June 2007

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Daisy Bates & Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

They were new chums, fresh off the boat. Daisy May O'Dwyer was 20, the porcelain-skinned daughter of a drunkard doctor from Cashel. Edwin Henry Murrant, a year younger, was English and claimed to be the illegitimate son of an Admiral. For each, Australia was a blank slate, a chance to invent themselves.

The Daisy was, by her own description, "passionate". She was also hard-headed, a woman without means or prospects in a man's world. Edwin, as well as being handsome and gallant, had the whiff of a pedigree and prospects of a remittance.

Their paths crossed at Fanning Downs Station, near Charters Towers. He was a groom, a skilful and daring horseman. She, orphanage educated but well connected, was employed as the governess. After a lightning courtship, they tied the knot on 13 March 1884.

It took less than a month to unravel. Murrant first dudded the clergyman of his honorarium, then bought a saddle and a pair of horses with a dud cheque and took off for the lights of Cloncurry. On the way, he was busted. The charge sheet included the theft of 32 pigs.

Daisy didn't post bail or attend the trial. Clearly, her dashing young groom was no gentleman. Nor was he any longer a Murrant. The name he signed on the bogus cheque was Harry Morant. He was still using it 18 years later, when he was executed in Pretoria for the murder of unarmed prisoners. By then, he was also known as ‘the Breaker', a penner of bush ballads for the Bulletin.

Undeterred by the brevity of her first marriage, Daisy promptly entered into another, albeit bigamously. As Mrs Bates, she bore a child, before ditching matrimony to flit back to Britain, where she dabbled in journalism. Commissioned by a London paper to report on atrocities against Aborigines, she returned to Australia shortly before Morant embarked for the war in South Africa.

While the Breaker was riding the veldt, doing the Empire's dirty work, Daisy Bates was beginning her lifelong journey into Australian mythology. Disguised as Mary Poppins, complete with furled umbrella, she spent the next 40 years observing, documenting and interpreting traditional Aboriginal customs, "to make their passing easy". As ‘Kabbarli' - the grandmother - the self-taught anthropologist and serial bigamist took a censorious view of the morals of the natives. Infanticide and cannibalism were apparently not beyond them.

As far as is known, all contact between the pair ended with their marriage. Bates burned her voluminous notes before her death. And Morant must have had another in mind when he penned ‘Love Outlasteth All'. A horse, possibly.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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