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Obituaries Australia

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Herbert, Albert Francis Xavier (1901–1984)

from Canberra Times

Xaviert Herbert, by Jacqueline Mitelman, n.d.

Xaviert Herbert, by Jacqueline Mitelman, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 13752131

World-acclaimed author Xavier Herbert was an outspoken critic of the exploitation of the Aborigines since his early days in Western Australia.

Mr Herbert carried his close affinity with Aborigines, and his deep understanding and sympathy for their causes, into his writing.

His novel 'Capricornia', written in the 1930s, established him at the forefront of Australian literature. In it, he tried to point out the anomalies he saw between the lives of Australian whites and blacks.

He explained at the time that, as a seven-year-old, he had seen starving Aborigines come out of the Western Australian desert and be treated "like niggers" by white men who had taken over the land and waterholes.

"This impressed me as so terribly wrong that I decided it would be my life's work to try and help these people," he said.

'Capricornia' was to become a set piece in universities and schools around Australia and overseas, although Mr Herbert later described it as "a botch written by an amateur".

Born on May 15, 1901, at Walkaway, near Geraldton, on the Western Australian north-west coast, Alfred Francis Xavier Herbert after his early schooling gained a pharmacy degree at the University of Melbourne.

He turned to literature at 24 but for many years wrote only intermittently between working as a deep-sea diver, a sailor, a coalminer and a stockman. He occasionally worked in hospitals as a pharmacist.

In 1935-36 he was Superintendent of Aborigines in Darwin.

During World War II he served with the AIF in the Pacific theatre.

Never short of words, Mr Herbert once described the former Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Fraser, as "a mug Machiavelli" and the Premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, as "the chief billygoat in hillbilly kingdom".

For his last three decades, Mr Herbert lived as a hermit with his wife, Sadie (she died in 1979 in Cairns), at Redlynch, in the rainforest near Cairns. There, he wrote his 900,000-word 'Poor Fellow My Country', a work longer than the Bible and thicker than the average telephone directory. On publication, it was quickly and widely acclaimed, in Australia and abroad.

Mr Herbert occupied 10 years typing this epic — he described it as "a cry of pain" for the Aborigines — on the same battered portable on which he had tapped the wordage for 'Capricornia' and four other major works, 'Seven Emus', 'Soldiers' Women', 'Larger Than Life' and an autobiography, 'Disturbing Element', published in 1963.

In his mid-70s, he became crippled by a rheumatoid condition and generally deteriorating health, but still had enough pep to speak out against uranium mining on Aboriginal lands.

"White Australians are lousy bastards with a bloody meanness in them," he said.

Mr Herbert, who was showered with literary honours from many areas, finally, early this year, left north Queensland, after 28 years, and headed west, "to write my last novel, or die in the attempt". The latter forecast prevailed.

AAP correspondent David Richards, one of the last journalists to interview Mr Herbert, in his temporary home in a tent in the bush at Ross River Homestead, 70 kilometres east of Alice Springs, said Mr Herbert had just finished writing the first draft — in longhand — of an auto-biographical work about his life with his beloved Sadie.

Mr Herbert had talked of three phases in his life — "of being 'the wild colonial lair' up to the age of 31. And then the next thing was up to the age of 79 as Sadie's mate. Now there's another phase: the combination of a really mature person without any backstop at all".

He described the autobiography as a painful way of clearing his mind to write fiction.

"I am a dramatist," he said. "I want to write another novel before I die, and it's got to be a better novel than I've written before."

He gave himself five more years "by the way I'm going" to work on the novel.

Original publication

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Citation details

'Herbert, Albert Francis Xavier (1901–1984)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 30 September 2020.

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