15[Salter, Elizabeth, 1971, Daisy Bates: “The Great White Queen of the Never-Never”, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, Chapter 11]
The Lonely Mission
“An ounce of example is worth a ton of precept.” —Daisy Bates.
It was to, be a crucial three months, beginning with an even longer boat trip of a thousand miles up the west coast to Broome. There they were met by the acting abbot, Father Nicholas, and Filomeno Rodriguez, skipper of the Sree Pas Sair that was to take them the extra three days to Beagle Bay.
The Sree Pas Sair, like its owner, belonged to the history of Broome. Once the floating palace of Rajah Brooke, it had been purchased by an adventurer who had used it for the early experiments in dress diving. The resultant fifteen years in the pearling trade had transformed the luxury yacht into an evil-smelling hulk, indistinguishable, except for the beauty of its lines, from any other of the pearling boats, ‘dummy owned’ by whites but usually the property of the Japanese.
Daisy, who, had a feeling for sailing ships, lamented its past glory but endured the discomfort in a manner that almost succeeded in reconciling Father Nicholas to her presence.
It is easy to imagine his reactions at the sight of her’.
A Spaniard of good family, who had studied medicine in Paris, it was for the sake of the black Australians that he had made the sacrifice of his life. Recalled from the useful work he was doing in the school he had established in Broome, the black-bearded little priest was already gloomy about the prospects of the Beagle Bay Mission. He was prepared to fulfil his role of acting abbot but, faced with the deterioration caused by persistent willy-willies and lack of staff to repair the damage, his outlook was not optimistic. Depressed by the facts with which he must confront his bishop, he must have found it doubly disconcerting to see the eager and strangely elegant young woman who accompanied him.
He explained that there was no accommodation whatsoever for her at the monastery; and that, by Church law, no woman except a Queen or the wife of a Head of State was allowed within its walls.
As usually happened, conversation with Daisy had a mollifying effect. Behind the ultra-feminine appearance he discovered an intelligence both inquiring and receptive. She spoke French with him and was attentive to all that he had to tell her on the subject of the Aborigines. Father Nicholas took it upon himself to grant a dispensation. She could have his room. It was very rough, a bag bed, seaweed pillow, an upturned tree stump as table, but, if she were prepared to put up with the lack of comfort . . .
Daisy assured him that she had never been one to bother with the fleshpots and wrote gleefully that she ‘broke all the rules’. ‘I slept in the Abbot’s bed (he wasn’t in it and besides it wouldn’t hold two) and I went through their cells and talked and made them talk to me and all through those months they were perfect little gentlemen.’
Her account of the visit, according to Mary Durack, strikes ‘an oddly light-hearted and feminine note in a story of so much zealous masculine endeavour, earnest soul-searching and bewildered study of native customs and psychology’.
In her letters to William Hurst, editor of the Australasian, Daisy described it as a series of adventures, that began on arrival at the Bay. Rodriguez, who knew the coast as only a pearler could know it, timed their arrival for the turn of the tide so that Daisy had the ‘extraordinary experience of disembarking from the ship onto the back of a waiting horse’. The Sree Pas Sair listed to starboard as, the water receded, and even the bullock dray could come alongside across the rapidly drying mud. The little party set off with the clothes and provisions they had brought for the Mission; but, she wrote, ‘the horses were trappists too, skin and bone in their poverty and stopped so often for their meditations and devotions that the bullock team arrived before us.’
No sign of life broke the monotony of country ‘unlovely and cheerless to a degree’, except for a turtle factory, opened, and soon after closed, at the Bay.
Their progress across the Pindan was, in fact, very little different from Bishop Gibney’s original expedition, when, led by the Njul Njul people, he had laboured across the parched and prickly bushland to the oasis of ’spreading white gums, sparkling spring fed pools, lily covered and set about with palms and ferns’, that had been chosen as the Mission site.
Because of the quantity of water, they were greeted by a thousand birds of bright plumage-wild ducks, parrots, brols and finches-which rose with a screech at the sight of them.
‘They are swearing at us,’ Daisy informed the bishop, but this was to distract his attention from their first sight of the mission buildings.
Wind-battered and dejected, they were ‘a collection of tumbledown paperback monastery cells and a little bark chapel, a community room of corrugated iron, repeatedly destroyed in bush fires and hurricanes’. On either side were clumps of bananas, dates and vegetables, all overgrown with weeds. These flourished as readily as everything else. The soil was fruitful, producing rice, sugarcane, pumpkins and arrowroot that was far superior in quality to the Queensland product. But Father Nicholas had explained that as the policy of the Mission had been to help and never to exploit the natives, no attempt had been made to sell their products. In those days £5,000 was a great deal of money. To show that this amount had been spent on improvements to the property must have seemed a remote hope, even to an optimist like Bishop Gibney.
A dogged idealist, blessed with an energy that far transcended his sixty-five years, he set about to, ensure that his dream for posterity would be realized.
At the end of two months, ‘every screw and post, every fruit and vegetable, buildings, wells, trenches and implements had been meticulously valued. The livestock was on the run, supplies in the store, the wells cleaned, fences and buildings straightened out. A thriving property existed where there had been only ruin and decay.’
So Daisy could write in triumph for the Journal of Agriculture. But the miracle spelled hard work. The fastidious little lady was given her chance to prove that she could rise to the challenge of manual labour as previously she had met intellectual demands; and she was able to do this for the same reason: once again she was working for a man who claimed her total respect.
‘It was the selflessness of the great Irishman that made everyone ready and eager to help,’ she told Hurst.
And work they did, the priests in charge of the men, Daisy of the women.
It took her all her ingenuity to keep them occupied, but discovering that they loved to play the child’s game, ring-aring-a-rosy, she used this as her incentive. They worked and played in shifts and she worked and played with them. This way they weeded the gardens and dug out the wells, a job they preferred because the results were more dramatic.
On the marshy ground were three-foot-high mounds that the bishop recognized as signs of artesian pressure. He helped Daisy and her women dig a space of seven feet square and then down until the ground became fibrous like an Irish bog. Using their hands, the native women dug to a level of six feet. By the next morning, fresh water was level with the embankment and in a matter of two short weeks had been populated by a species .of tiny. fish. Connected by trench to other wells, this provided a channel of moving water, ideal for the purpose of irrigation.
The repair work accomplished, there remained the marathon task of surveying the 8,000 acres of land. With no Government surveyor available, the bishop undertook the job himself, together with a ship’s compass, a chain, Daisy and some helpers.
‘The Bishop and I were the chainmen,’ she wrote, ‘walking in steamy heat of 106 degrees at times, sometimes twelve miles a day. Over marsh and through pindan, now lame from stones and prickles, now up to our thighs in bog, the Bishop throwing down a small peg to mark the chain limit, I always in difficulties because of my high heeled footwear. We were always hungry. Brother Xavier . . . would forget the salt or the bread or the meat, or the place where he had arranged to meet us, or that we existed at all.
‘On the night walkings, rosaries were chanted all the way home, the natives and brothers responding. I often stumbled and fell in the dark but that rosary never stopped.’ After which, Daisy set to and wrote the notes of the day’s activities.
She deserved the gold watch that was given her by the bishop in gratitude for her help. But that she endured gladly, we know from her letters to Hurst.
Her ‘real task’ she told him, was to keep the bishop in good heart.
‘Plodding over swamps, my clothes torn by rushes and the evil thorny bushes, I’d sing to him “Thro’ hedges and ditches I tore me auld britches, for you, Maryanne, for you Maryanne.”
Miles from the Mission, after a day’s surveying over soil baked hard by the sun, they slept in the protection of their wagon, Daisy between the wheels, the bishop on one side, Father Nicholas on the other.
Asked by Father Nicholas to wake his lordship, I put my hand through the wheel and pulling the rug off his head, I said, ‘Get up you lazy lad.’
We sat up and proceeded to put on our shoes and stockings. Suddenly the situation dawned on me. I turned grinning to the Bishop:
‘Did you ever put on your shoes and socks in bed with a lady before?’ I asked him.
The lovely old man grasped it. ‘Oh lord oh lord, isn’t it funny,’ he said and it quite put him in good heart through the day.
Irish himself, he understood her teasing, although, if she carried it too far, he was quick to tell her.
Knowing that this was likely to be his last visit to the district, he held a service in the little bark chapel in order ‘to make confirmed christians of all the natives’.
‘Crowded into that little bark chapel,’ she wrote in The Passing of the Aborigines, ‘65 men, women and babies, smelling to high heaven,’ stood before the prelate of the Roman Catholic Church in all his ceremonial robes of lace and purple and mitre, to be anointed with the papal blessing and a little blow on the cheek of the Pax Tecum.
‘I tried to maintain a solemn countenance only to explode into choking laugher by the antics of one boy ... desperately trying to keep his hands clasped in prayer and a rag of decency well pulled down over his rear elevation.’
A frown of disapproval from under the dazzling mitre and an impatient jerk of the sacred crook, sobered her, but when she saw Goodowell, one of the corroboree comedians, acting out the ceremony she decided the bishop must join in on the joke.
Goodowel was sitting on a tree trunk with a red-ochred billycan on his head and a filthy rug over his shoulders. Each of his audience came up to receive a ‘resounding smack on the ear’ and the words, ‘Bag tak em.’
But the bishop, she reported, merely shook his head and said, ‘Ah the poor craytures.’
On his birthday she decided to cook a dinner of celebration which, as one of her proudest boasts was that she could cook nothing more complicated than a boiled egg, was not a success. The bishop did not spare her. After tasting the duck stuffed with vine-leaves, her chosen substitute for herbs she did not possess, he advised that it be kept under a glass case as a lesson in what not to do for the nuns who, he hoped, would join the Mission.
At her custard, he only looked, but ‘his look was eloquent’ The cake had burnt on the outside so that ‘it turned a sort of Wedgwood blue not at all resembling the flour, eggs and butter I had used in its preparation. The Bishop said, “You’re a bright cake maker,” and refused it for the plum pudding which was a great success. It was Swallow and Aerials.’
But, she told Hurst, ‘we were all in the utmost harmony and everyone was doing his durndest from dawn till dark.’ She insisted that., in her account written for the Australasian, the
bishop be given full credit. ‘If there is too much me in the article, blue pencil it mercilessly. I want the Bishop’s work to stand out. Every moment of his time, every thought in his head was concentrated on one single object—a mission for the blacks.’
The valuer arrived, the improvements were valued as high as £6,000 and the Mission was saved. ‘In much jubilation,’ she wrote, ‘we made the first bricks of sand and loam and clay for the new convent of which I laid the foundation brick.’
But one last adventure was ahead of her.
Sixty miles across country was Disaster Bay, where Bishop Gibney had secured a further, 2,000 acres in trust for the Aborigines. The Mission had been without a priest for some months and the bishop decided that he must pay it a visit.
To reach Disaster Bay from Beagle Bay meant a journey through marshland that bordered about thirty-five miles of waterless pindan. Silverfish had disposed of the Mission’s waterbags and after Father Nicholas had made a morning cup of coffee all round, they had a seventeen-hour stretch of blazing heat and no water. The bishop and Daisy, who had been provided with horses, had to walk for some of the time in order to rest their Aboriginal women guides. In the meantime a way must be cut through the pindan for the dray of provisions. Their mouths became so dry that not even the bushman’s remedy of chewing eucalyptus leaves could stimulate saliva. Twice they veered off their course towards Lakes Flora and Louisa to, find nothing but a ’sun baked surface and a saucer like depression of cracked clay’.
It was 2 a.m. before the women shouted ‘Wgooroo’, meaning ‘camp’. Although the water in the Disaster Bay well was sweet magnesium, not one of them except Daisy could resist it.
ith considerable self-control she managed to wait until tea as made and so was the only member of the party who did not suffer from the agonies of stomach cramp.
Her first night of this three-day visit was a short one. Given a bag bed in one of the corrugated iron sheds, she was awakened at dawn by the awed chatterings of some thirty Aboriginal women who had clustered round to stare at the trange being with the white skin while she slept.
As soon as she got up, a number of dirty but friendly hands grasped her bare shoulders and arms. ‘Intensely curious, although not vulgarly so,’ they watched her dress.
‘I have always,’ she wrote, ‘preserved a scrupulous neatness and all the little trappings and accoutrements of my own very particular mode of dress, sometimes under difficulties, but I think I never made a more laughable toilet than that one. Every motion of mine, as I laced my corset and eased my shoes on with a horn, brushed my hair and adjusted my high-collar and waist belt, was greeted with long-drawn squeals of laughter and mirrored in action, though slim black daughters f Eve about me had not even a strand of hair string between the whole thirty.’
ne fifty-five natives who assembled to honour the bishop were headed by Benjamin, his friend of ten years previously. Benjamin threw himself round the bishop’s neck, weeping, stroking his friend’s face and pressing him in his breast, native fashion. All of which the bishop endured, knowing it to be a roof of affection. They were, Daisy reported, ‘a merry and light hearted people, their countenance intelligent, their expression candid and open’. She was also astonished at their onesty. Prepared to find the Mission native ‘a sneak and a sycophant—a sort of flour and rice Christian’, she discovered that the stores at Disaster Bay, left unguarded for six months, had not been touched. Although she found it a ‘delightfully ludicrous touch, to watch the ‘Christian’ wedding ceremonies when the Spanish wreath and veil were worn ‘by hairy savages above wild hair and matted beards and no respectable clothing to speak of’, she was impressed by their obvious love and respect for the monks.
Summoned by the conch bell, they crowded the little chapel for dawn and evening, mass. But the Trappists, who were educated as well as dedicated men, were wise enough not to try to wean them away from the traditional beliefs that provided strength for their society and meaning to their lives. They tried neither to ‘work’ nor ‘convert’ them, and Daisy, who saw for herself the harmony such an attitude produced, noted it for the future. Theirs was an ideal of service and they made it a principle never to interfere with Aboriginal law. They taught by example and, being selfless men, their example had its effect.
There was one occasion, however, when they were confronted by a moral issue that could not be ignored.
Christian men, with an ideal of monogamy, could not approve of the Aboriginal custom of using women as a means of barter. Whenever the natives had contact with the white, or yellow, communities, a thriving trade sprang up. Their women were leased to the Manila pearlers or fishermen in exchange for food, tobacco, whisky. Even the “marriages” conducted by Father Nicholas between Aboriginal women and Manila fishermen were regarded as a kind of lend-lease.
Daisy, horrified to hear from the women that one of these “wives” was being used by at least five of her husband’s brothers, decided that the bishop must be informed of it. The bishop took immediate action. All the women must be locked in the storehouse overnight until the Manila men left the bay.
The storehouse was a shed with no furniture and one window, very small and between twenty and thirty feet from the ground. Yet when the door was opened next morning, not one woman was to be found. They had piled up the stores, jumped onto the soft sand and escaped to the pearlers.
An ugly result of these unions was the fate of the half-caste babies that resulted from them.
Mary Durack in her book The Rock and the Sand states that Father Nicholas had “spent much of his time in Broome, bargaining with the native mothers for the part-Aboriginal babies that they frequently killed and, according to his and the other missionaries’ testimony, often ate as well.” In her paper for the Geographical Society, written shortly after her visit, Daisy wrote that she asked the abbot if cannibalism obtained in that area.
“The Abbot pointed to one of the women near us and told us she had recently eaten her new born baby. When she was asked how she could do so, she replied, “I only ate one, that woman ate three.”
On this evidence, Daisy was later to base her much publicized and controversial opinion that cannibalism existed among the Aborigines. The reason given her was logical, however gruesome. Before and after the birth of a child the husbands lived apart from their wives. This was, then, the only time in an Aboriginal woman’s life when she could eat any or every part of the meat food that she liked. Sometimes she shared it with another child in order to make him strong, though careful to disguise the meat as otherwise the child would refuse it.
She could see no reason to doubt the abbot’s testimony. An intelligent and selfless man who had made the effort to speak the Aboriginal language, his knowledge had been acquired, not out of anthropological textbooks, but from his work with a people whose customs, character and legends fascinated him. Devoid of any false pride, he was to be seen “sitting on the ground in the midst of his aged and decrepit natives, making homely jokes as he tended their sores and administered medicines”. Because they were sure of his affection for them, he influenced them. But, he warned, it was necessary to think with their mind. In a conflict between tribal law and Christian domination, tribal law would win. Only because of personal respect would the white man’s teaching be accepted. Daisy, realist enough to see that he was right, adopted his method as well as his teaching and was judged for her findings as her teacher was judged before her.
Recognizing a fellow enthusiast, he took time off to show her something of their customs. She was invited to partake of wild honey, collected by a species of bee that was stingless and so tiny that the natives had to kneel in the grass below the white gums to detect the tiny corpses that showed the nest from which they had dropped. The branch was then cut off and “honey, bees and wax eaten holus bolus”. She went with them, bare-footed into the mud, to watch the capture of a crocodile. She was shown the ritual of bed-making in which the sand was hollowed out, a fire lit in the hollow and covered again with sand. When the time came for sleep the coals were raked out and the warm sand drawn over their bodies.
For the women who were her constant companions, Daisy felt a maternalism, at once protective and permissive. Touched by the sensitivity that showed itself in “a trifling service rendered or a quiet withdrawal from your vicinity if they noticed your fatigue”, she responded with the warmth for which, all her life, she had sought an outlet.
“Never once,” she said, “were my sensibilities affected by any action of theirs.”
Bishop Gibney in a letter written in 1912, put it more strongly: “I saw with my own eyes how devoted you were to them and how attached they became to you. And I know to this day you are known there and elsewhere as their white sister.”
Their one fault, Daisy remarked, was that “they only washed when it rained.” But, “how many white men have I met against whom a similar charge could be laid!”
By the time she boarded the Scree Pas Sair for Broome her life work was decided upon. Following Abbot Nicholas’s example she would record the language and customs of this lovable race before it was too late.
Dean Martelli, whose health had been insufficient to stand the strain of their exertions, had been sent to the lugger on the one horse left at the Mission. The bishop and Daisy were faced with walking the last nine miles in the heat of the afternoon, as Rodriguez was anxious to catch the turn of the tide.
Before they had reached the half-way mark the bishop himself had collapsed. Delirious with fatigue, he was scarcely able to walk and they were compelled to camp on the beach overnight.
Alone in the darkness of that deserted shore, in charge of a sick man whose delirium was such that he was calling her by the name of his sister Margaret; surrounded by Aborigines who whispered to her their fear of the wild “pindana” mob whose footsteps they could hear and who were known to attack such small groups, Daisy had to call upon her reserve of courage.
Her last night in Beagle Bay was spent in a sleepless vigil that lasted until dawn, when they were able to manage the mud walk to the boat.
Before they reached Broome the bishop recovered consciousness sufficiently to rebuke the Manila steersman for his nudity. But Daisy had to remain on board until her Broome friends brought her additions to her wardrobe. Her dress was “all patches”, her shoes were the seventh pair of kangaroo-skin slippers made for her by Brother John Berchmans. The little lady who could quieten the fears of nervous Aborigines on the lonely beach of Beagle Bay was not brave enough to face her own kind unless equipped for the occasion.
She put on a new dress, new collar, new gloves, boots, hat and veil, and was ready.