05 March 2013

Why did Breaker Morant and Daisy Bates marry????

Margaret Dwyer (1859–1951) was born into an Irish family. Her mother died when Margaret was still a baby, so she was raised by relatives and given a decent education. But it did not seem to be a happy or stable childhood.

Apparently something messy had happened in Ireland and the young woman felt obliged both to leave the country and to create a new biography for herself. In 1882 Daisy O'Dwyer emigrated to Aust­ralia.

I am fairly confident that in 1884 in Queensland she married the poet and horseman who later went on to fame as Breaker Morant. But it was not a happy marriage. Perhaps Morant was a bit of a horse thief! In an era when women never left their husbands, she left Morant, but there was never a proper divorce. Nonetheless she moved to New South Wales where she met and married the bushman/­drover Jack Bates (1885). They had a son in 1886 but this marriage was also not a happy one. And there was perhaps a third marriage that was poorly documented.

Daisy Bates in her desert tent, 1921
Photo credit: National Library of Australia 

In 1894 this gutsy woman returned to England, leaving her two+ husb­ands and one son in Australia. Life in England must have been a ter­rible struggle but fortunately she found a position as a journalist.

While still in Britain, Daisy Bates heard about the poor treatment of Australian Aboriginals, and offered her investigative and journal­ist­ic expertise to The Times newspaper. In 1899 Bates sailed back to Australia and spent the rest of her life studying Aboriginal history, rites and community life. For a woman who looked like a well educat­ed, professional and slightly prudish journalist, it was amazing that she lived in primitive conditions out in the vast, bleak Australian bush.

Daisy Bates was commissioned to investigate stories of cruelty within some of the aboriginal communities. At first she saw herself as an in­formal protector of the Aborigines, and then in 1910, she was form­ally appointed as a Travelling Protector. This gave her the legal right and responsibility to examine the conditions under which abor­ig­inal families lived and their employment situation on white men’s farms. Bates took to the Aboriginal welfare cause like a duck to water, writing reports on their needs for food, clothing, medical care and housing.

In an Australia that had just federated (1/1/1901), two aspects of welfare policy distressed her in particular – a] the forcible assimilation of black youngsters into white Aust­ral­ian childcare arrangements instead of leaving them with their own parents and b] the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women by European men.

Now fully familiar with local communities, she even compiled a dictionary of several Aboriginal dialects. But if we want to assess her legacy in total, we can do no better than reading her own work The Passing of the Aborigines, first published by the University of Adelaide in 1938. 

In 1934 Daisy Bates received the Order of the Commander of the Brit­ish Empire. Australia had a living treasure in this special Aborig­inal welfare advocate and anthropologist, but living treasures are rarely paid decent salaries. In 1951 she died a pauper, still wearing the Victorian clothes she brought from England in 1899.

Whether Daisy Bates was truly progressive or was the inevitable product of Victorian thinking has been argued in Green Left, but that is the subject for another post.


Harry Morant (1864–1902)’s early life was as difficult to unravel as Daisy Bates’. It seems that Murrant (as he was then) was born in Som­erset in 1864, but alas his father died that very year. His mother worked hard to keep her family alive, but clearly Harry thought life would be easier in Australia. He left Britain in 1883.

Morant had an unusual range of skills. He was a drinker, drover and brilliant horse trainer, yet he was also a bush ballad­eer/poet who could often be found published in Australia’s most infl­uen­tial C19th weekly mag­azine, The Bulletin. This was a man who moved from state to state; from farm to country town to city centres, never settling anywhere in particular. He had more lady friends than any other man in Australia! 

Lieutenant Harry Breaker Morant
South Africa 1899-1902

In 1884, Morant met Daisy O'Dwyer on a cattle station in Queensland, both of them freshly off the ship from Britain. The educated Daisy had been hired as a governess for the children; the hard drinking Morant had been hired as a horse trainer and trader. The marriage that was conceived in lust.. was ill advised, hastily organised and brief. How could two less suitable people find each other in this huge nation? Perhaps Ms Bates was having a naughty moment, agreeing to marry some rough trade before she thought better of it.

My favourite line comes from The Monthly. "While the Breaker was riding the South African veldt, doing the Empire's dirty work, Daisy Bates was beginning her lifelong journey into Australian mythology". After 1884, the two were never to meet again.

In 1899 Morant and many other British-Australian travelled to South Africa to help Queen Victoria and the Motherland, loyally joining the war against the Boers. Most Australians know the story of Harry Morant because of the hugely thought-provoking film of 1980, Breaker Morant. He was as suc­cessful with the horses and the women in South Africa as he had been in Australia. 

Only towards the end of the Boer War did Morant and his friends come to grief. They were involved in the killing of Boer pris­oners and the killing of a German missionary who had seen Australians shoot the Boers. Despite the fact all three Australian officers had insisted they had simply been following British orders, the men were charged, tried and swiftly executed by a British court and British soldiers.

Australian historians insist that British forces chief, Lord Kitchener, had indeed issued an informal order that troops fighting the Boers should “not take prisoners”. British historians believe Lord Kitchener said no such thing. But in any case, what was the British army doing, executing loyal soldiers from the colonies?


Anonymous said...

To my shame, I knew nothing of Daisy Bates. What an extraordinary and un-celebrated woman.

We Travel said...

The Australian War Memorial had some very colourful stuff about Morant's skills with horses and women. But if he was a love em and leave em type of bloke, why marry anyone?

Anonymous said...

An accurate biography of Daisy Bates is yet to be written. There is a lot of nonsense published on the internet, and in books about her.

Daisy Bates' third marriage is well documented, you can find it in the NSW index of marriages online and purchase a copy, as I did. Daisy May O'Dwyer and Ernest C Baglehole. Newtown, 1885.

I don't believe the marriage to Morant was her 'bit of rough', he was well-educated - better than Daisy, I would think. His behaviour was not really that of a gentleman, but I think his manners probably were. Her behaviour was not that of a lady - bigamous marriages are not the norm in well-regulated society. I think the reason Daisy ended up living with aborigines was because she was not capable of living in polite society. Three fleeting/failed marriages and a failed relationship with her son is fair evidence of that. The reason for this behaviour is not easy to discover, but I would agree with some childhood trauma as the likely cause.

She lived in some ways as men do who camp alone along river banks and under railway bridges for years and years, as a hermit, but near the aborigines whom she patronised mercilessly and used as the subjects of her sensationalist 'journalism'.

I'm not fully conversant with the reason people think she was a pauper. At her death she was eligible for an old age pension (did she refuse it?) AND she received a Commonwealth Literary pension. Not long before her death she was still writing for some South Australian newspaper - and I'll bet that wasn't fee free. She published a book in 1938, followed up by later editions, and must have received royalties. I think the whole idea of her poverty needs re-examination.

The title of that book gives you a fair idea of her claims to be regarded as an anthropologist - "The Passing of the Aborigine". She was no scientist.

I cannot imagine she was wearing clothes in 1951 that she brought with her from England 50 years earlier. They would have simply fallen to pieces. I have never seen her in photos wearing rags. She presumably just replaced them when they wore out with her eccentric choice. It is not unusual for people to stick with the fashion they wore when young.

Here she is in 1936 dressed in a pristine coat and skirt and a turban which look pretty new to me, but not fashionable - she is choosing to dress like that, not from poverty but from eccentricity or her own personal style.

If you google up a range of pictures, she always has different clothes and hats, in a similar style. Not old, but old-fashioned. It is not as if she was unwaged during that whole time.

Morant and Handcock were executed because they murdered Boer civilians. The case is a complex one, but that basic fact remains.

Hels said...


Whether modern thinkers admire her work or not, she was very important. The Australian Women's Register puts it well. Daisy Bates conducted anthropological fieldwork amongst several Indigenous nations in western and southern Australia. She supported herself largely by writing articles for urban newspapers. Bates also published her work on Indigenous kinship systems, marriage laws, language and religion in books and articles. She was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for Aboriginal welfare work in 1934.

Hels said...

We Travel

I am guessing that because Morant was only 20 when he married, he believed the older and more mature woman would make an honest man out of him.

It didn't work :)

Hels said...


thank you for taking the time to write it all up. You have made some excellent points.

Some of it I did not know before eg her marriage to Ernest C Baglehole in Newtown in 1885. Some of it I did indeed know eg in 1936 she "dressed in a pristine coat and skirt and a turban which look pretty new to me, but not fashionable - she is choosing to dress like that, not from poverty but from eccentricity or her own personal style".

The only thing we disagree on is Morant and Handcock being executed because they murdered Boer civilians, _not_ on the orders of their British commanders.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I enjoyed learning about Daisy Bates. Australia seems to have supplied the room and freedom to produce some extraordinary characters.

'Anonymous' seems to be applying the investigative principles of your last post. One caveat before judging Bates is that sometimes sincere attitudes about people can seem patronizing years later, when overall standards have changed.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


good on you for pointing out the connection between the last two posts. I had forgotten totally.

The Green Left reference was highly critical of Bates' thinking from 1899 on, saying "What Aborigines needed, believed this dedicated Empire loyalist and monarchist was an "English gentleman" to be put in charge, as was, she claimed against all evidence, so successful in "India, Africa and elsewhere [where] their rule was always beneficent, for only they can understand and control the native races".

How our views towards colonialism have changed since 1899!

Mandy said...

I watched an incredible South African film in about 1984 that held the same belief. I wish I could remember what it was called - it was so powerful and never left me. The film was about a British soldier falling in love with and sparing a Boer girl and her family despite the order to kill them on sight.

It really wouldn't surprise me. My Afrikaans friends tell me of several stories of British atrocities that were passed down through the generations. My best friend's grandfather was born in a British concentration camp.

This is a really interesting post! I followed the Green Left link and I remember hearing about the controversy surrounding Ms Bates before.

Hels said...


I would love to know the name of the film. Even at this long distance (110+ years), it is always difficult to know what happened in the Boer War and even more difficult to understand the "other side".

I studied years of British history at school, precious little Australian history and no South African history at all :(

Paul Herring said...

Most things written about 'The Breaker' ar about his death in South Africa. And yes, it seems he did shoot prisoners. For that he and Handcock paid the ultimate price.

Nevertheless a major part of Harry's life is that of a bushman. Harry Morant, with Lance Skuthorpe and Adam Lindsay Gordon, are the three finest horseman Australia has ever produced. It's a shame this part of his life hasn't gotten more airtime or published copy.

Hels said...


Once he arrived in Australia, Breaker Morant's life was actually well documented. But I agree that ever since the film appeared, publications and public interest have focused almost entirely on his Boer War adventures.

At least his literature e.g his bush poetry has been published and analysed.

Gregory Miller said...


I though you might be interested in this event.

"Breaker Morant, the Retrial"
7th MAY 2014 at 6.30pm

Followed by a Q&A with host Neil Pigot, Gregory Miller Producer & Co-director, Nick Bleszynski Co-Director and a leading Military Legal advocate

Hels said...


thank you. I really valued seeing the film last night and hearing the discussion later. But the question should not be "should The Breaker be celebrated as a hero - or condemned as a war criminal?"

Rather the questions should be
1. was this war immoral and illegal?
2. were Kitchener's orders immoral and illegal? and
3. if a junior soldier receives an illegal order, what can he do about it?

Anonymous said...

As a school child, 1966 ish, we were told of Daisy Bates. It was not until adulthood I had even heard of Breaker Morant, and of course, a movie by that name was what made me aware of him.
I have read the Passing of the Aborigine, by Daisy Bates. It is free to download, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks04/0400661.txt It was her autobiography. I read some reference, ever so briefly, about "some man", but she made no real reference to romances or family.
I too got the impression that she was an eccentric, with a goodly heart, but not for the world whence she came, or any of the worlds she tried beforehand. Not with the religious order where she sought refuge in WA. Not for Qld outback town life, not for many other places.
She seemed to have made no reference to or need for any type of family and seemed to be glad to see the back of everywhere she went.
It is a shame to not know what it was that she ran from in the UK. It must have been pretty traumatic, but could give a greater insight into "homelessness" in women.

Hels said...


Thank you. I agree that if we want to write half way decent history, we need to start with the protagonists' own written works. When I read The Passing of the Aborigine two years ago, it hid as much about Daisy Bates as it told! Not censorship in any sense, but certainly a way of keeping any messy life details to herself.

When I was writing up Percy Grainger's biography, I had the same sense of eccentricity and intrigue.

Joseph said...

A chance discovery of a treasure trove of films has shed new light on the saga of Harry Breaker Morant and his sidekick Peter Handcock. The detailed evidence of Muir Churton, who fought with the infamous Bushveldt Carbineers during the latter stages of the Boer War, is captured on film made in 1973. At 19 Churton was the youngest member of the BVC when he joined up in 1901. He was 91 when the film was made and died soon afterwards.

See the complete story written by Mark Day in The Australian, 29th July, 2017.

Anonymous said...

Well written - thanks