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Capricornia – The Novel

Updated on November 28, 2015

Capricornia - a book I found in a charity shop.

Being a tad short of cash at the moment, I’ve started buying my books at charity shops. You know the shops I mean, the ones that no-one admits to shopping in yet are springing up on British high streets as fast as pawn brokers and pound shops.

Buying books in charity shops has two big advantages; the first, and most obvious, is the price. I can buy a second hand novel with a cover price of £15.00 for the price of £2.00 and, do some good at the same time. The second, and unexpected, benefit is that, owing to the fact that the range of books on offer is limited by the generosity of donors, I have broadened the scope of my reading immensely.

Now, rather than take the lazy approach of going to the nearest high street bookseller and selecting the latest blockbuster novel from an author that I know, I am choosing books almost at random based upon a quick scan of the subject matter.

Ok, so the pages of some of the books that I’ve bought would have been better utilised for a purpose other than reading but some have been absolute gems. For me, a good novel is one which makes me think. If I put the book down and instantly forget about it then it’s just time filler or worst, a time waster.

If I put a book down and start searching Google for more information on the subject then that’s the sign of a great book.

One such book has been Capricornia, a novel by Xavier Herbert.

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Xavier Herbert 1901 - 1984
Xavier Herbert 1901 - 1984 | Source

Xavier Herbert 1901 - 1984

Xavier Herbert was well known for his outspoken views on the indigenous peoples of Australia and an early champion of the Aborigines.

He was born in 1901, the illegitimate son of Amy Victoria Scammell and Benjamin Francis Herbert, a Welsh-born engine driver.

He was a registered pharmacist and studied medicine at the University of Melbourne. His writing career began writing short stories and articles for magazines and newspapers and Capricornia, his first novel wasn’t published until 1938 which was based, in part, on Herbert’s own experiences as Protector of Aborigines in Darwin.

As well as Capricornia, Herbert published: Seven Emus (1959), Soldiers' Women (1961), Poor Fellow My Country (1975) and a number of short story collections.

He died in 1984, aged 83.

Capricornia – A Novel by Xavier Herbert

Capricornia, the first novel to be published by Xavier Herbert in 1938, is a sweeping tale of early life in the Northern Territories of Australia, mostly set between the wars and covering several generations.

If you were to imagine a Wilbur Smith novel, with a conscience, set in Australia and no heroes, just anti-heroes, then I think that would describe the book well, in my non literary critic language.

I’ll admit that, to start with, I found the book hard going. The style of writing and the long sentences ensure that this is not an easy read but well worth the perseverance. Here’s a flavour of the book from the opening paragraph:

“Although that northern part of the Continent of Australia which is called Capricornia was pioneered long after the southern parts, its unofficial early history was even more bloody than that of the others. One probable reason for this is that the pioneers had already had experience of subduing Aborigines in the South and hence were impatient of wasting time with people who they knew were determined to take no immigrants. Another reason is that the Aborigines were there more numerous than in the South and more hostile because used to resisting casual invaders from the near East Indies. A third reason is that the pioneers had difficulty in establishing permanent settlements, having several times to abandon ground they had won with slaughter and go slaughtering again to secure more. This abandoning of ground was due not to the hostility of the natives, hostile enough though they were, but to the violence of the climate, which was not to be withstood even by men so well equipped with lethal weapons and belief in the decency of their purpose as Anglo-Saxon builders of Empire.”


Capricornia - Northern Autralia
Capricornia - Northern Autralia

Where is Capricornia?

Capricornia is sometimes used to refer to the northern areas of Australia and is a reference to the Tropic of Capricorn. More specifically it is used as a reference to a region of the Australian coast located around Rockhampton, Queensland.

The story follows, primarily, the lives of two brothers; Mark and Oscar Shillingsworth. Oscar is the respectable brother while Mark is the hard drinking, chancer and ultimately, albeit by accident, a murderer.

The other main character in the tale is Marks mixed race son, Norman or to use his aboriginal name “No Name” who struggles to find his own identity in a land where a person is defined as white, half, quarter or eights and a mixed race person is known as a “Yeller fellow”.

In fact the racist views and language expressed throughout the book are shocking but, what is even more shocking is how you the reader as you progress through the book, begin not to notice it. Perhaps just as the white settlers of the time accepted the ill treatment of the ingenious aborigines and mixed race population.

“Dr Aintee held no high opinion of the great black and brindle family he fathered, nor viewed their plight with sentiment, not understanding their plight nor being expected to do so by his employer, the Government. Like his employer, he regarded them merely as marsupials being routed by a pack of dingoes; and he understood that his duty was merely to protect them from undue violence during the rout. Most of the dingoes hated him for interfering with their rights as the stronger animals; the marsupials regarded him as a sort of devil-devil, and trembled at mention of his name. Thus he was loved by few; but he was well enough paid to be careless of what was though of him; his salary amounted to about a quarter of the total expenditure on Aboriginal Affairs in Capricornia.”

The way in which the book interweaves a rollicking good adventure with biting social comment is probably why it became one of the bestselling Australian novels of all time and, at the same time, was acclaimed ‘a turning point’ and an ‘outstanding work of social protest’. After all, a protest is not worth the paper it’s written on if no-one reads it.


Australia - The Movie

Australia, the 2008 movie starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackson, though apparently not based on Xavier Herbert’s novels does have some striking resemblances to the book Capricornia and made interesting follow up viewing:

Capricornia

So, if you like your books to be challenging, informative and to be a damned good story as well then I can recommend Capricornia by Xavier Herbert. If you have any of his other novels hidden away in a cupboard somewhere, pop them down to the local charity shop would you, I’m on the lookout for another good read!

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