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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

3.62  ·  Rating details ·  974 ratings  ·  116 reviews

It was 1786 when Arthur Phillip, an ambitious captain in the Royal Navy, was assigned the formidable task of organizing an expedition to Australia in order to establish a penal colony. The squalid and turbulent prisons of London were overflowing, and crime was on the rise. Even the hulks sifting at anchor in the Thames were packed with malcontent criminals and petty thieve

Hardcover, 385 pages
Published October 3rd 2006 by Nan A. Talese (first published 2005)
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3.62  · 
Rating details
 ·  974 ratings  ·  116 reviews

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Oct 02, 2008 rated it liked it
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
Jun 01, 2015 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
William Thomas
Jun 19, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: bland, blah
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
Aug 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Even a history lover and someone interested in Australia must stretch to complete this well-researched book by Thomas Keneally. There is much minutiae concerning the state of England's prisons and the charges that sent people there to die for what seems minor offenses. I think most people know that New South Wales (Australia) was used as a way to lesson the prison populations. What I didn't know is that the same thing was done earlier in the colonies. I have heard of "indentured" people, but I d ...more
Mar 06, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: history buffs and adventure tale readers
Shelves: history
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
J.S. Dunn
Aug 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Keneally's command of the subject matter, steady humor, and masterful text combine to make what could be dry a wondrous reading experience. All is tied in with global events, yet quotidian details of life in the new colony of convicts is attended well. For those who haven't read before about Australia's founding ( as this reviewer) it was a discovery of continental proportions.

This nonfiction could also serve to show parallels to those who think US history is somehow uniquely shameful, as the a
Feb 25, 2014 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
Ron Brown
Jan 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
There has been extensive research gone into the publication of this book. If your knowledge of the first years of white settlement/invasion of Australia are scant then this book will give you a vivid picture of what life was like for the Europeans and the indigenous people from 1788 till 1800. For someone like me who had dipped into the story irregularly throughout his life the writings confirmed and expanded knowledge of this time. I particularly liked the use of so many real people and the wha ...more
I chose this book because I was about to start a world trip, Sydney being one of the stops. I'm also a history buff, particularly British. It's where I live. I thoroughly enjoyed the book which covers the first four years of the fledgling birth of the nation (I think aborigines might argue that one) starting in 1786 just a few years after James Cook had first come across it. Brits (or poms) all know that that the we sent a load of unwanted male & female convicts to Botany Bay rather than inf ...more
Steven Kaminski
May 01, 2017 rated it liked it
Really interesting book that gets into the history of how Australia was founded. First and foremost as a penal colony plantation because Britain was facing a problem with overcrowding in its prisons...

- in 1788 a fleet of 11 ships filled with royal marines & their families and convicts set sail for Botany area identified by the most influential botanists and naturalists as being able to sustain a city. A royal navy captain named Arthur Phillp was sent out to lead this penal colony a
Bryce Holt
May 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
I found "A Commonwealth of Thieves" to be a very interesting history about the founding of Australia by those initial convicts, soldiers and commissaries who were unfortunate enough to be on the first boats. Equally, though the daily life and rationing isn't of superb interest, the stories of interactions between the first British interlopers and the native aboriginals is incredible. Between the raiding of one another's encampments (for food, sex or other token supplies in a barren land), the pa ...more
Jun 10, 2011 rated it it was ok
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.
Nov 09, 2012 rated it liked it
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!
Sep 24, 2009 rated it it was ok
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.
Erik Fjeldsted
Dec 19, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I was going back and forth between 1 and 2 stars. The reason I gave this book 2 stars is because I get the impression that no stone was left unturned in brining the story to light. With that said, it is a dense read and Keneally tends to have some very long sentences. I especially noticed when I read a few parts out loud.

Most of the time the constant stream of fact after fact and throwing in new convict or new marine made it difficult to keep things straight.

Also, I understand this is history
Nov 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
Lots of history here! The British tried to clean up their country by sending prisoners of all kinds to form a penal colony on the E. coast of Australia in the 1700's! What an experiment that was! Instead of burning women & men for thievery or hanging for forging, they were put on ill equipped ships without proper provisions to live out their lives in exile. Beats burning to death! In all fairness, this was the norm back then and we shouldn't cast aspersion on the customs of the time. There w ...more
Feb 06, 2018 rated it liked it
This was a fascinating book about how Australia was settled as a penal colony by the British in the 1790’s. It tells about the horrid conditions on the boats; the terrible diseases the prisoners and non-prisoners dealt with; the difficult dealings with the Aboriginals; and the difficulties of setting up a community once they got to Sydney. I learned a lot, and as I said, it was fascinating. BUT -it is a slow and very dry read, not very cohesive at many points, and very tedious. Not a book for ev ...more
Shiela Rozich
Jul 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Beautifully researched and written. The core of the account centers around the first governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip. Amazing what they managed in five years under the conditions present in 1780's! Very detailed with many excerpts from dairies and correspondences. The material in this book is fertile for novels and movies.
Although the reading by Simon Vance is terrific, I think some visual aids of maps and timelines would have much enhanced my enjoyment.
Chris Lira
Aug 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
A very good study of the first 20 or so years of Australia. I particularly found the background information about England at the time to be very interesting(e.g. how the Enclosure Acts drove people to desperation and crime). I will be reading the author's 3 -volume complete Australian history as well.
John Bunge
Apr 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
A very engaging account of the establishment of the initial settlement in New South Wales, under the direction of Arthur Phillip. The trials and tribulations of the convicts and those sent to mind them are very well documented. Highly recommended! Thomas Keneally is a master story-teller.
May 19, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: audible
Interesting but a bit monotonous. Listened to the audiobook on a recommendation. Occasionally the biases of the author are pretty obvious.
Steve Blackburn
Nov 14, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well written story of the first European peopling of Australia at the penal colonies in Sydney and on Norfolk Island.
May 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
very informative
Aled Owen-Thomas
Starts well but gets steadily less interesting.
Aug 01, 2018 rated it liked it
An interesting look at the first 4 years of European settlement in the land that would become known as Australia, if you can get past the extremely dense writing style. Well researched and told from a mix of perspectives, both British and Aboriginal. I liked how the author situated the establishment of the penal colony of New South Wales in the context of the development of capitalism, explaining why there was such an explosion of petty crime in Britain at the time and why the authorities respon ...more
Mar 17, 2017 added it
Such a fine writer who gets inside the real story and feelings of the people he is writing about. I have added all of Keneally's books to my TO READ list.
Aug 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Feb 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Read prior to trip to Australia. Interesting account of first settlement of the country. I marvel it ever got settled especially with the lack of food.
Marian Willeke
Aug 29, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Ruth Bonetti
Oct 04, 2012 rated it did not like it
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
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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