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Xavier Herbert remembered

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 15 November 2004

On November 10, 1984, a fascinating and iconoclastic contributor to Australia's cultural world died.  Xavier Herbert, whose novels Poor Fellow My Country and Capricornia  encapsulated so vividly the racially and culturally conflicted communities of northern Australia, died in Alice Springs aged 83.  Herbert had left his Cairns home earlier that year for a last trek into the outback that perpetually fascinated him, and ended up in the Alice.

As befitted a man who was a scourge of 'the establishment' in all its manifestations, Herbert had, in the last six months of his life, rejected an Order of Australia from the Hawke government because it was granted by the Queen, not the Australian people, and attacked the painter Sidney Nolan for not genuinely understanding the Australian landscape.

But walk into bookshops around Australia today and it is hard to find Herbert's works on the shelves.  An irony according Fran De Groen, the author of a biography on Hebert, given the issues which most concerned this intriguing and complex writer are as relevant today as they were when he died.  A recognition of the past injustices meted out to Indigenous Australians and the present deplorable state of their community, an Australian republic and a sustainable environment, are all matters into which Herbert had insights and observations.


Born in Western Australia in 1901, Herbert lived in Darwin, Sydney and Brisbane up until the early years of World War II and then in 1951 moved to Redlynch, nestling in the foothills behind Cairns, where he would live with his English wife Sadie up to her death in 1979, and then another five years until his final trek across Queensland and the Northern Territory in 1984.

Herbert's politics were a curious mixture of xenophobia, nationalism, extraordinary compassion towards Aboriginal Australians and strident anti-imperialism.  His personality was to put not too fine a point on it, difficult.  Vain, ego-driven, narcissistic, Herbert could be cranky and tetchy, charming and amusing, in the space of a few hours.

This was a man who bedded numerous women throughout his life, but who seemingly adored his wife Sadie.  After she died from complications following serious surgery at the Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane in 1979, Herbert wrote a libellous tirade entitled Who killed my Sadie?  It was the medical profession's fault, he asserted.  Unsurprisingly, no publisher would touch the piece.

But despite his personal flaws, Herbert's contribution to Australian and Queensland political and cultural life deserves to be given greater recognition than it is accorded today.

The tragedy of Australia's indigenous and white divide was graphically described by Herbert in Capricornia (first published in 1938) and in letters written while he lived in Darwin during the 1930s.  Unlike many in the writing game Herbert was not a passive storyteller- he "rolled up his sleeves" and made the plight of Indigenous Australians his cause célébre.
Living in a period when the "inferiority" of Indigenous Australia was taken as immutable fact - as Herbert described it in Capricornia, Indigenous Australians were accorded a status in the Territory below that of a station-owner's horses - the young Herbert challenged the orthodoxy.  Capricornia lifted the scab off the indigenous/white conflict.
As the character Peter Differ pointedly observes in Capricornia the governmental system of 'protection' of indigenous Australians was designed to ensure 'humility.'
And while white Australia in the 1930s applauded the efforts of Christian missionaries to make "good God fearing" people out of Indigenous peoples, Herbert accurately and mercilessly ridiculed that effort in Capricornia.  He noted in a letter to his friend Arthur Dibley, on 17 October 1936, "the missions have failed to do more than upset tribal discipline". 
On a practical level, Herbert made himself unpopular with the local administrators of the NT ("tin-pot rajahs" as he called them), in his two sojourns there in the late 1920s and mid 1930s.  In October 1935 Herbert was appointed the Superintendent of the Kahlin Aboriginal Compound in Darwin.  His record there was not unblemished - far from it.  He was accused of taking a stick-whip to an Aboriginal halfcaste girl and confessed to assaulting a male Indigenous person.

But Fran De Groen says, "Aborigines who knew Herbert at this time, appreciated his efforts on their behalf, particularly his attempts to encourage pride in their cultural heritage.  In befriending many of his charges and treating them as fellow human beings, Herbert represented a threat to Darwin's prevailing white supremacism."
Herbert's memorably bleak description of the food at the compound was widely quoted in the 1997 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's report on the Stolen Generation: "The porridge, cooked the day before, already was sour and roped from the mould in it, and when doused with the thin milk, gave up the corpses of weevils by the score. The bread was even worse, stringy grey wrapped about congealed glue, the whole cased in charcoal."


Almost 50 years after Herbert's travails in the Northern Territory he returned to give evidence in a major land rights case - the Finniss River Land Claim.  As De Groen describes it, Herbert's evidence to the court in Darwin on  August 25, 1980, "was helpful in establishing the presence of the Warai and Kungarakan peoples on parts of the land and in illustrating the way officialdom had inhibited Aborigines from maintaining their traditional cultural links with "country" by breaking up families and forcibly removing them into government institutions".

But Herbert's capacity to draw attention to Aboriginal injustices wasn't confined to the NT. According to De Groen, Herbert attracted "much needed publicity" in fighting the Bjelke- Petersen government's 1978 sabotage of the Fraser government's legislation to allow Aboriginal communities to hold freehold title in land. Bjelke-Petersen responded by abolishing the Arukun and Mornington Island reserves and putting them under state and local government control.

The strong links Herbert forged with the University of Queensland enabled him to write and publish Poor Fellow My Country - an epic work of over 1200 pages set primarily in the Northern Territory that delves mystically and powerfully into Australia's antiquity and the conundrum of the European imprint on it.  Herbert's friend, confidante, publicist and critic, Laurie Hergenhan, an academic at the University of Queensland, supported the irascible and increasingly eccentric Herbert from the early 1960s onwards. 

Herbert's literary contribution to Queensland and Australia has few rivals - his contemporary Patrick White being an exception. As Fran De Groen writes, even Herbert's many critics and enemies concede that Poor Fellow My Country "contains narrative passages of imaginative force and vividness unequalled in Herbert's repertoire and perhaps in Australian literature".

In his capacity to witheringly expose the hypocrisy of our society and its deep seated insecurities, and his unsurpassed descriptions of the frontier mentality of much of this vast land, Xavier Herbert was a writer par excellence.

Herbert's massive personality - "he walks unbuttoned, a master of the Australian vernacular", as Laurie Hergenhan put it - and his commitment to justice and equality make him a compelling figure in our history.  Perhaps this 20th anniversary of his death can be a time for Queenslanders and other Australians to get to know this intriguing and compelling author and cultural icon.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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