Remembering Herbert


On 10 November 1984 one of this country’s most paradoxical, complex and truly great individuals breathed his last. Xavier Herbert, without peer as a chronicler of white Australia’s injustice to its Indigenous peoples, died aged 83. Twenty years later, Herbert has been consigned to the hazy recesses of memory; a deep wrong given his role in shaping our awareness of white Australia’s morally dubious history.

Unlike the rather sanitised authors of today who have fallen into the clutches of publishers’ marketing departments and say little of consequence, Herbert had definite views and campaigned relentlessly to bring them to reality.

He was, as his biographer Frances de Groen rightly says, a man who ‘found himself endlessly fascinating and expected others to do so too.’ But, as de Groen notes, Herbert was indeed fascinating, thanks to his ‘incident filled, wandering existence.’

Born in Geraldton, Western Australia in 1901, Herbert’s mother was an interesting woman to say the least. By the time Xavier was born, she had two other children to different fathers, and there is conjecture about the identity of Xavier’s father.

Herbert grew up in Fremantle and the Swan Valley town of Midland Junction, and it was in those years that he first witnessed Aboriginal dispossession. He studied pharmacy and in his early twenties left the West to travel to Queensland, the Northern Territory, Sydney, Melbourne, and the Solomon Islands. Eventually he settled with his Anglo-Jewish wife Sadie in the Cairns suburb of Redlynch.

Herbert graphically describes the tragedy of Australia’s Indigenous and white divide in Capricornia (first published in 1938), an epic novel that spans the first 50 years of white settlement in the Northern Territory.

Unlike many in the writing game, Herbert was not only a storyteller but an activist, who ‘rolled up his sleeves’ for the Indigenous cause. Writing to a friend in 1936 he plaintively observed, ‘You know how I have slaved and suffered and impoverished myself for the cause of aborigines.’

In his two sojourns in the Northern Territory, in the late 1920s and mid 1930s, Herbert made himself unpopular with the local administrators, or ‘tin-pot rajahs’ as he called them. Nevertheless, in October 1935 he was appointed 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 ‘half-caste’ girl and confessed to assaulting an Indigenous man. But Herbert’s achievements on behalf of those Indigenous people ‘imprisoned’ in the compound were tangible and definitely set him apart from the Territory’s racist administrators of his era.

De Groen (no shrinking violet when it comes to criticism of Herbert’s ego and capacity for exaggeration and excess) notes that Herbert built a windmill and a school for ‘half-caste’ children in the compound, erected toilets and repaired the corrugated iron huts. De Groen writes that, ‘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 identified with those born of Indigenous and white parentage. He claimed that only if he ‘infused’ his blood with that of Indigenous Australians would he be able to ‘claim the right to live in this land’. White Australians were simply invaders according to Herbert. He founded, in 1936, a ‘Euroaustralian League’ for people of white and Indigenous ancestry. ‘Fantastic, is it not, to teach people to feel proud of Aboriginal blood?’ he wrote to Dibley. This was a wacky but perhaps understandable inversion of the ‘racial purity’ theories circulating in Europe and the British Empire at the time. Confusingly, at times Herbert also indulged in anti-Asian rhetoric, but in a period when the ‘inferiority’ of Indigenous Australia was taken as immutable fact (Capricornia portrays Territory station owners according more status to their horses than to Aborigines), he otherwise challenged the prevailing orthodoxy.

As Herbert’s 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 mercilessly and accurately 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’.

Capricornia lifted the scab off the Indigenous–white conflict. The novel’s hero is Norman, the son of a white man and a black woman. At the time, as de Groen notes, white Australia perceived  ‘half-castes’ as a threat to its conquest of the land. This group of people might ‘revitalise’ what was alleged to be a dying Aboriginal civilisation.

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.’

Yet Herbert’s legacy remains obscured by current literary fashions. One of the most frequent writers on the Northern Territory and the top end of Australia generally these days is The Australian’s Nicolas Rothwell, who rarely if ever cites Herbert as an inspiration. Rothwell’s writing misses a beat or two as a consequence of this omission.

Herbert’s novel Capricornia, (and Poor Fellow, My Country, for that matter), should be compulsory reading for any writer in that part of the world.

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 25 August 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.’

Xavier Herbert’s burning desire for justice for Aboriginal people was often clouded by his own ambition, scheming, grandiose visions and his anti-Asian rhetoric. But the genuineness of that commitment, and the ever-present acknowledgement that white Australians will always be the invaders of this ancient land, never wavered. In an age when both the Liberal and Labor Party, encouraged by elements of the media, refuse to deal with the threshold question of a formal apology for the horrific wrongs described in Indigenous people’s testimony, its timely to remember that once upon a time one Australian placed it before us and pricked our collective conscience. Xavier Herbert’s cultural and political legacy deserves constant recognition. 

Greg Barns is a Hobart based writer and lawyer. He is a former senior adviser to the Howard government and is now a member of the Australian Democrats. Greg’s book What’s Wrong with the Liberal Party? was published in 2003.



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Existing comments

I wanted to ask your opinion about the "POSSIBLE" plagiarism by Baz Lurham in the making of the movie "AUSTRALIA" of Poor Fellow My Country" & why this has not been mentioned to date by anyone

Belinda Leigh-Steele | 25 February 2009  

Xavier Herbert was born in Port Hedland.

A concise description of his birthplace appears on the first page of his autobiography, Disturbing Element:

“... I first became aware of my existence in a tiny seaport on the long, lonely coast of West Australia. As I knew the port, it consisted of a long jetty jutting out into the indigo waters of the Indian Ocean, a straggling main street that crookedly followed the shore line, a little railway depot, and two or three cross streets that ended in a sandy scrubby waste in which there was a fringe settlement of Afghan camel drivers and dispossessed aboriginal blacks.”

Fraser | 22 January 2011  

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