31[Salter, Elizabeth, 1971, Daisy Bates: “The Great White Queen of the Never-Never”, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, Chapter 14]

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The Office Flower

...

By the time she had returned to Perth, Daisy was a devotee of the new State that she called the “plain sister” of the Commonwealth.

“As one becomes more familiar with its gaunt gum tree, its apparently miserable attempts at water courses and rivers, its huge plains of sand and scrub, a certain harmony grows on one,” she wrote. There was “the fascination of ugliness in the bush scenery of the West as there is in certain types of manhood”.

Her feelings were reciprocated, especially after her letter to The Times, defending the pioneers of the North-west and published in May 1904.

An investigator by name of Malcolmson had been one of the main accusers of the white settlers. His charges of exploitation had been published by the London Daily News in 1902. On 8th April 1904 another letter appeared from him, this time in The Times, detailing the crimes of the pastoralists in relation to the blacks. Daisy, who believed, with reason, that she was now an expert on the subject, wrote in answer:

During my four and half years residence in Western Australia, I have made the native question my special study, the district collectively termed the Nor’West occupying my most exclusive attention in connexion with the treatment of the aborigines. I have journeyed throughout the whole of the district from Beagle Bay to Perth, giving myself ample leisure to observe the mode of living of the natives in the various districts, of their treatment by their white masters on the various stations . . . For Mr Malcomson to describe indenturing as slavery and to assert that the aborigines are worse off than the American negro slaves is ridiculous . . . there is no hope of the station owners ever growing into plaster saints, yet the majority of them are humane and will not wantonly ill-treat their natives.

“No State in the Commonwealth,” she declared roundly, “is doing more for its aboriginal population than this State is doing at the present time.”

With her colours thus firmly attached to the mast of white settlement and her knowledge of the Aborigines thus underlined, the Government could safely welcome her as an authority.

Malcolm Fraser, the Registrar-General, had been nursing for some time an ambition to record the customs and dialects of the Aboriginal population. Influenced by his namesake John Fraser, editor of An Australian Language, who had reminded him four years earlier that it was “a pity your colony had done nothing towards a record of your aborigines”, he had already made an attempt to collect all available material on the subject.

But the Registrar-General was a busy man. He needed someone to do the job for him—someone prepared to accept the pittance that was all he could squeeze out of his reluctant associates. Money was the last of Daisy’s considerations. She applied for the job and was accepted. Her appointment began on 3rd May 1904. She was paid eight shillings a day, given access to Government source-books written by Grey, Moore, Salvado and others, and an office facing Cathedral Avenue. She reported for work each morning, read, noted and compiled, sent out forms to Government employees all over the State so that the local vocabularies might be filled in, wrote indefatigably to every anthropologist of note and to most of the anthropological institutions in the English-speaking world, and compiled a volume of eight hundred pages.

Fraser was impressed. He christened Daisy the “office flower”, joked with her, argued with her, and wrote to the under-secretary to suggest that her employment—never on more than a temporary basis—be renewed.

Since she was giving a great deal more in terms of time and energy than her salary warranted, and since she was a recognized member of the “literati”, he pointed out that her book might well put Western Australia in the forefront of achievement, ethnologically speaking.

Unfortunately for Daisy, this was not an argument that carried much weight. But Fraser was well thought of and his recommendation accepted. Daisy’s period of office was extended.

By this time Daisy herself was becoming restless. Used by now to the freedom of bush life, she found her confinement within the four walls of her office difficult to endure.

“With the exception of the Chief,” she wrote, “there was not a congenial soul whom I could rouse to anger or argument.” Walking along the narrow balcony that linked the offices she would talk to the men in the windows she passed. “But oh, the groovositiness! I would return to the Chief and tell him what I thought of them all, asking him why he could not employ humans instead of kewpies and golliwogs and then he would ‘add fuel’ by telling me how highly they thought of the ‘office flower’.”

More serious was her dissatisfaction with her material.

The more she compiled, the more did she find contradictions in the works of the so called “authorities”. Very little in the way of comparison proved to her that the dialects returned from post offices and police stations were far from reliable. By this time she was in regular correspondence with Andrew Lang, noted English anthropologist and former contributor to Borderland. An Australian correspondent was R. H. Mathews, author of many learned papers on ethnological subjects. Both warned her to avoid textbook theory and to concentrate on the facts. Mathews urged her to “get out among the blacks herself”. So enthusiastic was he that he offered to come himself for the price of his fare from Parramatta to help her.

Luck was on her side. A Labour Government came into power and, she wrote, “room had to be made for Labour parasites male and female.” Daisy’s office was requisitioned. This gave her the chance she needed to put to Fraser an unorthodox idea. At the Maamba Aboriginal reserve in Cannington at the foot of the Darling Ranges were many old Aborigines who were the last of their different groups. If the Government would give her permission she would pitch her tent among them and take down information from them at first hand. This way she could be sure of her facts, and record dialects that would die out with the natives on the reserve. She would report regularly to the office and continue to work for her eight shillings a day.

Reaction to the idea can be imagined. In 1905 it was not considered suitable for a lady to camp alone in a tent, let alone among a reserve full of derelict and often drunken Aborigines.

That she won her point is proof that Fraser, at least, recognized the value of what she was doing.

Daisy, well aware that it was a “unique concession” that had been granted her, wasted no time. On a winter’s day of July 1905, she set out with a police escort for Cannington. The men remained long enough to choose her site and pitch her tent for her. When they had seen her safely settled in they left her, a lone white woman, her tent a hundred yards away from the Government huts of her black neighbours.

Impressed by the power of this white woman who could dismiss from her presence the policemen of whom they were so much afraid, the black people watched proceedings from a discreet distance.

Daisy stood at the edge of her breakwind and smiled at them. Little by little they came closer. She did nothing to encourage or discourage them. Waiting patiently for her moment, she invited them to visit her.

Then, speaking in the dialect of the Bibbulmuns, she asked them if they would care to join her for a cup of tea.