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A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia

3.59  ·  Rating Details ·  716 Ratings  ·  92 Reviews
In this spirited history of the remarkable first four years of the convict settlement of Australia, Thomas Keneally offers us a human view of a fascinating piece of history. Combining the authority of a renowned historian with a brilliant narrative flair, Keneally gives us an inside view of this unprecedented experiment from the perspective of the new colony’s governor, Ar ...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published December 4th 2007 by Anchor (first published 2005)
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(showing 1-30 of 1,864)
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William Thomas
Jun 19, 2012 William Thomas rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: blah, bland
Zzzzzzzz...zzzzzz... Oh, what? No, I'm sorry Mr. Keneally, but I didn't hear a word you said after 'the'. You put me right to sleep. I know I'm not supposed to sleep in class. I'm not trying to be funny. Now wait just a minute, sir. Don't blame me for your tone and monotonous droning. I won't tolerate it. I love history, always have, always will. It's not the history to which I'm opposed- its you. Had you decided to make this introductory lesson entertaining I could have kept my eyes open. Had y ...more
Oct 28, 2008 Colette rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history buffs, Kenneally fans
Recommended to Colette by: me mum
This was a great read--so well-researched that Kenneally isable to skillfully characterize the diarists he used, and this brought the history to life. I loved the way he switched perspectives from the Europeans to the Eora/Aboriginal peoples. I felt he represented the latter's view intelligently and compassionately without painting the Europeans as complete or constant villains. More of a tragedy.

My main criticism of the book is that it doesn't have a decisive conclusion. The colony limps along
Jul 05, 2015 Nick rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I found this book to be something of a disappointment. No because of anything this book is, but because of what I thought it was going to be. This might (probably is) be a bit unfair, but it did colour my final impressions of the book so it's worth discussing what exactly this book is.

This book is a history of the initial settlement of Australia, covering the conditions in England that caused the settlement, the abortive landing at Botany Bay, the eventual removal of the expedition to Port Jacks
Feb 25, 2014 Silent_count rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Imagine a newly-discovered land on the other side of the world. Thus far only the crew of a single vessel, Captain Cook's "Endevour", has ever laid eyes on this distant land*. What use would you put it to?

His Majesty's government decided it would be a splendid idea to use it as a dump for the overflow of the British penal system. So it was that in 1787, an expedition of eleven ships, their three hundred crew, two hundred and fifty marines, and eight hundred prisoners, ventured forth from Britain
Apr 15, 2008 Bruce rated it liked it
Recommends it for: history buffs and adventure tale readers
This book, albeit somewhat awkwardly written (see examples below), is a chronicle of the first four years of Georgian Britain's Australian settlement -- the establishment of convicts at Sydney Cove. (Thanks, Lord Sydney!) The selection of period comes across as a bit arbitrary. It covers the term of Sydney's founding Governor (Arthur Phillip), but doesn't use Phillip as a focus for the narrative. The ebb and flow of the book (which after all only follows chronology) is fairly repetitive: convict ...more
May 23, 2016 Bill rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

It's not often that I finish a book of almost 500 pages. Usually I lose interest well before the end. The Commonwealth of Thieves kept me turning the pages, and enjoying the journey all the way. Tom Keneally brings to life all those names I'd heard about in my school days. They were boring then. They're not now.

Years ago history books were written with very broad strokes and readers knew nothing of the character of people such as Captain Arthur Phillip. And, of course, no attempt was made to dis
Jun 16, 2011 Claire rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: summer-reading
A good introduction to the history of colonial Australia. It could have been improved by less run-on sentences and a condescending tone that was clearly meant to convey knowledge to "the common people." Some images and a map that actually showed important landmarks would have been nice as well.
So excited to finally finish this book!! The history was fascinating but sooo very dense! So I could only read this in small chunks. But I did love the historical facts and hearing stories of all the convicts and first settlers. So good to read how our great nation was founded!
Donald McElreavy
Well written, fact-based account of the events that lead to the English settling of Australia, mostly with convicts. It moves along at a smooth pace, and is filled with the stories of the people involved in the undertaking of setting up and running a penal colony in a distant land. The narrative also covers the convicts from the overflowing prisons in England, to the ships on the long journeys, and in the land that will come to be known first as New South Wales and then, Australia. The book rela ...more
Oct 12, 2009 Jason rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
The title of this book caught my eye, especially being that it was written by the author of Schindler's List! Though I enjoyed the history presented and the amazing detail, there were several chapters that seemed to go ultra-slow for me.
Aug 12, 2016 Nicole rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
It was generally interesting, but I wished two things were different. First, I wanted Keneally to stop being so fanatical about talking about each event in pure, over-arching chronological order. It was common for him to jump from group to group, location to location to talk about each event that happened in a given week, breaking away from smaller narratives to do so. It made the book choppy and a little hard to follow when listening. I would have preferred he stuck to one group for longer chun ...more
Mar 06, 2014 Robert rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel
I was looking for a book to read before a trip to Australia. After researching a ton of options, I settled on this one because I thought it'd be a well-written history of Australia. Perhaps I didn't research hard enough -- the book actually is a very detailed chronicle of the founding of Australia, i.e., the first three years or so of the settlement. It details the stories of the First, Second, and Third Fleets. All that said, the book is enjoyable and rich in fact. Although the book was not wha ...more
Sean Wylie
London has too many criminals. A comically skewed legal system means a poor pickpocket could get life in prison while a rich gentleman would pay a small fine for killing someone in a bar fight. Overflowing convicts have been moved to prison ships floating in the Thames. Would the government change sentencing rules? Find solutions to combat the poverty? Instead they would invent a new kind of prison without walls by deporting thousands of men and women to the newly discovered Australia (called Ne ...more
Jul 10, 2015 Koby rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was rather well written, and at times it seemed like I was reading a (slow-paced) novel. When I read history, I tend to pick out favorite facts that I remember and discuss with people later on, and I found several interesting tidbits between the pages here.
This era of history is an absolutely fascinating one, and as someone who knew nothing of Australian history whatsoever, I considered this a good jumping-off point. It was excellently researched and the amount of detail never ceased
Melanie Greene
Eh. It was fine. I'm just not a big nonfiction gal, but needed something for a reading group and this was narrated by Simon Vance, so if nothing else I can just listen to him and it's very soothing and fine. The personalities involved didn't totally grab me, so it was "here's a ship that arrived and everyone was starving! here's another ship and they're starving and also sick! here comes a supply ship - ha ha, no meat, only peas, keep starving!" with a variety of unappealing interactions with th ...more
Tim Corke

Few have experienced the responsibility and authority to create a new colony. Fewer have experienced the creation of such a place on the opposite side of the world in a new land with the population made up largely of convicts. This is the beautifully written account of Governor Arthur Phillip and how he set about colonising Port Jackson and dealing with this strained challenge.

Keneally has created a book that should be considered by all as testament to the early years of Australia as we know it
Marian Willeke
Dec 18, 2008 Marian Willeke rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
This book, fascinating and thorough as it is, received 4 stars instead of 5 simply because it was a bit difficult to follow with the writing style presented. There were several instances where I had to re-read sections to understand Keneally's point. That being said, however, it was extremely informative and provided a deeper perspective of Australia's birth that I did not have previously.

The book clearly started and ended with the recruitment, governornship and death of Arther Phillip, otherwis
I'd been meaning to read this since it came out several years ago because the title sounds so interesting. Also, I have some ancestors who joined the LDS Church in Australia in the mid 1800s (preeety sure they were in Australia voluntarily), but I was curious about the timeline of the nation's founding. So, I was excited to get into this.
I almost gave it up in the first hundred pages because the writing was so dry. It wasn't necessarily boring, it just gave a lot of backstory about the penal co
Sep 18, 2012 Gwen rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Gwen by: browsing at the library
Shelves: history
First impression: this book reminded me a little of Battlestar Galactica's problems in establishing a new society so far removed from what they knew. How should we reestablish a civilization using our past experiences but mindful of the physical and social limitations currently in place?

In theory, this could have been a fascinating book--how Australia got its start and how its founding affected the national character. However, I got very, very bored about halfway through this book, but I kept r
Ruth Bonetti
Oct 30, 2012 Ruth Bonetti rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I thought of buying this book as research for colonial history - topic of my next book - but so glad I borrowed it from the library instead. I had to renew it as it was such a struggle to plough through, it's taken two months, the last hundred of pages skin-reading. Much of that was the search for his longest sentence; I think the record is 82 words on page 62. Not surprisingly, one has to reread such convoluted passive voice mazes several times to get the drift, but soon gives up on such effort ...more
Jan 28, 2010 Mia rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

The limited scope of Kennealy's story, focusing on the first few years of the Australian experiment, allows for a really nice degree of detail in his telling about those years. The narrative style he uses makes this a very enjoyable history as well as a thorough one.

Not knowing much about aboriginal life and culture before the colonial period, I appreciated the information the author unobtrusively presented about the belief systems and values of the native people and how they shaped early intera
Casey Wheeler
Dec 15, 2012 Casey Wheeler rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Years ago I read “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes and felt like reading again about the beginning of the great British experiment that became Australia. This caused me to pick up this book.

While not as detailed as Hughes effort, Keneally does a very good job of addressing the first four years of the non-aborigine history of the continent. He focuses more time on the time in England than Hughes, but uses it to describe the squalid conditions on the prison ships parked in the Thames and elsewher
Jul 15, 2014 Jerianna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was the very interesting history of Australia. I had no idea that it was a dumping place for England's convicts. How amazing that it worked out, and the poor Aborigines!
This was NOT a quick read. It was very interesting, and well-researched, documented and organized, but it was a bit of a difficult read. Mr. Keneally did a fabulous job, and this is an excellent source of information about Australia. I am amazed at the suffering involved, and that anyone survived!
Aug 10, 2012 Mike rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Dry, and never looking at the bigger picture, Keneally is really trying to tell the story of Arthur Phillip's four years at Botany Bay during the start of the New South Wales prisoner transport. That is the single narrative thread that flows through the book, all the rest of the characters and happenings seem and read like tacked on "oh yeah this was going on too." Constant references to inevitable clashes between the convict-colonists and the natives are hinted and teased, yet the story stops l ...more
Calvin Taylor
Didn't enjoy this as much as I hoped I would. Keneally writes eloquently and with passion, drawing out the various issues and tensions which defined the settlement of Sydney Cove as a penal colony in 1788. He draws out a wealth of individual characters, tracing their histories throughout these early days of in infant colony, with the character of Phillip notably woven throughout. A richly realised historic retelling of the genesis period of Australian identity.
Half way in, and so far it's terrific. It lacks a little critical reasoning and historical discipline but it is not a dry academic history either (and I've read plenty of them).

I'd put it ahead of anything by, say, Peter Fitzsimons. Tom Keneally has the superior intellect and is a better writer of longer tomes; he also has the advantage of being a very accomplished novelist.

Robert Hughes's 'The Fatal Shore' falls into this category of the birth of Australia via a reasonably well-reserached, ta
Feb 23, 2014 Kristian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Takes you along for the journey in the great experiment of turning New South Whales into the new destination for transporting prisoners and how that community worked to survive. Interesting and full of detail that explores multiple people's stories, it spans the time of the colony's first governor. If you are not Australian, the plethora of names might be a bit hard to keep straight, but still an exciting read.
May 06, 2008 Emily rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio-books, 2008
A history of the founding of Australia (or New South Wales, as it was originally called). A fast-paced telling of the sailors and criminals that set out to create a living prison. Unlike America, where people came to flee oppression and were determined to start a better life, the criminals that worked the farms and the fishing ships and did all the labor in New South Wales were there under conscription. So it made for an interesting dynamic, where these people with looser morals than would be fo ...more
Martine Bailey
This was a thorough account of the first years of the New South Wales colony written in a readable novelistic form. I suppose my only gripe was the lack of depth in the footnotes. Keneally has always made much of the convicts having their own 'religion' based on 'The Tawny Prince'. Yet his footnotes just send you in circles back to the term in cant or slang and I can only find that as relevant to gypsy or Romany useage. A minor point but important I think, as I'm none the wiser as to whether it ...more
Dec 13, 2009 Pamela rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The settling of Australia seems to have been against all odds since the environment made cultivation difficult near Sydney. Amazingly, the outpost had to receive food supplies from England for years. Too, the idea that it was a temporary settlement for prisoners seemed to delay the establishment of a permanent settlement; it appears the convicts actually became settlers by default. Altogether, the harshness of the first voyage, nine months in length, and the harshness and near starvation of livi ...more
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