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A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia Audio CD – Audiobook, CD, Unabridged


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Product details

  • Audio CD
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc; Unabridged edition (1 Nov 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 140010291X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400102914
  • Product Dimensions: 1.4 x 1.7 x 0.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,193,025 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Dave_42 on 20 April 2007
Format: Hardcover
"A Commonwealth of Thieves - The Improbable Birth of Australia" covers the establishment of the first English settlement in New South Wales (i.e. Australia), and the stories of the convicts, free men, and military personnel who played a role. He also has some stories of the unfortunate aboriginal population who were the first to encounter the European settlers.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section covers the decision to send the convicts, the preparation for the first fleet, the voyage of the first fleet, the evaluation of where to build the colony, and the establishment of the colony by the members of the first fleet. The second section covers additional shipments of convicts to the area, the continued growth of the colony and the interactions with the native population, and concludes with the departure of the colony's first governor, Arthur Phillip.

This is one of the balanced historical accounts on any period of history that I have ever read. Thomas Keneally does an exceptional job of relating the stories of the people and events without choosing sides. There is, of course, ample opportunity to criticize the Europeans, or to defend their actions, but Keneally stays away from that discussion, and simply relates what happened. He does offer the historical perspective of the time on the events as gathered from numerous resources. For the rest, he leaves the reader to make their own conclusions.

The research that Thomas Keneally did for this book is also superb. He draws from official historical records, as well as numerous personal journals from a fairly large number of the people involved. From these sources he builds a history which not only covers the settlement, but then blends that with biographical sketches.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By P. Waller VINE VOICE on 4 Mar 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Anyone into early Australian life and the opening up of Australia from Sydney then this is a must have.

I found it one of those rare books that was very hard to put down once started.

Another good read is 'The Fatal Shore' by Robert Hughes.
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By Malcolm TOP 500 REVIEWER on 1 Aug 2012
Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
Having read A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Story of The Founding of Australia,
this review is for the Audio Book edition of the same book, though the labelling
for this audio edition bears a slightly different sub title," The Improbable Birth
of Australia".

With the help of Simon Vance, the noted reader on this unabridged edition
of his book, Thomas Keneally takes us through an exceptionally well researched
and well balanced account of the first four founding years of his native land.

Prior to the American Revolution in 1776, Britain had seen fit to transport convicts
to the American Colonies. Now with this means of disposing of it's convicted felons
at an end, the decision to transport convicts to New South Wales became an obsession
for the penal authorities and eventually a First Fleet of over 700 were sent to the
antipodes. Drawing on journals and the many documents of the era, the author gives
us a rich insight into the minds of both, officers and convicts to create an audio
edition of his book that is well worth a listen.

We learn something of the mind of Captain Arthur Phillip, the Naval Officer in charge
of the fleet, and on arrival his role as Governor of the new colony. The Marine Officers
and men who 'policed' the early settlement and of the convicted men and women too.
The struggles of the Aboriginal population are given credence as we listen to accounts
of battles and sometimes cold blooded murders of these indigenous folk whose first
confrontation with white skinned people must have astounded them. They thought
that white skinned people were ghosts.

Lack of supplies, famine and disease all feature here as the convicts become colonists.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 30 reviews
41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
A "European experiment" 4 Nov 2006
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The founding of European Australia has suffered [and survived] a wide variety of accounts. Why should another be necessary? Chiefly, because few of those histories approach the level of human interest given that event in this book. The most famous of the other narratives, Hughes' "The Fatal Shore", flogged the inhumanity of the British prison system almost as sternly as colonial commanders did the felons. Keneally's story is far more balanced, since he understands better the situation of the times. He makes no excuses for the British prison system at a time when its major colonial effort was breaking away. For him, it is the human stories he wishes to relate, and with his writing background to help, he succeeds admirably.

Keneally has touched on the early years of the Port Jackson [Sydney] convict colony before, most notably in his novel "The Playmaker". Here, shedding fiction for fact, he describes the voyage of the First Fleet, the landing at Botany Bay and the discovery that Cook's description was inadequate and the relocation further along the coast to the "best harbour in the world". In doing so, he brings to life a man not often enough recognized, Arthur Phillip, commander of the Fleet and first Governor of the colony. Phillip's initial success, bringing the crews and convicts nearly intact across vast stretches of ocean, stands in stark contrast to later transports. The Second Fleet proved a scandal of bad planning, mismanagement and inefficiency. Far worse for the potential of the colony's success was the inadequate supply mechanisms. Instead of immediately returning to a supply port, the prison ships went to Asia for tea to return to England. The prisoners and their keepers were left to shift for themselves. Only Phillip's firm, even-handed management of resources kept Port Jackson's population alive - even if at mere survival levels.

Unlike the British "Pilgrims" in Massachussetts almost three centuries before, the indigenous peoples around Port Jackson did not step forward to aid the invaders. Keneally describes the various groups of the area, who had been there for millennia, as suspicious and hostile to the Europeans. The invasion had upset a finely balanced network of land occupation and resource allocation. When the Europeans fished or hunted in Aborigine lands, they upset that balance, reducing the Aborigine's resource base. Coupled with the incursion into supplies, the Europeans brought that dreaded scourge, smallpox, into the Australian East Coast. The Aborigines had no idea what smallpox was, nor comprehended why it had been imposed on them, but they knew well its source. Their fear and resentment was well-founded and expressed. Phillip, whose mandate was to establish "friendly and amicable relations" was challenged by forces he, too, had poor knowledge of. However, he persevered, even surviving a spearing without launching a war of retribution. Keneally's balanced approach, in which he shows Aborigines as perplexed and confused over the complexities of European life, is neither overdramatised nor "romantic" and stylised. Two groups of peoples, with little in common but their humaness, interacted in various ways. Clashes and confrontations were inevitable, but Aborigines also moved within the white world as equals. Throughout, Phillip is the key player.

As the prison colony passed through times of great deprivation and sickness, Phillip continued to strive for a self-sustaining community. Farms were attempted from the outset, but Eastern Australia's conditions weren't amenable to European methods. Few successful farms were established during Phillip's tenure, but he never ceased to encourage experiment. He was often thwarted by poor soil, Sydney's vagaries of weather and an indifferent population. Most of the prisoners were the scrubs of English cities; farming was as great a mystery to them as was Australia itself.

Farming implies permanence, another issue Phillip was forced to cope with. Many of the prisoners, "transported" for seven years to Australia, had already served time in British prisons or the infamous "hulk" ships moored in various harbours. When the time had expired, even though few had the records to prove their sentence expiries, they must be dealt with as free citizens. The number with resources available to return to the British Isles was next to nil and permanent establishments for them had to be devised. Phillip encouraged farming and struggled to arrange for "land grants" for which he had little authority. The making of urban criminals into rural pastoralists was indifferently successful at best. Yet, those people did find ways of making a living. The new settlers also entered into marriages or less formal arrangements, which Phillip turned a blind eye to in order to secure community stability. The "Currency" children, as the ensuing generation was known, established the foundation of the ongoing European Experiment which became today's Australia. Keneally recounts all these developments with consummate skill. This book should be a "first choice" for anyone wishing to learn how a European colony might be established, even if its first citizens laboured under the stigma of "convict" as their origin. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Balanced And Expertly Researched 24 Mar 2007
By Dave_42 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
"A Commonwealth of Thieves - The Improbable Birth of Australia" covers the establishment of the first English settlement in New South Wales (i.e. Australia), and the stories of the convicts, free men, and military personnel who played a role. He also has some stories of the unfortunate aboriginal population who were the first to encounter the European settlers.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section covers the decision to send the convicts, the preparation for the first fleet, the voyage of the first fleet, the evaluation of where to build the colony, and the establishment of the colony by the members of the first fleet. The second section covers additional shipments of convicts to the area, the continued growth of the colony and the interactions with the native population, and concludes with the departure of the colony's first governor, Arthur Phillip.

This is one of the balanced historical accounts on any period of history that I have ever read. Thomas Keneally does an exceptional job of relating the stories of the people and events without choosing sides. There is, of course, ample opportunity to criticize the Europeans, or to defend their actions, but Keneally stays away from that discussion, and simply relates what happened. He does offer the historical perspective of the time on the events as gathered from numerous resources. For the rest, he leaves the reader to make their own conclusions.

The research that Thomas Keneally did for this book is also superb. He draws from official historical records, as well as numerous personal journals from a fairly large number of the people involved. From these sources he builds a history which not only covers the settlement, but then blends that with biographical sketches. He provides an excellent bibliography as well.

This is an excellent book which covers the subject incredibly well. The writing is clear and concise. The only minor negative would be that the narrative can be a little dry at times. This is not a big problem though, and the book is definitely worth reading if you are interested in the early history of Australia.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
A practical solution, a social experiment, and a trip to the end of the world 9 Nov 2006
By Sean Freeley - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
In the late 1700s, it was decided that Britian was overflowing with criminals, that all the good penal colony locations were dryed up, and that the best solution was to ship offenders to an unsettled wilderness on the other side of the world. Those that survived the long and often unsanitary conditions found themselves in an untamed but beautiful wilderness with little hope of ever returning home.

This book tells the story of the tough early years of the colonies in Australia, mostly through the veiwpoint of the first governer of the colony. It tells how they barely survived, the constant struggle to feed the colony, the odd relationships with the natives, and the horrible experience of being transported, often on slave ships, through a vast and difficult sea. The writer's love of the land and respect for the administrators, convicts, and Royal Marines who found themselves there. The colony seems to have just barely held together, one gets the sense that one waylaid supply ship would have been the end of it. It's a good story, and well told, although a few more maps and illustrations would have made it more cohesive, it is also difficult, at times, to keep all of the players straight at times. The overall feeling is one of desperation, but also a vision of a future that evolved into the vibrant place that Australia is today.

A great book about how those fringes of an empire nonetheless end up perpetuating it.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
An excellent introduction to a fascinating bit of history 17 Nov 2008
By Whitt Patrick Pond - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Tom Keneally's The Commonwealth of Thieves is an excellent read, well researched and written in a smooth and economical style that gives the reader a thorough introduction to the early history of the Botany Bay settlement. My sole complaint is that it essentially ends in 1793 with the return of Captain Phillip, the colony's first governor, to Britain, the colony having after much difficulty and doubt finally become a viable settlement. Keneally's style is so engaging and the events so intriguing that it leaves you wanting more, beyond the epilogue in which he relates what became of some of the key individuals (and their descendants) who survived the difficult times of the early years.

But while Keneally's history is limited in its breadth, it compensates for that in its depth. His thorough research brings to life the conditions of Britain's legal and penal system that led to the idea of the Botany Bay project, the difficulties that the transportees faced in the ships where so many died before even setting foot in the utterly alien land they were sent to, the hardships faced in the early years where the colony was repeatedly faced with the prospect of starvation, and of particular interest, the difficulties between the British intruders and the native Eora (the aborigines).

I learned quite a few things from this book, one of which was how it was the American Revolution that indirectly led to the Botany Bay experiment. Prior to the Revolution, Britain had for decades used its American colonies as a method of reducing its prison population by transportation, and when the Revolution put an end to that outlet, it became necessary to find another. The dates tell it all: the American Revolution ended in 1783, and the first convict fleet departed for Australia in 1787.

Keneally goes into great detail showing how the harshness of both the British legal system (any crime involving property of over 40 shillings - about US$250 today - carried a mandatory death penalty) and the severe over-crowding of the prison system (in one documented case "a cell, 17 feet by 6, crowded with more than two-dozen inmates and receiving light and air only through a few holes in the door") created a need for transportation. Drawing on the historical records, he shows how most of the crimes involved were crimes of property, i.e. petty theft and such, for which the invariable penalty was transportation or death:

"The offences for which a prisoner could be transported... made up an exotic catalogue. Quakers could be tranpsorted for denying any oath to be lawful or for assembling in religious worship... Notorious thieves and takers of spoil... persons found guilty of stealing cloth from the rack... persons found quilty of larceny and other offences... persons convicted of exporting wool and not paying the excise on it... vagrants and vagabonds... persons convicted of stealing fish..."

"Besides the penalty of transportation, between 1660 and 1819, 187 statues providing for mandatory capital punishment were passed on the same principles to add to the nearly 50 already in existence.... the Georgian version of a day in court was a quarter of an hour. Major cases all ended with acquittal, transportation or the death penalty... About one in eight of those committed for trial was sentenced to death..."

That is the choice many of the prisoners faced: taking their chances in a far-off unknown land or death. It is easy to see why most (though surprisingly not all) opted for transportation when given the choice.

It is also interesting to see how many of the individual transportees (and their military overseers) fared. Many, far too many, died. But many not only survived, they ultimately prospered, sometimes beyond their wildest dreams, perhaps none more so than Mary Haydock:

"Mary Haydock, thirteen when put aboard the transport... had been convicted of stealing a horse, but her crime seems to have been the Georgian equivalent of joy-riding. She had already been courted on Royal Admiral by a young agent of the East India Company, an Irishman, Thomas Reibey, who was making his way to India via Port Jackson. He would ultimately return and marry her... in 1794. The Reibeys became involved in farming... and in the cargo business, coming to specialise in transporting coal from the nascent colonial mines, as well as cedar, furs and skins. By 1809 the Reibey's ships were trading to the Pacific islands, China and India. Thomas Reibey's death in 1811 left canny Mary in sole control of the business and of their seven children. She acquired ships in her own name and enlarged her warehousing and shipping enterprises. In 1820 she was able to travel back to Lancashire in her own ship, the Admiral Cockburn, visiting the scene of her childhood mistake with her daughters Celia and Eliza. She did not retire from business until nearly 1830 and lived off her extensive property holdings in what was by then the city of Sydney, a city many of whose more elegant commercial sites she had herself built. She would die in her house at Newtown in 1855."

Another thing Keneally did extremely well was to show the Eora point of view of this period, both in how the Eora saw these strange pale-skinned intruders and how the British and the Eora cultures were so different that misunderstanding was not only inevitable, it was insurmountable. The worst incidents between the British settlers and the Eora resulted from both sides thinking that they were being understood clearly when in fact they were not being understood at all.

All in all, this book is a very enjoyable and very educational read. I only wish that there had been more. Highly recommended.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
An Amazing Adventure Story 10 Jun 2007
By Chuck Brooks - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This account of the founding of the first English penal colony in Australia is also a view into other things, not least the state of English society in the late eighteenth century, one of the consequences of the Enclosure Act, and human triumph over fantastic adversity. It is very difficult for us to even imagine the hardships these people endured, from what seemed an arbitrary legal system, the overcrowded jails and prison hulks, the voyage to the end of the world, and finally survival in a very alien land. It must have been no less difficult for the Aborigines, but their story is only peripheral to the focus of the book. There is a very good follow-up on what became of some of the first arrivals, those who not only survived but also succeeded beyond whatever they could have dreamed of in the Mother Country, becoming in time and in spite of their origins the pioneers and founders of a modern, vibrant country.
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