A review by Cassie Thornley of the book “Into the Loneliness: The unholy alliance of Ernestine Hill and Daisy Bates” by Elenor Hogan
This book is the complex, well researched and forensic biography of two women who helped maintain and solidify two great 19thC myths, that of white tribe supremacy and power structures; and the wonderful romance of wandering around distant places, especially if you are an unaccompanied woman.
Though very different in temperament both women had illegitimate sons who were raised by family members. Ernestine befriended hers in his late teens, Daisy’s refused to attend her funeral – he had virtually never met her.
Daisy had a vibrant personality and saw herself as a serious ‘scientific investigator’ despite lack of formal training. She was initially employed by the WA Gov. to document indigenous people and their culture. Starting in a settlement outside Perth she travelled slowly north, back south then across east finally settling, by this time in her 60s, outside Ooldea and then Yalata in western S.A. Money had run out long ago, Daisy was bombarding the S.A. Premier with letters seeking ‘proper recognition for her great life’s work of caring for the dying race of Aboriginal people’ and a pension. She had become quite eccentric, still dressing in the formal attire of the late 19C including boater hat and an umbrella.
It was at this time that the young journalist Ernestine Hill showed up at her camp.Ernestine was in her late 20s. She had left Melbourne for personal reasons but had a contract with a large publishing firm to write articles about life in the inland. She had travelled widely in the north and interior alone, and was well regarded for her numerous magazine articles. She was fascinated by Daisy’s personality and stories about being ‘Kabbarli‘ the benign caring ‘grandmother’ to the local indigenous people.
Daisy saw in Ernestine a wonderful opportunity to gain publicity for her ‘great work’ and leverage for a pension. She told the credulous young woman exaggerated stories of the lifestyles of the ‘poor dying out natives’ mentioning cannibalism among other problems.
Earnestine promptly wrote a series of articles without checking the veracity of Daisy’s stories. They caused a great sensation. Ignoring the dissenting voices of anthropologists and indigenous people Ernestine then persuaded Daisy to give her access to her notes and helped her write a book.‘The Passing of the Aborigines’ was published in 1935 to much acclaim and became a bestseller. The book was quoted as late as the 1990s by Pauline Hanson to support her views, and helps underline the attitudes of the ‘black armband’ brigade until today. Earnestine’s own book about her travels ‘The Great Australian Loneliness’ was published in 1939-41.
This century Daisy’s story came full circle. Indigenous researchers and anthropologists sorting through her disorganised notes found reference to country boundaries, lists of words, and stories recorded from old people early in the century. They are useful to help support land claims and add to reconstruction of language.
The author travels to the Yalata area hoping to learn if elderly people there had any memory Daisy’s life among them. She manages to connect with an elder, Russell, through whom she meets a number of elderly Anangu and Pitjantjatjara women. They had heard of Daisy, acknowledging that their people had learnt from her while also teaching her their ways, they had ‘looked out for her’ in her isolated camp. But there were bad memories too, Daisy’s dislike of mixed race children was assumed to be the cause of so many of them being removed, and her lies about cannibalism were known. Leaving the community Russell commented “Two great clouds hang over our people, Ms Daisy Bates, and Maralinga”.
Beyond the lives of these two women the author takes us through the intricacies of her research, with comments on current lifestyles and the many interesting people she meets.
A wonderful read!