Commonwealth of Thieves : The Improbable Birth of Australia

Written by Thomas Keneally
Review by Helene Williams


Novelist and historian Keneally (Schindler’s List) takes on the inauspicious early years of white settlers in his homeland in this densely-packed narrative, which recounts Britain’s Transportation Act of 1760 and the events surrounding the first few flotillas of convicts and military troops sent to New South Wales in the 1780s and 1790s. Based on journals kept by sailors, convicts, and settlers and supplemented with other contemporary sources, he paints a grim picture of life aboard the floating prisons, the tortuous and often-deadly journey to New South Wales, and the unfriendly conditions awaiting those who survived the trip.

Although not an apologist, Keneally does try to balance the Euro-centric view of the settlers with that of the Eora natives. The book follows the original landing party, led by colonial governor Arthur Phillip, through their first seasons of drought, hunger, disease, rebellion, and growth, with an epilogue tracing the lineage of some of Australia’s first political and economic leaders. The narrative is a fascinating read, and there are notes and a bibliography for readers wanting more details. Maps of the entire transportation trek, rather than just the two small maps of the immediate settlement area, would have been useful.