Friday, October 06, 2006

Book Review: "A Commonwealth of Thieves"

The prolific Thomas Keneally (of Schindler's List and The Great Shame fame) offers as his latest book A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia, destined to join Robert Hughes' authoritative The Fatal Shore as an excellent account of the first years of the penal settlements in New South Wales.

Keneally's style is readable and interesting, and he does an excellent job of portraying the colonization of Australia by the English in the 1780s. Varying his perspective between the convict-settlers, the British officials, sailors, soldiers and civil officers, and the native Australians who met the boats on the beaches, Keneally has drawn expertly on the available primary sources in weaving this narrative of early Sydney and its environs.

Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales, comes off well in this treatment: his pragmatic-but-necessarily-authoritarian style and generally unconfrontational approach to provocations from all corners make him seem genuinely unflappable. While as Keneally notes Phillip and his companions suffered from a severely stunted view of native Australian culture and customs, things during the early years could certainly have gotten much worse (as they would in the future, of course).

Keneally delves deeply into the lives of some of the more intriguing convict-settlers, and outlines well how the system functioned under Phillip's steady hand (with the notable exception of ongoing supply shortages). His excellent epilogue is not to be missed, as it extends the narrative a generation or so into the future. Not being particularly well-versed in Australian history going into this work, I learned a great deal, and recommend it without reservation to anyone who enjoys a good romp through a fascinating historical period.

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