Daisy Bates claimed, in her autobiography The Passing of the Aborigines, first published in 1938, that she was born Daisy May O'Dwyer on 16 October 1863 in County Tipperary, Ireland, the youngest child of a well-connected, Protestant, Anglo-Irish family. When she was in her early twenties she was advised to emigrate to Australia, for health reasons. She arrived in 1884 and found employment as a governess, first on a station near Charters Towers in Queensland and then at Nowra, south of Sydney, where she worked for the Bates family. In February 1885 she married the eldest son of her employers, Jack Bates, a drover.
Recent historical research, however, has revealed that she was born Daisy May Dwyer, not O'Dwyer, and her birth took place in 1859, not 1863 as she later claimed. Her family was working-class and Catholic, not well-to-do and Protestant. She actually arrived in Australia in January 1883 and immediately got a job as a governess near Charters Towers, where she met a young stockman named Edwin Harold Murrant. They were married in March 1883, but a month later the couple separated and they apparently never saw each other again. Without obtaining a divorce or annulment, Daisy married Jack Bates early in 1885. Edwin or Harry Murrant, Daisy’s first husband, was an expert horseman and bush poet; he later became the famous, or infamous, ‘Breaker’ Morant, court-martialled and executed in South Africa by the British Army in 1902 for shooting Boer prisoners.
About a year after marrying Jack Bates, Daisy gave birth to a son, Arnold. In 1894 Daisy left her son with the Bates family and returned to England. She commenced a new career there as a journalist but after five years there she returned to Australia, keen to investigate the living conditions of Aboriginal people in north-western Australia. By that time her husband had acquired a property near Broome in Western Australia. Using this station as a base, she travelled widely through the Kimberley and Pilbara regions, talking to Aboriginal people and white settlers. She subsequently published a number of letters in the Times in London refuting allegations of slavery and ill-treatment of Aboriginal people on the north-west frontier.
In 1903 she separated from her husband and apparently never saw him again. In the following year she was employed by the Western Australian Government to compile linguistic and ethnographic data for a book on the Aboriginal people of the state. She carried out extensive research for this project in archives and libraries and also collected ethnographic data from Aboriginal people in the Perth area and the south-west of the state, as well as from people in the Goldfields and from as far along the coast eastwards as Esperance. In 1910 she joined an anthropological expedition to the Pilbara region led by the noted Cambridge anthropologist, A Radcliffe-Brown.
In 1911, when the Cambridge University expedition concluded, Bates continued working on her publication on the Aboriginal tribes of Western Australia. However, in the following year the new state Labor Government declined to publish the book and terminated her employment. Instead the Government offered her an unpaid position as Honorary Protector of Aborigines at Eucla on the Nullarbor coast. She lived in a tent there from 1912 to 1914, and then moved east across the border to South Australia, where she established her camp near Fowlers Bay, on the far west coast. At both Eucla and Fowlers Bay, Mirning and Wirangu people from the south-eastern edge of the Nullarbor Plain gathered at her camp, and she provided them with rations, clothes and simple medical treatment, while she recorded details of their customs, mythology, genealogies and languages. She believed then, as she did throughout her life, that the Aboriginal people were a dying race, and her primary aims, as stated in her autobiography, were ‘to make their passing easier and to keep the dreaded half-caste menace from our great country’.
During most of her time at Eucla and Fowlers Bay, Bates received little assistance from either the Western Australian or South Australian governments, and she expended most of her own remaining assets supporting herself and the Aboriginal people who camped nearby. Ill-health forced her to leave Fowlers Bay in 1918 and she travelled to Adelaide to recuperate.
In 1919, Bates, prompted by reports that many Aboriginal people were drifting from the desert into the sidings along the newly-constructed East-West railway line, was stirred to action. Late in 1919 she set up camp near Ooldea Siding, a few kilometres from Ooldea Soak, a permanent water that had always been the principal drought refuge for ‘the spinifex people’ from the Great Victoria Desert. Bates remained at her camp at Ooldea for 16 years, caring for the Aboriginal people who had come in from the desert to the north, feeding and clothing them, treating the sick and, as she put it, preparing them for their entry into civilization. She also recorded details of their customs, mythology and language. By the mid 1920s Bates had, with her claims that cannibalism was widespread in Aboriginal society, alienated most other anthropologists working in Australia and her work was largely ignored in academic and professional circles. During her time at Ooldea Bates relied principally on donations from friends and admirers, and what she could earn from writing articles for Australian and British newspapers. By the end of her time there, her eyes were afflicted with sandy blight and she was frequently sick from a combination of poor diet and harsh living conditions.
In 1934 Bates, then aged 75, was rewarded the Order of Commander of the British Empire. Her failing health and eyesight forced her to return to Adelaide in the following year. She soon recovered her health and was successful in persuading the Commonwealth Government to pay her a small salary to put her notes and manuscripts into order, to preserve them for the future. With the help of the writer, Ernestine Hill, she wrote and published her life story in a series of newspaper articles entitled My Natives and I, which was syndicated in most major Australian newspapers in 1936. This series was subsequently edited to produce her autobiographical narrative, The Passing of the Aborigines, first published in Britain in 1938 and in Australia in 1946. Bates died in a nursing home in Adelaide in 1951, aged 91.
Bates' extensive collection of manuscripts, notes, correspondence, newspaper articles, photographs and other documentary material is housed in the National Library of Australia. The Barr-Smith Library at the University of Adelaide has photocopies of the material in the NLA plus additional correspondence and other items. The State Library of South Australia also has some Bates correspondence.