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A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia
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A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia

3.54 of 5 stars 3.54  ·  rating details  ·  508 ratings  ·  71 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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William Thomas
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
Colette
Oct 28, 2008 Colette rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  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
...more
Bruce
Apr 15, 2008 Bruce rated it 3 of 5 stars
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
Claire
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.
Katrina
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!
Jason
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.
Robert
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
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
...more
Marian Willeke
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
...more
Danielle
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
...more
Gwen
Sep 18, 2012 Gwen rated it 2 of 5 stars  ·  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
...more
Ruth Bonetti
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
Mia

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
...more
Casey Wheeler
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
...more
Jerianna
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!
Mike
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.
Steve
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
...more
Kristian
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.
Emily
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
Pamela
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
Jennifer
I find it fascinating how Australia came to be. That England could contemplate sending their criminals away to a barely discovered continent is amazing. This non-fiction account includes information from the diaries of many of the people who were involved in the initial settling of Australia (not counting the Aborigines, which is an intriguing side story). It was, at times, difficult to follow the story because we would jump back and forth between characters and locations. However, I enjoyed rea ...more
John Patterson
Kathy and Ash recommended this after our trip to Australia. The story of how the colony in Botany Bay was founded. Interesting history.
Maureen
A brilliant description of early European settlement in Australia. I loved it but then again I am a history buff
Red Rocky
Started off wondering if I could actually finish this very dry read. With pages where Keneally lists the number of horses, convicts, soldiers, bags of flour (you get the picture)etc, loaded onto the boat or being offloaded, I really had to push myself through it. And I'm glad I did. What a fascinating, informative and well researched book.
I'd recommend Jackie French for a more personal story of convicts arriving in Australia on the first fleet, ie. Tom Appleby: Convict Boy. While I bought this
...more
Sue Smith
This book tells the story of the founding of Australia, starting with the scene in 18thC Britain which led to the Sydney Experiment and the first four years of the colony. I had no real idea of how and why the colony was founded but heard Thomas Keneally on a radio book programme talking about this book and his research. It is a shocking insight into the plight of the prisoners, their treatment and that of the Aboriginal people and the sources of the material are meticulously listed from journal ...more
Bonnie
3.5 stars

Everything in this book was new to me – people I had never heard of before, events that had never entered my field of knowledge, names of places I’ve never visited. So, this was a very dense reading experience for me. In order to process the information I had to be alert and focused. The book has whetted my interest in Australia’s history and has given me an excellent foundation for understanding its European origins.

The material is dry, but once I got into the zone, the time and pages
...more
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Thomas Michael Keneally, AO (born 7 October 1935) is an Australian novelist, playwright and author of non-fiction. He is best known for writing Schindler's Ark, the Booker Prize-winning novel of 1982, which was inspired by the efforts of Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. The book would later be adapted to Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), which won the Academy Award for Best Pict ...more
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