under her name appeared until her long letter written in 1904, it is unlikely that, as is so often stated, she was an accredited correspondent of The Times. But her experience with Stead and the topicality of the subject would almost certainly have ensured interest.

Her cousin decided that she should consult an expert and took her to meet the eccentric and famous Dr Cunningham Geike, scientist and author of such erudite articles as “The Evolution of Climate” in which he revealed much learning about West Australia.

The meeting was of significance, not because of the doctor’s statement, repeated so often by Daisy as a conversational shock tactic, that “all embryo babies have tails”, but as a preparation for her future.

She wrote her own account of it. The doctor, she said, greeted her as “gracious lady” and led the way through an intricate maze of books into his smoky little den. Clad in a fez and a long coat “half cassock, half dressing gown”, clutching a hot water bottle to his stomach, he discoursed to the accompaniment of singing birds.

The issue, he told her, was not and could not be limited to the question of exploitation. Discovering that she was to sail on the Stuttgart he referred her to a fellow passenger, Dean Martelli, an elderly Catholic priest who had worked alongside Matthew Gibney, Bishop of Perth, in his lifelong campaign for the Aboriginal cause. The voyage would give her ample opportunity to find out what she wanted to know. He would arrange an introduction.

On the Stuttgart Daisy acquired the foundation on which her life work was based. The voyage was shorter but the days were emptier than they had been on the Macquarie. Daisy, older now and fighting the pain of parting from England and her English friends, was only too glad to listen to the dean on the subject of the West Australian Aborigines. A cultured man with terms of reference incorporating civilizations past and present, he was able to give her the facts and yet maintain the perspective of the historian. From Martelli, she learned the history of the white invasion, dating from the military occupation (to circumvent the French) of King George Sound in 1826 and, more importantly from Daisy’s point of view, the arrival of Captain James Stirling and his band of British immigrants in 1829.

Settlement had begun well. The white immigrants were only too anxious to live in peace with their Bibbulmun hosts. Nor was there any show of spears when the detachment of soldiers pitched camp amidst the tangle of trees, scrub and swamp that was Perth in 1829.

Ngal’goong’a, leader of the tribe, as Daisy was afterwards to write in “Oldest Perth”, an article published in the Western Mail in rqoq, “stood up in his native dignity to receive the white invaders, bid them welcome and quietly removed himself and his belongings to another camp.”

Ngal’goong’a believed, as many others of his race had believed, that the white-skinned strangers were the spirits of his ancestors. It was part of legend that when he had crossed the seas to Konnarup, his heaven, the black man would wake to find himself white. Ngal’goong’a’s action was motivated by fear of the jangg’a, or ghosts, returned from the island of the dead.

He could afford to be generous. The word Bibbulmun is said to have meant “many breasts”. His land was rich in woods and water and provided much game. The Swan River groups, numbering at this time about 1,500, were well fed on roots and fruit, kangaroos and emus. When these were in short supply they fell back on the wai’en, or crane, who came to fish on one leg in the estuary. They wandered from spring to spring in splendid nakedness, the men equipped with their spears and boomerangs, the women following meekly behind, carrying household goods and the babies that swung in their gootas (kangaroo-skin bags).

Captain Stirling returned the courtesy of the natives’ greeting by incorporating them into the family of the British Empire: This was not merely a gesture of conquest. It was an honour bestowed by a people convinced of the superiority of their culture.

These early West Australians had braved unknown seas and were building their homes in unknown territory because of their belief in themselves and the way of life they brought with them. The inferiority of the “naked savages” was proved to them beyond doubt by their stone-age implements, their lack of clothing, the absence of technology, even to so simple a form as the wheel. Some of the whites reacted with revulsion; only the exceptional settler appreciated the peace and simplicity of the way of living of this ancient people whose lives were ordered from within and without, who were bound by laws of consanguinity, their roots in the earth, their spiritual life knowing no boundaries, before or after.

Trouble began as it had in other parts of Australia wherever the two cultures met. A white man was murdered by the natives, another severely wounded. In 1834 a third man, young Hugh Nesbit of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, was attacked and killed about fifty miles south of Perth. Sir James Stirling, as he was then, led a punitive expedition which clashed with a band of some eighty natives in what came to be known as “The Battle of Pinjarra”, and some twenty of these were killed.

So began the warfare which was to continue sporadically for many years and, in sad counterpoint, the history of disease and despair which afflicted the Aborigines when they came into contact with the whites.

From the beginning attempts were made to counteract it. But Francis Fraser Armstrong’s attempt to fuse the two cultures, though it met with response from both black and white, failed as the Protestant and Catholic missions of George King and Bishop Salvado were to fail for the same reason.

Enclosed, even in huts, the “naked savage” drooped and died. They complained that, “The smell of the white man is killing us.” It was as though the weight of civilization was pressing them out of existence. Salvado called it a “sickness of the soul” that was a form of nostalgia.

Children entered the mission schools and died from such ailments as measles. Adults developed bronchitis, pneumonia or tuberculosis, diseases that killed them even more effectively than the syphilis they contracted from their white conquerors.

What was also serious, the white man’s cures were very often as fatal as his diseases. Doctors began to warn the colonists that the Aboriginal could not stand up to their remedies.

“With grief I admit,” John Forrest acknowledged, “the native race is disappearing.”

Not, it seemed, fast enough for the more aggressive element in the European community up north. A manifesto drawn up in the Geraldton area was headed by the question, “Are we or the natives to be masters?” The myalls, as the wild blacks were called, kept up a guerilla warfare that roused their opponents to a fury of retaliation.

Things had come to the point, Martelli said, where even educated men believed that if the whites were to survive, the blacks must be exterminated. Any talk of humanity was regarded as sentimental, the charge thrown at Bishop Gibney in the controversy of 1892.

In Perth this took the form of a correspondence that occupied columns in the newspapers and continued for months. In it Bishop Gibney defended the “gentle and docile” people who had led him to safety across the Pindan of the north, neither stealing his provisions nor killing him as they might well have done. Against him were those pastoralists who condemned them as “brutish, irresponsible and treacherous”.

Both attitudes had their foundation in fact. The Aborigines could be docile and brutish, gentle and treacherous, depending on the treatment meted out to them.

Daisy, whose values were those of her compatriots, interpreted what she was told as the dance of death between new and old. The superior energy and adaptability of the British, able to accustom themselves to Arctic cold and tropical heat, was, as Daisy was afterwards to write, “a signal for the disappearance of the indigene”. Martelli’s belief that the Aborigines were doomed roused her scientific as well as compassionate interest. She asked if anything had been done to record the language and customs of the tribes that were left?

Martelli told her that the French abbot of their Beagle Bay Mission in the far north had been compiling a dictionary of the Broome district, and that the present acting abbot, Father Nicholas, was a keen student of their customs.

Daisy glimpsed the hobby that she had been looking for. The dean added that he hoped to accompany Bishop Gibney to the Beagle Bay Mission in the following August. He could not, of course, be sure of gaining the bishop’s consent but if he knew of her interest he might be persuaded to agree to her going with them.

It was an enthralling prospect but it was still twelve months away. In the meantime she must adjust to life as Mrs John Bates, mother of Arnold, who had celebrated his thirteenth birthday while his mother was on the Stuttgart, learning about the Aborigines of her adopted land.