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Cover image for A commonwealth of thieves : [the improbable birth of Australia]
A commonwealth of thieves : [the improbable birth of Australia]

Publication Information:
[Old Saybrook, CT] : Tantor Audio, ℗2006.
Physical Description:
10 audio discs (12 hr., 30 min.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.
General Note:
Subtitle from container.

Compact discs.

Chronicles the 1788-1792 colonization of the British penal colony in Australia by convicts and the officers guarding them.
Added Author:


Call Number
994.02 Keneally

On Order



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 thieves. So the English government decided to undertake the unprecedented move of shipping off its convicts to a largely unexplored landmass at the other end of the world.

Using the personal journals and documents that were kept during this expedition, historian/novelist Thomas Keneally re-creates the grueling overseas voyage, a hellish, suffocating journey that claimed the lives of many convicts. Miraculously, the fleet reached the shores of what was then called New South Wales in 1788, and after much trial and error, the crew managed to set up a rudimentary yet vibrant settlement. As governor of the colony, Phillip took on the challenges of dealing with unruly convicts, disgruntled officers, a bewildered, sometimes hostile native population, as well as such serious matters as food shortages and disease. Moving beyond Phillip, Keneally offers captivating portrayals of Aborigines, who both aided and opposed Phillip, and of the settlers, including convicts who were determined to overcome their pasts and begin anew.

With the authority of a renowned historian and the narrative grace of a brilliant novelist, Thomas Keneally offers an insider's perspective into the dramatic saga of the birth of a vibrant society in an unfamiliar land. A Commonwealth of Thieves immerses us in the fledgling penal colony and conjures up colorful scenes of the joy and heartbreak, the thrills and hardships that characterized those first four improbable years. The result is a lively and engrossing work of history, as well as a tale of redemption for the thousands of convicts who started new lives thousands of miles from their homes..

Author Notes

Thomas Keneally was born in Sydney, Australia on October 7, 1935. Although he initially studied for the Catholic priesthood, he abandoned that idea in 1960, turning to teaching and clerical work before writing and publishing his first novel, The Place at Whitton, in 1964. Since that time he has been a full-time writer, aside from the occasional stint as a lecturer or writer-in-residence.

He won the Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler's Ark, which Stephen Spielberg adapted into the film Schindler's List. He won the Miles Franklin Award twice with Bring Larks and Heroes and Three Cheers for the Paraclete. His other fiction books include The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest, Confederates, The People's Train, Bettany's Book, An Angel in Australia, The Widow and Her Hero, and The Daughters of Mars. His nonfiction works include Searching for Schindler, Three Famines, The Commonwealth of Thieves, The Great Shame, and American Scoundrel. In 1983, he was awarded the order of Australia for his services to Australian Literature.

Thomas Keneally is the recipient of the 2015 Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. The award, formerly known as the Writers' Emeritus Award, recognises 'the achievements of eminent literary writers over the age of 60 who have made an outstanding and lifelong contribution to Australian literature.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Keneally (Schindler's List) offers a novelistic chronicle of the founding of the colony now known as Australia, focusing on the first five years, 1788 to 1793, when the initial flotillas of boats carrying convicts, their military guard and administrators arrived in New South Wales. At the book's center is the relationship between Arthur Phillip, the pragmatic first governor, and Woolawarre Bennelong, the Aborigine who eventually served as a liaison between the settlers and natives. Keneally describes their first meeting "as fateful and defining as that between Cortes and Montezuma, or Pizarro and Atahualpa." Using their relationship as a prism, Keneally depicts the instances of tense commingling between the two communities. His historical narrative is so detailed as to at times feel dutiful. He's most successful serving up some of the dozens of pithy mini-portraits of the lowborn settlers. Like Robert Hughes in his seminal The Fatal Shore, Keneally seeks to correct some of the clich?s that have arisen. He's careful to point out that the few thousand convicts sent to the colony were hardly the worst of the worst. Keneally's new consideration won't replace Hughes's definitive work, but with its colorful and eloquent prose, it makes for a compelling companion piece, one that credits Phillip for most of the colony's success. Maps. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Kirkus Review

A celebrated novelist (Schindler's List, 1982, etc.) and historian (American Scoundrel, 2002, etc.) writes the early history of the English settlers--the convicts and their keepers--of his native Australia. Keneally begins with a striking image from 1788: Eleven ships, crammed with criminals, tossing on the Pacific between Antarctica and the continent that will come to be known as Australia. The author tells the stories of those ships and passengers and offers illustrative and often illuminating commentary on subjects including the practice of transporting lawbreakers, life aboard an 18th-century ship, the flora and fauna of New South Wales and the culture of the aboriginal people who would see their way of life--thousands of years old--forever altered by disease and displacement and despair. Keneally excels in his descriptions of affairs on both sides of the world and in his mastery of both minor details and major concepts. He tells us, for example, that the aborigines could not say the letter s and that they practiced the ritual removal of an incisor from the jaws of young men coming of age; he also takes us through the political, sociological and economic forces in England that led authorities there to export their petty criminals. In many ways, this is the story of Arthur Phillip, a sturdy, judicious man who led the First Fleet and who remained in Australia through its very difficult and dangerous first years. (The Second and Third Fleets would arrive during his tenure.) Keneally ends his story with Phillip's departure and then in an epilogue lets us know the fates of most of the principal players. Among the more notable of these were William and Mary Bryant and their two children. Keneally distributes across several chapters the story of their remarkable open-boat escape from Australia to Timor (3,254 nautical miles). Only Mary survived the final leg of the journey to England, where James Bosworth, intrigued by her tale, gave her money and hope. Thoroughly researched, artfully written, engaging and instructive. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

The versatile Keneally commands a loyal readership no matter what topic he addresses. And here it's Australia's origin story of British settlement, which succeeds Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore (1986). Using the techniques of fiction, accomplished novelist Keneally strives to vivify scenes based on the historical record. From the several thousand convicts and officers who arrived in Australia in 1788-92, the period covered by the narrative, the author brings to the foreground the most interesting individuals. Prime among them, the colony's enigmatic first governor, naval officer Arthur Phillip. More exuberant characters, such as subordinate officer Watkin Tench, provide Keneally with the means to explore the adjustments of newcomers and natives to their extraordinary situations. Meanwhile, the convicts, many of whose hardships Keneally summarizes, ranged from the incorrigible to the adaptable. Vibrant and fluent, Keneally's latest will be in high demand. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2006 Booklist

Library Journal Review

Booker Prize winner Keneally (Schindler's List) seeks to illuminate the human side of England's colonization of Australia. In the 18th century, the English penal system was severely overcrowded, and transport became the preferred alternative; when the 13 American Colonies revolted against their British rulers in 1775, convicts were transplanted to Australia. Colonial administrator Arthur Phillips is portrayed as a heroic bureaucrat who pursued the belief that criminals could be rehabilitated, an opinion Keneally credits as a founding principle of the nation. Bypassing the pre-European era, though spending appropriate time documenting the culture clash with the Eora, the aboriginal occupants of the Sydney region where the European colonists arrived, Keneally follows individuals from their beginnings as petty criminals to their new lives in the wild land. At times reading like the work of a diarist, this is a more compelling story than the bare facts customarily offer. Shorter than Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding or Frank Welsh's Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land, Keneally's book has more texture and less scholarly vigor and thoroughness, though the story he so lovingly details is more entertaining. Recommended for public and academic collections.-Robert Moore, Bristol-Myers Squibb Medical Imaging, MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.